Economic sanctions work better as a symbol than as a solution. The United States government imposed them on Cuba's Castro regime in 1960, and it's still in power. We imposed sanctions on Saddam Hussein but had to invade Iraq to remove him. We imposed sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program, which is humming along.
So anyone who expects big results from the legislation putting new ones on Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, which President Donald Trump signed Wednesday, will probably be disappointed. But that doesn't mean it's a mistake. Showing Vladimir Putin he can't attack us with impunity is worth doing regardless.
The old ones on Russia haven't produced much. Enacted to punish Russian officials after a lawyer who exposed corruption was tortured to death and after Russia invaded Ukraine, they didn't improve Putin's human rights policies or send him packing from Crimea. Nor did they stop the Kremlin from trying to subvert our democratic process.
No big surprise there. A 2008 study by Gary Clyde Hufbauer and other scholars at the Peterson Institute for International Economics reviewed 174 cases and concluded, "Sanctions often do not succeed in changing the behavior of foreign countries."
These penalties may inflict too little pain to matter, or they may inflict pain mainly on the target country's people, who are helpless to change the policy at issue. The governments we sanction may get help from other countries that don't share our goals. Sanctions can even backfire by hurting American companies.
When we are the victim of hostile or threatening actions by a foreign country, the logical response is to improve our defenses and respond in kind. Given that the electoral interference was akin to an act of war, robust countermeasures are in order. We didn't answer the attack on Pearl Harbor by going after Japanese bank transactions.
If Russians hacked into Americans' computers to wreak havoc in our political system, we might do something comparable. That could be the surest way to discourage a repetition of this aggression.
But we may lack the means for that right now -- or we may worry that the Russians could outdo us in their capacity to escalate a cyber war. In that case, economic penalties would be the best of our lousy options.
Even the most ardent supporters of sanctions realize their limits. Endorsing the new ones, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., didn't predict results now or later. But he favors them "to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy."
The chief attraction of sanctions is what they are not. They offer a middle course between retaliating with military force, which would entail costs and risks far too great to justify in this instance, and doing nothing, which would invite more attacks by Russia and other adversaries.
It's true that Putin isn't likely to come to us with a raft of concessions, pleading for relief. But these sanctions have a greater chance of working than most because they don't require the Russian government to change its fundamental internal policies or surrender anything it considers vital, such as Crimea. It merely needs to stop doing something that, in the end, gained it little or nothing.
Even if they don't alter Putin's behavior, the new measures serve several commendable purposes. Cornell University political scientist Jonathan Kirshner tells me, "They clarify the American position on Russian election meddling, illustrate that such actions will carry real costs, possibly motivate those whose interests are directly affected to assess their internal political calculations, and communicate all of these notions to other actors."
The legislation, of course, is not aimed only at Putin. It's also aimed at Trump. Whatever else it may achieve, it put him on notice that no one on Capitol Hill sees him as reliable in dealing with Putin.
If he came into office with the foolish hope of establishing a cozy partnership with the thuggish autocrat, he has been soundly disabused of it by the House and Senate. Even if he didn't collude with Russia, Trump took such an inexplicably positive view of Putin that Congress almost unanimously believes he has to be tightly constrained.
With a different president, Congress and the public might think it's possible to reduce tensions and improve relations with Russia in a way that fully protects our interests. Not with this one.