A couple of recent news items throw into sharp relief what we long have noted here at the International Compliance Blog—that economic sanctions are a key tool of a country’s national security and foreign policy, and can serve as an instrument by which to influence a broad array of events.

First, take a look at this photo:

President Donald Trump receives a briefing on a military strike on Syria from his National Security team

This is an official White House photo of President Trump and members of his administration receiving a top secret briefing, in the Secure Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF) at the President’s Mar-a-Lago estate, regarding the recent cruise missile strikes against Syria.  The New York Times, BBC, and CNN have scrutinized the photo to decipher its implications for various palace intrigues, noting which administration officials were in the room, who was not in the room, and who was seated where.

Palace intrigues aside, the photo raises an interesting question for our purposes—why were Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in the room?

Both the Times and BBC have speculated that they were included in the briefing because they were at Mar-a-Lago to meet with Xi Jinping, the President of China, and were invited simply because they were already onsite.

But let’s consider a different view—that the Treasury and Commerce Secretaries attended because the Treasury and Commerce Departments are part of the national security apparatus of the United States.  While Secretary Mnuchin and Secretary Ross may not necessarily need to know the operational details of the missile strike, we can rest assured that the Treasury and Commerce Departments will play leading roles in crafting the Trump Administration’s response to the situation in Syria.  Indeed, Secretary Mnuchin has indicated that the Treasury Department will be imposing new sanctions in response to the Assad regime’s recent use of chemical weapons.  The Commerce Department, for its part, administers the Export Administration Regulations, which provide for extensive restrictions targeting Syria that could be ratcheted up and/or aggressively enforced at any time.

This is a key aspect of how the United States pursues its national security interests, and even wages war, in the 21st century—through economic sanctions and export control policy.  Viewed through that lens, the presence of the Treasury and Commerce Secretaries in the SCIF makes perfect sense.

Which brings us to our second interesting news item:

G7 nations have failed to agree on a proposal by Britain for sanctions against Russia in the wake of a deadly chemical attack they say was carried out by Moscow’s ally, Syria.

. . .

[D]ivisions arose as UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson proposed sanctions against Syrian and Russian military figures over the chemical attack.

BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins says Mr Johnson had hoped for some form of explicit support, but the final G7 communique does not mention sanctions.

Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said ministers wanted to engage with Russia.

The United Kingdom’s eventual exit from the European Union could have a fascinating impact on both UK and EU sanctions.  For example, the United Kingdom long has been a leading proponent of sanctions against Russia in response to its actions in Ukraine.  Post-Brexit, that will cut two ways: first, the United Kingdom may have only limited influence on the EU position; and second, the United Kingdom may prove to be considerably more assertive—and aligned with the United States—than most observers appreciate when it comes to sanctions.

For the time being, the United Kingdom seems to prefer cooperation with the European Union on sanctions, if possible.  UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently indicated that the UK Government will introduce legislation specifying how the United Kingdom “will continue to take part in sanctions jointly” with the European Union.  Along these lines, a recent House of Commons report makes the case for UK-EU unity on sanctions.

However, the same report notes the need for “uncomfortable conversations with close allies” on the subject and observes that “it will be increasingly difficult to sustain a united western position on sanctions, not least if they become a bargaining point during Brexit negotiations.”  The report goes on to suggest that the UK Government impose sanctions on Russian individuals involved in human rights abuses, noting:

Individuals associated with the Putin regime who are reportedly responsible for gross human rights abuses or violations use British financial and legal services, invest in British property, holiday in the UK and send their children to British schools.

The report thus hints at the introduction of U.S.-type “Magnitsky” sanctions targeting Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.  To put it mildly, this would not be well received in Moscow, and probably would go far beyond what any EU Member State would be willing to do.

The report goes on to call on the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office to issue a report by March 2018 specifying how the UK will impose sanctions post-Brexit.  In light of the UK civil sanctions regime now in effect and the report’s hints at possible UK sanctions targeting human rights abuses, the United Kingdom very well may be prepared to go its own way in imposing sanctions.

Which brings us back to our original point: Sanctions remain a key aspect of national security and foreign policy, and will figure prominently in the Western response to international crises as they arise.