Sanctions: What are they Good For?

28 February 2022

** This is the first 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. Each day this week one review will be published, and Mulder will then respond. **


Economic sanctions have become omnipresent. In February 2022 commentators debated the efficacy of sanctions that target Iran’s nuclear program while humanitarians worried that US and UN sanctions on Afghanistan’s Taliban government would contribute to widespread starvation of millions over the winter. When Russia invaded Ukraine, President Joe Biden ruled out a military response and worked with allies to impose a broad package of economic penalties. The turn to sanctions represented the culmination of a decades-long trend. The Obama administration sanctioned an average of 500 people and organizations per year; the Trump administration doubled that figure. Sanctions are now Washington’s go-to foreign policy tool. Yet sanctions rarely achieve their aims, scholars tell us. Too easily evaded by their targets, the effects of sanctions often fall hardest on innocent civilians. Russian sanctions may play out differently, but in recent years sanctions have frequently served as diplomatic junk food, offering policymakers moral posturing on the cheap while causing damaging decay.


Nicholas Mulder’s masterful The Economic Weapon takes us back to a time when sanctions seemed both more promising and perilous. This historical intervention is sorely needed, for social scientists dominate the scholarship on the topic. Drawing on ever-more sophisticated models and massive data sets, they often treat sanctions as a series of discrete episodes that can be quantified in order to help policymakers make sanctions more “effective.” Mulder shows that what is interesting about sanctions is not whether or not they work. Regardless of their “efficacy,” sanctions have “effects” that require richly contextualized archival digging to comprehend fully. In recovering the materiality and mindset of economic coercion between 1914 and 1945, Mulder reconceptualizes European and international history in fascinating new ways, while highlighting the intertwining of idealism and violence at the heart of liberal internationalism.


Mulder’s title encapsulates his fundamental insight: at their birth modern sanctions were understood as an “economic weapon” of devastating power. Prior to the atrocities of World War II, he notes, embargoes represented Europe’s deadliest anti-civilian technology. Compared to the handful of civilian casualties from poison gas or aerial bombing, malnutrition exacerbated by the Allied blockade during World War I killed, by Mulder’s reckoning, 300,000-400,000 people in Germany and an equal or greater number in Ottoman Greater Syria. After the war, officials on both sides convinced themselves—wrongly, according to Mulder—that the blockade had won the war. No surprise then that the Allies repurposed it into a tool of peacetime coercion, a tool that became known as “sanctions.” Article 16 of the League of Nations covenant made sanctions Geneva’s central enforcement mechanism. They were “a terrible remedy,” in Woodrow Wilson’s words (2), a weapon of total war dangled over the heads of those who might oppose the League. That their early successes (dissuading a Yugoslav invasion of Albania in 1921) were balanced by defeats (the failure to undermine Bolshevism in Russia or stop the Italian occupation of Corfu in 1923) did little to dispel confidence in—and fear of—their power. At the same time, sanctions upset traditional conceptions of international law, troubling the border between peace and war and undermining the status of neutrality.


In the 1930s, sanctions famously failed to prevent the Italian conquest of Ethiopia or the rise of Nazi power and the outbreak of World War II. Mulder rejects the standard contention that these failures revealed sanctions to be a “paper tiger” (201). Sanctions failed, he writes, because they were too strong and therefore difficult to implement. The latter half of this argument runs perilously close to the oft-repeated claim that sanctions would work if only they were fully tried. But Mulder is right to emphasize that the problem of sanctions was structural: it stemmed from the hierarchical nature of European order in the 1930s and the legacies of World War I, and it traced the fissures in the unstable peace/war distinction. Memories of the blockade haunted revanchist powers. Finding new sources of supply for vital materials loomed large in their geopolitical strategies. In the conquest of Eastern Europe, Hitler sought immunity from another British blockade. “I need Ukraine, so that they cannot again starve us out like in the last war,” he reportedly told a Swiss diplomat (249). Thus the fear of sanctions and the drive for “blockade resistance” (Blockadefestigkeit) (277) fueled expansionist aims. But while Hitler and Mussolini understood sanctions as war, Britain and France remained committed to the contrary notion: that sanctions might prevent war. They were unable or unwilling to confront the reality that adopting compelling sanctions against the Nazis would require the mobilization of society on a quasi-wartime footing. With the United States consumed with debates over neutrality, the League lacked the sort of commitment that would have been necessary to make sanctions effective.


The end of the League did not mean the end of sanctions. “Collective security did not die,” Mulder argues, “it went to war” (259). Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said that Lend-Lease would turn Washington into the “arsenal of democracy.” Noting that most recipients of American aid were not democratic, Mulder persuasively and intriguingly argues instead that Lend-Lease be understood as the positive side of Article 16 sanctions. Previous attempts to combine economic proscription with economic aid had failed but here they worked splendidly, giving the victims of fascist aggression the power to defend themselves and uniting the economic power of the Allies to crush the Nazi and Japanese war machines. The resulting victory of the “United Nations,” as the Allies called themselves during the war, ensured that economic sanctions would form part of the UN charter. Article 41 authorized the Security Council to impose them, although now as an intermediate step in a larger infrastructure that included the use of military force. Hence, Mulder concludes, “the economic weapon was an interwar creation that was carried over into the postwar world by power politics” (290).


