New Histories of the International Order and Why They Matter

3 March 2022

** This is the fourth in a series of four reviews of Nicholas Mulder’s new book The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanction as a Tool of Modern War.

1. “Sanctions: What are They Good For?” by Ben Coates

2. “The Paradoxes of Liberal Peacekeeping” by Liane Hewitt

3. “Economic Sanctions and the Backlash to Liberal Internationalism” by Jamie Martin

Mulder will respond next week. **


There was a time when writing critically of war or foreign policy put a scholar firmly in the camp of pacifists, appeasers, women. Nicholas Mulder’s compelling The Economic Weapon: The rise of sanctions as a tool of modern war is one of a number of new critical histories of under-examined dimensions of the 20th century international order—an ‘order’ that continues to define 21st century security institutions and norms. Samuel Moyn’s recent Humane (reviewed here last year) exposes the contradictions of international legal instruments invented in the late 19th century, and refined thereafter, which were intended to make wars less violent. Mulder takes that same evolving historical project a step further, unraveling the paradoxes that have plagued the international economic instruments known as sanctions. Not least, there is the stunning fact that a definitive modern method of deterrence intended to avoid war was also, in the early half of the twentieth century, “by far the deadliest.”


The story of “the economic weapon” does not inevitably lead to the sanctions strategy. Instead, as Mulder shows, the exact logic of using money as bait in international relations has oscillated between the view of so-called “traders,” who optimistically believe that commerce invites peace and encourages cooperation, and the more cynical arguments of “blockers,” who trust that sanctions will force peace by financially strangling the military ambitions of belligerent states.  The United States’ Cold War Marshall Plan presumed that tying European states to “Western” money supplies would foster prosperity and, with prosperity, a sense of codependence and alliance. Financial reward would discourage conflict. The trader view was rooted in a long history of doux commerce thinking. Working his way through the nineteenth century, Mulder notes as long a history of “blocker” thinking: “imperial powers used pacific blockade to bend weaker states to their will at least twenty-three times.” But Mulder argues that the use of the economic weapon in the form of sanctions (a term which itself could be used in two opposing ways) reached its apogee in the 20th century when it became the strategy of favor among the bureaucrats of, and political delegates to, a novel landscape of international organizations. It is against this background that, for the first time, Mulder unearths the various and shifting understandings and unintended consequences of blockers’ strategies as they were argued for and implemented in settings of conflict and crisis.


For the army of new international historians excavating the institutional practices and norms of the League of Nations and its related bodies, there is much to discover here—and much of it unflattering—about the role of international security organizations in the conceptualization and use of the economic weapon. The head of the League’s Legal Section, the Dutchman Joost Adrian Van Hamel, Mulder tells us, thought sanctions could be effective as a threat: “The economic weapon is one which works better by being kept in store.” It was in the context of the interwar League and its world security mission that the profile of sanctions was significantly raised, until they became “central to global security.” Just as importantly, Mulder argues that the existence of international organizations was a key factor in fostering debate about the effectiveness of sanctions. We learn that among some interwar commentators, economic sanctions were conceived of as a form of violence as bad as war, because of the suffering caused to civilian populations, rather than as a method of avoiding suffering; sanctions were understood to be “the dark side of liberalism, a superficially neutral tool that in fact hid old-fashioned power politics.”  In this story, voices such as these (even when anonymous) add texture and resonate with hindsight. Indeed, although he refers to the “Genevan world police,” in Mulder’s narrative the League was the site of some debate. However, that same debate ultimately enabled the blockers to win out over the traders: “[t]he rhetoric of sanctions did more than express the new reality of interwar politics; over time it also came to influence that reality,” Some aspects of this development were not predictable. As sanctions were deployed to manage numerous post-First World War crises, such as the Italo-Ethiopian war, pacifists urged sanctions, and “hard-boiled soldiers and admirals” became pacifists. How shocking to discover the extent to which, for some League bureaucrats and interwar politicians, merciless sanctions that led to “starvation of the general population and in particular of the poorest people” were necessary if peace was to be preserved, since that strategy was “likely to cause such trouble in the aggressor country that it must give way.”


In the early 21st century, sanctions often assume “mundane” or even nuanced forms, targeting elites for example. They are, however, omnipresent: a 2015 UN report states that “one-third of the world’s population lives in countries that are under some form of economic sanctions.” The United States has been the dominant agent in this historical trajectory of the economic weapon—because of the dominance of its currency and fiscal jurisdiction in “global trade and debt issuance.” Mulder remarks on the irony, since, a century earlier, at least one US president conceived of sanctions as “un-American.” In a contrary move, the high-profile head of the League Public Information Office, the American journalist Arthur Sweetser, began as a blocker, enraptured by the League’s “weapon of economic strangulation,” and then, only in the mid 20th century, came to prefer the trader position, emphasizing the contribution of “the inventors and the businessmen who are driving the world together into one indissoluble unit.”


