The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Economic sanctions were designed as a severe threat. Now they’re a default policy option.

Joined by Cabinet members at the White House, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war in January 1929. (Keystone/Getty Images)
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When President Biden threatened on Feb. 15 to impose “powerful sanctions and export controls” on Russia if it decided to invade Ukraine, he was sure to add that these sanctions would include some “actions we did not pursue when Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014.” The implication was clear: Yes, the United States has been trying to punish and coerce Russia with hundreds of sanctions for years now. And no, it hasn’t had much noticeable effect on Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. But these sanctions will be really bad.

Of course, Russia invaded Ukraine anyway. More and tougher sanctions are planned in response, and the anticipation of them alone has been enough to crash financial markets in Russia, but at this point, Putin seems to have priced this into his calculations. In an era when sanctions often feel like the default U.S. response to every international crisis, Russia is already the second-most sanctioned country by the United States, after Iran. President Barack Obama designated around 500 organizations and individuals for sanctions every year, and President Donald Trump almost doubled that. The Biden administration has not been shy about slapping sanctions on countries from China to Belarus to North Korea to Cuba. Politicians love sanctions for an obvious reason: They’re a way of taking concrete action to address wrongdoing — terrorism, illegal weapons programs, human rights abuses, invading another sovereign nation — without committing U.S. military force or putting American lives at risk.

This happens even though the evidence that sanctions work is mixed at best — they accomplish their goals about a third of the time, according to one widely cited estimate. As the past week as shown, sanctions can only go so far toward preventing a foreign leader from doing something he’s already bent on doing. So, how did we ever get the idea that they could?

In his new book, “The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, historian Nicholas Mulder traces the origins of modern sanctions back to the period between the two world wars. Of course, countries have been using economic pressure against their enemies for much longer. Mulder notes that Thucydides wrote about what may have been the first use of sanctions, when Athens instituted a commercial ban against merchants from the city of Megara in 432 B.C.

But what distinguishes modern sanctions, in Mulder’s view, is that they are often implemented in peacetime rather than during war and are justified by reference to international law or norms. This 20th-century approach emerged in the era of the League of Nations after World War I and the much-maligned 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing international aggression — a time when statesmen and diplomats believed it would be possible to use nonmilitary tools to end war once and for all. In some ways, Mulder’s account of the origins of a damaging but often ineffective tool reads as a dark counterpoint to the more optimistic vision of this period in Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro’s 2017 volume, “The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World.” Hathaway and Shapiro put forth the notion that the diplomatic groundwork laid during this period helped make interstate war far less common in the decades to come. Though the two works come to very different conclusions, taken together, both suggest that much of what we often refer to as the “postwar international order,” for better and worse, emerged after the first rather than the second world war.

Sanctions were the League of Nations’ enforcement mechanism, written into its charter. Article 16 states that any member that commits an act of aggressive war will be subject to “the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the nationals of the covenant-breaking State, and the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking State and the nationals of any other State.”

The politicians of this period, in choosing economic sanctions as a tool to deter and punish military aggression, were influenced by the use of crippling economic blockades during World War I. While sanctions are often thought of today as a “softer” tool than military force, this wasn’t how those who implemented economic war saw them. William Arnold-Forster, the British blockade administrator of the wartime measures taken against imperial Germany, described sanctions as a tool “to make our enemies unwilling that their children should be born.” President Woodrow Wilson likewise said that sanctions bring “a pressure upon that nation which, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist.” In other words, sanctions were viewed less as a cost of doing business for aggressor states, which is how leaders like Putin often appear to see them, than as a threat more akin to how nuclear weapons are now viewed: a tactic so horrific that no state would risk being a victim of them. Whether they were actually experienced this way is another question.

Obviously, wars continued to happen, despite the risk of sanctions, but the tool did have a few successes. For example, the mere prospect of League sanctions coaxed Greece to remove troops from Bulgaria during 1925’s now-forgotten but intriguingly named War of the Stray Dog. (There really was a dog involved.) On the other hand, on what Mulder calls “the first occasion on which the League’s economic weapon was put into full operation,” Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the measures failed to prevent Benito Mussolini from launching the attack or backing down once it had begun. Mulder goes further than that observation, suggesting that the League’s sanctions backfired, prompting Italy to deepen its economic ties with Nazi Germany.

Nevertheless, the architects of the interwar sanctions system were often remarkably prescient about the risks of what they were doing. Modern sanctions took a tool of war out of the hands of generals and gave it to civilian politicians far from the battlefield. It also gave them a way to punish foreign enemies with little physical or political risk to themselves. It was, therefore, very tempting to use. As Arnold-Forster put it, referring to the British foreign secretary: “When the aggressor has to go on sticking his bayonet into the passive resisters … even he will come to see in time that the process is unpleasant. But in the case of blockade there is no such direct contact with the results to act as a check.”

This book’s most provocative argument is that a tool meant to outlaw war instead simply blurred the line between peace and war, normalizing the use of policies meant to destroy the human lives and economic resources of another country during times of nominal peace. The Franco-British pacifist Edmund Morel referred to this in 1920 as “peacewar.” Today, we call it the “forever war.”

“The Economic Weapon” is a dense work of history, much of it laser-focused on a fairly short period in which the sanctions regime emerged. At times, one wishes that Mulder had taken the longer view to show how the signature tool of a fairly anomalous period of international relations grew into the default option it is today. Readers are sometimes left to fill in for themselves how the decisions made during this period would resonate in years to come. While today’s “smart” sanctions may be more targeted than their predecessors, they can still inflict enormous harm. A recent Brookings Institution analysis estimated that the impact of the sanctions maintained on Iran during the height of the country’s coronavirus pandemic may have caused as many as 13,000 excess deaths.

Whether or not they are effective, sanctions don’t appear to be going out of style. In fact, leaders seem to be devising new potential uses for them. World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last year suggested using economic sanctions against countries that hid information about future disease outbreaks. Democratic members of Congress have urged the Biden administration to use sanctions against entities contributing to the climate crisis.

In the era in which they were developed, sanctions were viewed as a tool to build a new international order, free from the scourge of international war. Today, they often feel like the last flailing attempts to keep that order from breaking down.

Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid and the author of “Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood.”

The Economic Weapon

The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War

By Nicholas Mulder

Yale University Press.

448 pp. $32.50