How useful are sanctions, really?
The question may appear trite, but once you start probing it seriously, you will find that few people in the West seem to know the answer, much less care about what it is. Sanctions can—and often do—go from being targeted and limited in scope to simply being maintained for their own sake like a self-licking ice-cream cone. The paradigm of economic sanctions barely needs any justification, even as the years drag on and proof of efficacy remains elusive.
In his recent book The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, historian Nicholas Mulder lays out the sordid history of sanctions as a weapon of open warfare, with most of it focused on the period just before and between the two world wars. The upshot is that the League of Nations’ declaration of a sanctions policy after the Great War and use of the “economic weapon” in the interwar years may have sped up the outbreak of World War II, by impelling the Axis powers to act fast to avoid financial pain. The prospect of sanctions, Mulder also suggests, hardened the Axis’ economic defenses, pushing Germany and Japan to become more self-reliant economically.
Does this history have something to teach us today? Neither imperial Britain nor imperial Japan lived in a unipolar world, and their tools of (economic) warfare were developed and deployed in a time when the enemy was usually of peer strength. Today’s US-led sanctions regime reflect the confidence of the 1990s—when Russia was in a state of collapse and China wasn’t economically important. Yet as time passes, cracks are beginning to appear in the world system that the West has come to rely upon, making the interwar comparison rather more salient.