For those interested in international history more generally, Mulder’s approach is illuminatingly comprehensive. Here is an historian ready to cast his empirical net wide, drawing in the personnel of international organizations (individual men not often of interest to IR scholars), and the opinions of women (even less a fascination for students of security and international order building). Elizabeth Schumpeter is given her due, along with Helena Swanwick, Emily Greene Balch, Vera Dean, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. None of these women’s views map directly on to each other. Schumpeter (Joseph’s second wife, and herself an economist) was relatively conservative in her political views. Having been asked to write on Japan, Schumpeter produced an extraordinarily insightful study of that eastern empire’s industrialization and, on that basis, she argued that western sanctions would simply force Japan to use military means to obtain what it needed. For her honest efforts, she was hounded by the FBI. Although not part of this story, after Joseph’s death, Elizabeth was unable to find work as an economist, her treatment at the hands of the American establishment is an important sign that security decision-making was often blindly ideological, and that, by the mid-twentieth century, it was hard to argue against the sanction version of the economic weapon. In the case of Emily Greene Balch, her warning that elites could always protect themselves from sanctions actually provoked some League officials to insist that the broader population’s suffering should be the sanction strategy.


Overall, women’s voices in this history take on the characteristic of a Cassandra-like chorus, particularly in the crucial interwar period, warning of the often terrible consequences of economic sanctions. “The women’s movement,” Mulder explains, “played an active role in the international history of sanctions, largely opposing and moderating their force—although also sometimes supporting them as preferable to war.” While women had little political power in this history, when we add them and their associations the spectrum of views on sanctions widens, and the economic weapon is suddenly not an inevitable international arsenal.


This leads me to the ways in which The Economic Weapon narrative features “internationalists” as the key actors in this international history. Depicted as individuals who become enthralled with the machinery of intergovernmental organization as a method of achieving a specific end, peace, or at least not war, at almost any cost, even a quasi-war, they also come in a range of flavors and sizes: pro-League, humanitarian, democratic, imperial, British, French, American, liberal, hard nosed, even the professor-internationalist. Mulder concludes that today too, many internationalists “see few alternatives,” and as a result, their perspective has led to the most “grievously counterproductive uses of sanctions, most prominently against Iraq in the 1990s, when its strangulation at the hands of the UN Security Council cost hundreds of thousands of lives and permanently damaged the country’s social and economic fabric.”


From the perspective of international history, it is worth focusing on the implications of Mulder’s narrative for how we think about the history of the modern international order, not only its components but also its intellectual genealogies and agents, as well as the conventional “liberal” credentials of that order, and of internationalism itself, through the 20th century up until today.


To begin with, Mulder recalibrates our understanding of the League, its significance, and also the international order of the 20th century that we have inherited, with its strengths and weaknesses, and the difficult, crooked, sometimes vanishing line between war and peace. This history makes it more difficult to think in terms of dichotomies when we study security at the ineluctable intersection of international and national histories. At the same time, he lays bare the paradoxes of this past: “Far from being bleeding-heart pacifists, early twentieth-century liberal internationalists were deeply concerned with the use of force.” And yet, the real gift of Mulder’s history is that it tells the story of how practices and norms of international order changed through the course of the 20th century, thanks to the negotiation of its purpose and possibilities by diverse international actors. His attention to nuance and breadth of sources also allows us to infer that women have always been in this political space, adding to the range of views of what the international order should be like, and what it is for. Indeed, if we fully incorporate the women Mulder includes, internationalists are neither simply men, nor are they, at the peak of support for sanctions, the most ardent blockaders. On his own evidence, it is harder, or at least less meaningful to argue: “‘The internationalists in Geneva, as well as those in London, Paris, Moscow, and Washington, did not shy away from the threat and use of massive economic force.”


International institutions have much to answer for in this history, not least for failing to stop wars, for utilizing a weapon bluntly, which then often landed wide of the mark. But, as this history shows, they also have been crucial to the growth of a global public sphere, where debate and discussion of the importance of peace, of how to achieve greater social justice, have been seeded. To offer conclusions that exclude from the category of internationalists the views of women and anti-blockers that Mulder goes to such trouble to resuscitate, is ultimately to exclude the richness of international thinking—whether we call it liberal or not—from the repertoire of political ambitions worth recalling and recording.


In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and thus far in its wake, sanctions have been the singular focus of strategies for preventing or ending war. In this cacophonous commentary about sanctions, it is Mulder’s voice that most deserves a hearing. His work reminds us of the long history of both the potential and the limits of the economic weapon in the development of the existing international order. To succeed, any discussion of where we go from here must incorporate a solid and nuanced understanding of the complexities of the international past, and that is precisely what Mulder’s excellent new book provides.



Glenda Sluga holds a joint chair in International History & Capitalism in the Department of History and Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence, and is Laureate Professor of International History at the University of Sydney. Her books include The Invention of International Order (2021) and Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (2013).



Other Reviews in this Book Forum

1. Sanctions: What are They Good For? – Ben Coates

2. The Paradox of Liberal Peacekeeping – Liane Hewitt

3. Economic Sanctions and the Backlash to Liberal Internationalism – Jamie Martin

5. Author Response – Nicholas Mulder


Tags: , , ,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *