On Jan. 12, 2018, the Trump administration placed sanctions against Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the head of the , and others in response to Iranian human rights abuses. A month earlier, the Senate Banking Committee completed a markup on the , which would implement mandatory secondary sanctions on banks that facilitate North Korea’s  activities. The month prior to that, legislators proposed applying sanctions to the  in response to its crackdown on the Rohingya minority. In November, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on  in Venezuela who supported  to hold onto power by use of fraudulent elections—and four more Maduro regime-related individuals were just  on Jan. 5.

In view of the broad scope of existing sanctions and the expansive nature of future sanctions, we at Lawfare decided to get a sense of Americans’ support for implementing sanctions in response to various provocations.

Between Dec. 31, 2017 and Jan. 2, 2018, we used Google Surveys to try to better understand whether Americans approve of sanctioning foreign governments that , banks that financially support terrorist groups, or countries that  from another country that financially supports terrorism. The answers showed that respondents strongly supported applying sanctions under all three circumstances. The results were statistically significant: If we ran the poll again, we would expect the same results 19 out of 20 times.

In our fourth question, we tried to get a sense of whether people believed the United States should  in support of counterterrorism efforts on foreign governments and banks supporting terrorism even if those sanctions could hurt the U.S. economy. Here, respondents’ feelings toward sanctions cooled.

The impact of U.S. sanctions on the domestic economy is difficult to measure amidst other factors, such as contemporaneous recessions or the development of new trade partners. Additionally, the United States has a generally diverse, robust economy that can sustain trade fluctuations with adversarial governments. For instance,  that the sanctions the United States placed on Russia in response to their intervention in Ukraine had minimal impact on the U.S. economy.

Yet even with a robust economy, sanctions that the United States imposed on other countries and foreign nationals may have some impact on the U.S. economy. The , for instance, generously estimated that Iran sanctions cost the U.S. economy between —or between $11.25 and $14.58 billion per year. While these costs are not enough to significantly injure the U.S. economy, they do make a dent.

Respondents had mixed views on the value of sanctions that could damage the U.S. economy. Interestingly, the variation in responses appears to correlate to respondents’ ages:

For instance, in the , half of the respondents strongly agreed that sanctions would be justified even if the sanctions hurt the U.S. economy.

However, those in the  age group were far less inclined to lend unequivocal support to sanctions that could hurt the economy.

This was the only question we asked where the results were not statistically significant. Unlike the first questions we ran that did not reference the economy, we cannot assume we’d get the same results 19 out of 20 times if we polled a similar population. Yet this result, in and of itself, is interesting: The first questions we asked showed the population gave strong support for sanctions intended to stop illicit activities, yet certain subsets of the population gave pause when confronted with the possibility of negative consequences. For additional certainty, we’d need to poll more people to get a sense of what kind of economic “pain” they’d be willing to tolerate (for instance, reduced profits for companies, job loss, or recessions) if it meant confronting terrorism or other bad actions.

While we cannot draw strong conclusions about whether people believe the United States would be justified in sanctioning another state if those sanctions hurt the U.S. economy, these data do indicate that the likelihood of injuring the economy might alter public support for sanctions. Where sanctions would have an obvious impact on the domestic economy, lawmakers should seek more information about how different age groups, such as the 25-34 year olds impacted by the Great Recession, will continue to support using economic tools to pursue foreign policy objectives.


This survey was conducted via Google Surveys, the methodology of which is discussed in the white paper, “.” Google donated access to the survey platform to Lawfare to ask questions on national security. The surveys are conducted via internet-connected devices as part of “surveywall” questions that require users of sites to answer a few questions before gaining access to articles. Google spreads its surveys across more than .

Emma Kohse and Benjamin Wittes discuss the benefits and criticisms of Google Survey methodology in “.”

The number of survey respondents varied from 308 to 363 respondents per question as a result of the drop-off in survey completion. The weighting of answers, a statistical method to achieve a cross-sample of age and region, is less likely to be accurate with fewer respondents. The 25-34 age group had fewer respondents, so the weighting of those responses may be less reliable than the weighting of other age groups.

Image credit: lightspring

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