Economic sanctions have become a tool of modern warfare

Economic sanctions have long been seen as a non-violent strategy to deter a host of threatening actions – from land grabbing to the development of nuclear weapons – by targeting vital commodities, such as textiles and fuels, as well as financial assets. But what was initially adopted as a tool for peacekeeping in the years after World War I has ironically turned into a hostile act that now resembles a form of war, argues Nicholas Mulder, assistant professor of history at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in his new book. , “The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War,” published Jan. 11 by Yale University Press.

Mulder discussed the book with the Chronicle.

Question: How have sanctions evolved from their initial adoption as a peacekeeping tool to their use today?

Answer: The range of objectives that we pursue by using sanctions has widened considerably. As originally conceived by the victors of World War I, the primary purpose of the threat to impose sanctions on a country was to prevent diplomatic disputes, usually over territory, from escalating into larger wars. Today, sanctions are still used as a punishment or deterrent against territorial annexation. But they are also imposed for human rights violations, to stop the development of nuclear weapons, to fight money laundering, to challenge election results, to force the release of political prisoners or even comprehensive changes of government, and to limit the transfer of strategic technologies.

Q: Basically, what makes sanctions “warlike”?

A: The most important connection between sanctions and war is that they arose out of the conditions of all-out war, and the theory of how they worked was modeled on war. Allied leaders in the form of a post-war international organization – which eventually became the League of Nations – wanted to make this new institution capable of stopping any emerging war in its tracks. To do this, they were looking for some sort of force at least as powerful as the war itself, but which could be opposed to the war to stop its march. They found this strength in the new techniques of economic blockade developed during World War I: cutting off a country from all access to the international economy and waiting for it to exhaust itself or succumb to political revolution or social collapse. .

Both in their underlying objectives (regime change and disruption of the will to resist) and in their effects on civil society – misery, famine, disease, bankruptcy – these approaches to sanctions can produce measures whose function and consequences are identical to war. But the means are different.

Q: Your book refers to a 2015 estimate from a UN official that one-third of the world’s population live in countries subject to some form of economic sanctions. How did a tactic that was meant to be so powerful and formidable become so commonplace?

A: I think the spread and normalization of sanctions has a lot to do with how visions of war and peace have changed in the western world. In the context of the era of all-out war and the horrors of the early twentieth century, restrictive measures such as sanctions have come to appear to us as a moderate form of coercion. Today, the US government and the EU find straightforward sanctions such as travel bans, asset freezes and import bans on specific goods relatively easy to impose.

It is important to note that many of the sanctions in force today fall into this category of more mundane restrictions that do not look much like total blockade measures or economic warfare. As a result, we are witnessing a proliferation of sanctions accumulated by measures that are each quite light in their individual impact. One of the main reasons that sanctions have become so common is that their intensity has been reduced. This made the majority of sanctions less directly destructive. But it also reduced their effectiveness in producing behavioral changes over time.

Q: What is the impact of sanctions on small countries compared to large nation states?

A: As I show in my book, some cases of successful economic sanctions used in peacetime have functioned as outright threats. The deterrent effect of possible sanctions was sufficient to contain aggression by small states. In 1921, Yugoslavia was forced to stop an incursion into northern Albania by the threat of a League of Nations embargo. Another Balkan conflict between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925 was likewise defused. But larger nation states and empires have generally proven more difficult to master. Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and militarist Japan all responded to the sanctions not by retreating but by becoming more aggressive. Territorial expansion was in their eyes a way to ensure control of the main material resources whose sanctions threatened to cut them off: cereals, coal, iron ore, petroleum, etc.

That being said, the size of a country’s territory is not always a good indicator of its vulnerability to sanctions. Commodity exporters tend to be more vulnerable than industrial economies to external pressures, but even here there are important exceptions, such as Cuba’s agricultural sector and Qatar’s hydrocarbon exports, which have withstood the pressures fairly well. blockade. Meanwhile, the effects of the sanctions on companies like Venezuela and North Korea have been severe on civilians, in part because exploitative cliques tend to form around besieged governments.

Q: Looking back over the past 100 years, how successful have economic sanctions been as a strategy? What lessons can we learn from this story?

A: The history of sanctions is a history of experimentation and unintended consequences. As tools for changing the behavior of other states, the empirical record is quite clear that they most often fail. As a means of reducing the material strength of opponents, they might be more effective. But you have to ask yourself at what cost. Long-term, undeclared economic war often reinforces the antagonism between countries rather than resolving it.

The paradox of sanctions is that their effective use hinges on a credible promise that they will be removed. You must commit to lifting the restrictions when your demands are met. Right now, many Western governments are stuck in a snap problem where they can only increase economic pressure without ever lifting the restrictions. This not only goes against the whole democratic behavior pattern for sanctions, but it also makes each new sanction less and less likely to be successful.

Interwar sanctions were seen as a negative economic weapon that worked by withholding goods and money. But the book reveals that from their origins in World War I, a complementary project was also in development. Within the League of Nations, a large group of small countries argued for a “positive” economic weapon: institutions to provide aid, money and resources to countries that have been victims of aggression. . As the world faces nested crises, from the pandemic to the climate crisis to renewed geopolitical instability, this positive agenda deserves to be revamped in order to more constructively face major global issues.

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