Mulder draws on deeply impressive research (in five languages, across archives in six nations and in hundreds of published works) to infuse this narrative with satisfying richness. He uncovers fascinating tidbits and offers compelling reorientations of European and international history. He suggests, for instance, that we see Allied blockades of Hungary and Russia after WWI as central to the “stabilization of the bourgeois social order in Europe” (89). The Holy Roman Empire makes an appearance: Germans referenced its collective dispute resolution mechanisms to make sense of League sanctions (140-41). Mulder reveals that the League’s sanctions strategy against Italy actually focused more on stopping Italian exports (so as to drain its gold reserves) than on imports. He suggests that a credible American threat to hold up oil shipments convinced Francisco Franco not to join the Axis. And he points out intriguingly that the concrete result of the US oil embargo on Japan and its Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union meant in practice the “rerouting of energy transport across the Pacific—instead of steaming to Yokohama, U.S. tanker vessels now set course for Vladivostok, a few hundred kilometers north” (280). Everyone will learn something new from Mulder’s archival discoveries and fresh perspectives.


What emerged most strongly for me is the mutual constitution of sanctions and liberal internationalism. Not only was the economic weapon central to the imagined functioning of the League of Nations, it was intimately bound up with both the material and ideological realities of liberal thought and governance. In Toozean fashion Mulder traces global material flows to reveal the power located in key nodes of exchange. British control over the sinews of industrialization gave the WWI blockade power beyond that imparted by the navy. Mulder notes that British interests dominated the world’s shipping (55% of all seaborne trade), maritime insurance (2/3), trade finance (60%), telegraph cables (70%) and shipping fuel (3/4). Despite popular assumptions that the Depression halted globalization, Mulder shows that industrialized countries remained highly dependent on imported resources in the 1930s. The League’s power to compel obedience through sanctions rested on these material realities, which Mulder expertly explains in accessible fashion. He also chronicles the rise of legal and administrative bureaucracies and statistical knowledge that made imposing sanctions feasible. Sanctions were a product of the modern state in a globalized world.


But ideology mattered too. Free traders like Robert Cecil and Norman Angell were some of the biggest early supporters of the blockade specifically because of their commitment to economic interdependence. Labeling economic coercion “sanctions” highlights liberalism’s stated faith in the rule of law, for the term had traditionally referred to actions taken to enforce laws or norms. If “blockades” pursue national aggrandizement and “the economic weapon” is a tool of total war, “sanctions” promote universal harmony and order. It is significant, as Mulder repeatedly points out, that sanctioners understood precisely what economic coercion entailed. “We tried,” reflected William Arnold-Forster, “…to make our enemies unwilling that their children should be born; we tried to bring about such a state of destitution that those children, if born at all, should be born dead” (4). Recalling sanctions’ origins as the “economic weapon” makes it impossible to ignore the side of liberal internationalism committed to the use of power to maintain global hierarchies and helps explain opposition to League governance.


Sanctions also relied on the classical liberal assumption that humans are rational maximizers of self-interest. Sanctions deterred aggression, the argument went, because common men and women would respond to declining material wealth by pressuring their leaders to make peace. Mulder casts doubt on this animating faith: “Most people in most places at most times make collective choices on the basis of a wider set of considerations” (297). Ironically, both the fear of and faith in sanctions required at least partly rejecting this wisdom.


Mulder notes at one point that sanctioners had to “fashion a responsive object” (131), that is, they needed to create a populace vulnerable to economic pressure. This fashioning seemed to occur as much within their own minds as in the targeted societies, and one wonders about how other influences besides liberalism contributed to that fashioning. How should we calculate the significance of emotions, in particular the affective impact of the fact that sanctions worked “without a drop of blood,” as a French newspaper editor put it? (56) Mulder notes the feminist criticism of “hunger blockades” put forward by Jane Addams and her allies; what role did masculine assumptions play in the debate? In discussing divergent British attitudes towards Chinese civilians and Italian armies, Mulder states that “imperial prejudice clearly shaped British thinking about the economic weapon” (221). One wonders how broadly deep-seated ideas about race and civilization shaped perceptions of how and when sanctions would work. What to make, for instance, of the invocation of Moro insurgents in US official Stanley Hornbeck’s 1941 observation that Japan “has not, in the presence of severe economic pressures, exploded or gone berserk or moved toward a national juramentado” (282)?


The emergence of “sanctions” as the preferred term for peacetime economic coercion demonstrates the power of sanctioners. Interwar German and Italian leaders rejected the description, conceptualizing sanctions instead as simply the continuation of wartime blockade. That sanctions today remain commonly seen as an alternative to war reflects the residue of American global hegemony. Even unilateral US programs are described as “sanctions,” suggesting the ways that Washington has sought to universalize its national interests. As emerging great powers embrace economic coercion, scholars reach for new terms, from “geoeconomics” to “weaponized interdependence.” Policymakers will of course want to know how best to utilize these tools of statecraft, and IR theorists may provide them with some answers. But one hopes that Mulder’s brilliant work will inspire more historians to take up the topic, for tracking the evolution of sanctions over time offers important clues about the shape of the world to come.



Benjamin A. Coates is an associate professor of history at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2016) and is currently researching a book about the United States & economic sanctions in the 20th century.



Other Reviews in this Book Forum

2. The Paradox of Liberal Peacekeeping – Liane Hewitt

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

4. New Histories of the International Order and Why They Matter – Glenda Sluga

5. Author Response – Nicholas Mulder

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