What Role Should Criminal Justice Play in Foreign Relations?

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Brookings Institute




What is the function of criminal justice in foreign relations? Consider the federal criminal case against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In March 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice publicly unveiled federal international drug trafficking charges against Maduro, just a month after President Trump had met with Juan Guaidó, the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly. The case played an ambiguous role in broader U.S.-Venezuela foreign policy. Some commentators believed that indictments were an integral part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign to cabin Maduro, a campaign that included sanctions and political recognition of Guaidó as Venezuelan president. At the same time, the criminal investigation clearly began during the Obama administration and thus potentially represented the natural culmination of years of prosecutorial efforts.

How much control did the White House have over the case? How much should it have had? And how normatively desirable in U.S. foreign relations are such foreign affairs prosecutions—cross-border criminal cases that involve extraterritorial statutory authority, institutional capacity and multilateral cooperation—compared to, say, diplomacy or sanctions against the Venezuelan regime?

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