Can the U.S. impose sanctions against any country at any time or are they bound by some kind of rule? I was thinking about the sanctions the U.S. placed against China, and then I was reading some news that Russia and China were carrying military operations near Alaska and I was wondering if it was a good enough reason to impose more sanctions against China, then I also asked myself more generally if they even need an excuse or they can just decide to impose sanctions against any country at any time.

Jurisdictions become the target of U.S. sanctions by means of executive orders signed by the President of the United States (“the President”). Persons can become the target of U.S. sanctions by being named in executive orders or by OFAC’s exercise of authority delegated by the President (where the President provides criteria for imposing sanctions), in consultation with the U.S. State Department and sometimes other agencies (such as the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”)). OFAC also has primary responsibility for licensing transactions that would otherwise be prohibited by U.S. sanctions. Additionally, OFAC has the power to investigate and impose civil monetary penalties against persons (including non-U.S. persons) that violate U.S. sanctions laws and regulations.


I googled sanctions laws, but it seems that those aren't laws that dictate how and when sanctions can be emitted but rather how people and entities are supposed to respect U.S. sanctions against other countries.

  • Note that sanctions are always self-damaging. If I sanction you by forbidding trades between you and me, I'm effectively sanctioning myself as well.
    – Stef
    Aug 9, 2023 at 8:09
  • Are there laws against the BDS movement that will prevent any sanctions against Israel? Although, unless they're in the Constitution (they're not) they could easily be repealed.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 9, 2023 at 14:08
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    @Stef - I can also use pressure on my allies not to trade with you. That means that they might need to trade with me instead, which means that I could benefit rather than losing out.
    – Valorum
    Aug 9, 2023 at 17:53
  • This is a good question. For example, if the US were to impose sanctions against Italy for "beating us in soccer", would that be somehow "invalid" or "prohibited" under US or international law, or would it just be a dumb move? Aug 10, 2023 at 11:29

3 Answers 3


The US is a sovereign state, and so cannot be compelled or prevented from anything, except by force.

That being said, the US is a member of the WTO, and economic sanctions are by their nature discriminatory trade barriers. The treaties of the WTO allow certain types of sanctions, under particular conditions. The most wide ranging sanctions require UN Security Council approval, but there is wide scope for a range of sanctions on "national security" grounds.

Russia does not consider the sanctions to be compatible with international law, and is appealing to the WTO.

These are part of international law, a set of agreements between sovereign states, and so rather different from national law - which is imposed.


The international community is anarchic. There is no overarching institution that can compel obedience from an individual state; there are only norms, agreements, treaties, etc. between individual states. So the US (or any nation) can impose sanctions when and where they like. The only drawbacks are practical: loss of international reputation, counter-sanctions, domestic economic damage from the closure of markets, ratcheting up of international tensions, and the like. Sanctions are generally applied judiciously because of the potential for undesirable blowback.

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    @BouncyChips: Except that it is literally anarchy — i.e., without governance — and isn't often all that chaotic. Mostly it's norm-driven, until someone like Putin decides to sow his wild oats... Aug 8, 2023 at 15:14
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    It's a common misconception that anarchy is non-governance, when in fact it's quite the opposite. What you describe (and I totally agree with) is more like chaos. There are rules that should be theoretically be respected, but in reality whoever can do whatever he want Aug 9, 2023 at 8:08
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    @BouncyChips How states interact is the closest to real, large-scale anarchy we have. They are supposed to self-govern without a central place of authority, and they do so via a lot of conventions, promises, and bi- or multi-lateral treaties (which they, with some regularity, break if they run too much against their personal interests). I think it is absolutely fair to describe this as textbook anarchy.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 9, 2023 at 13:47
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    @BouncyChips: The PoliSci use of the term 'anarchy' is definitional: 'an' (without) + 'archy' (ruler). You seem to be swapping between the colloquial usage, where anarchy equals disorder, and the usage in Philosophical Anarchism, the (utopian) system in which government is replaced by a system of agreements between high-minded and sophisticated individual citizens. The international community doesn't rise to the philosophical case (it's mainly agonistic realpolitik), and it doesn't collapse to the colloquial case (there is order there, of a sort). Aug 9, 2023 at 15:35
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    @BouncyChips: I can respect your belief in Philosophical Anarchism (which is thoroughly high-minded), but you're making an either/or distinction that is (at best) unrealistic. Aug 9, 2023 at 15:37

Correct, you are right. They can sanctions against any country at any time

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    While your answer is correct, without sources or reasoning (and with two other older answers already saying the same), it's worthless.
    – Nobody
    Aug 9, 2023 at 10:16
  • sources for what? nobody can prevent a country to do anything Aug 11, 2023 at 2:13

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