Dr. Bruce Jentleson on Nicholas Mulder’s “The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War”

I am really excited about today’s guest contributer: Dr. Bruce Jentleson, the William Preston Few Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School.  This is a world-renowned scholar whose bio below is way too modest (check out the longer version here). 

He’ll be reviewing Nicholas Mulder’s The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War (Yale University Press, 2022) as a contiunation of the series of full-blown reviews I promised you in my summer reading recommendations post (“Some summer reading recommendations (especially for those interested in national security!”).

Based on some of Bruce’s commentaries about sanctions, I knew he had real expertise on the topic.  What I did not know was that he had literally written the book on the subect, Sanctions: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published in September by Oxford University (and, yes, I’ve pre-ordered!)

Here’s his take on The Economic Weapon:

“The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War “

Reviewed by Dr. Bruce W. Jentleson

Talk about auspicious timing. Published in January 2022, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the U.S.-led imposition of sweeping economic sanctions, Nicholas Mulder’s The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War (Yale University Press, 2022) hit the market and the policy discourse at quite the conducive moment.

While the book’s focus is on the 1920s-30s interwar period, there were few other recent books on economic sanctions. My own book, Sanctions: What Everyone Needs to Know  (Oxford University Press, September 2022 publication), encompassing sanctions theories, policies and major historical and contemporary cases (including the 2022 Russia-Ukraine sanctions), hopefully will also catch the wave of sanctions interest.

Mulder, a Cornell historian, bills the book as the first international history of interwar sanctions. The book lives up to that. It is exceptionally well-researched. The author draws on a range of archives and other document collections as well as an impressive array of historical and other scholarly work.

We learn about major policy debates and the politics contesting them in what was an effort “to make economic sanctions central to global security” (155). Even the threat of sanctions, the underlying strategic logic postulated, “would certainly call into action the fears of all business and industrial interests in that country” pressuring for policy compliance (186). In these and other ways sanctions were posited as crucial to both deterrence and compellence, their threat preventing war and their imposition ending war.

One expert called working out a system for sanctions “the most important problem in the science and art of government today” (179). In his characteristic flourish Woodrow Wilson deemed sanctions “something more tremendous than war . . .  Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force” (1-2).

Mulder’s main argument, though, is that while intended to strengthen the peace, sanctions “ultimately undermined its political foundations” (13). While he includes some success cases such as the 1925 sanctions that helped keep the Greece-Bulgaria border war short (War of the Stray Dog!), the argument bears particularly on his account of the 1935 League of Nations sanctions imposed on Benito Mussolini’s Italy for the invasion of Ethiopia/Abyssinia.

The very severity of the sanctions threat, he contends, prompted Mussolini starting in the early 1930s to make his economy even more autarkic, for example pursuing “alimentary sovereignty” by cutting food imports to the point of 94% of all foodstuffs being produced domestically (233).

Once Mussolini did invade Ethiopia/Abyssinia and League sanctions were imposed, Mulder argues that the impact the sanctions did have caused Mussolini to be even more aggressive seeking to further expand his sphere of influence in the Balkans and intervening on the side of fellow fascist Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

So Mussolini’s aggression was more reactive than stemming from his own geopolitical ambitions for dominance in the Mediterranean region and ideological vision of a new Italian empire going back to when he first came to power?

While I agree that sanctions can be counterproductive and exacerbate tensions and escalate conflicts, the implication that Mussolini would not have invaded Ethiopia, or even been much less likely to do so, is questionable.

While the sanctions did have some economic impact, this was well short of undermining the Italian economy. Indeed, for many Italians household income actually increased as the state drew down unemployment by enrolling men in military service and increasing employment in autarkic war-related industries.

Politically the external enemy helped foment nationalism and justify the statism that was integral to fascist political economy. Campaigns like the Day of the Wedding Ring during which women donated their gold wedding rings to the national cause, ostensibly to augment Italy’s dwindling gold reserves, were more about mobilization than desperation (the rings never were actually melted down).

A further concern is that Mulder still contends that on balance the Italy sanctions were effective. That they did not end the war he attributes in significant part to the collapse of Ethiopian resistance “before the sanctions had attained their full effect” (222). Contrary to those who point to this crisis as a major League failure, Mulder assesses the multilateral cooperation that was achieved manifested a resolve to stand up for collective security.

Resolve? The United States opposed the sanctions as contrary to its isolationist neutrality. While Britain and France supported the sanctions, in ensuring that oil was not embargoed they opted for protecting their own economic interests.

Years later Anthony Eden, British foreign minister at the time, reflected :“Looking back, the thought comes again, should we not have shown more determination in pressing through with sanctions in 1935, and if we had could we not have called Mussolini’s bluff and at least postponed this [Second World] war? The answer, I am sure, is yes.”

Indeed Mulder cites Mussolini telling Adolf Hitler that had his oil supply been embargoed, “I would have had to order a withdrawal from Abyssinia in a week . . . It would have been an unmistakable catastrophe for me” (222). Instead it was Ethiopia that experienced catastrophe. Mussolini intensified the warfare including resorting to chemical weapons against Ethiopian resistance.

On May 5, 1936, Mussolini’s troops captured Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. On June 7, Emperor Haile Selassie appealed to the League for “justice for my people.” On July 4 by a vote of 44–1, claiming the war was over and in acknowledging Italian colonial acquisition of Ethiopia, the League lifted its sanctions.  It may well be that even had the sanctions been tightened Mussolini may not have been deterred from invading or compelled to withdraw.  

Sanctions do not have much of a record of preventing or ending wars. They didn’t in 1980 against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. For all the warnings to Vladimir Putin about how “devastating” sanctions would be, their threat did not deter Russia from invading Ukraine last February. 

Limited objectives being more achievable than extensive ones such as war deterrence and termination is among the most common patterns in the sanctions literature. The multi-case study by the Peterson Institute of International Economics, for example, found a 51% success for “modest policy changes” compared to 34% overall.

In my own work I show how the causal logic is consistent with conceptions of proportionality in the broader bargaining and coercive diplomacy literature in two respects. One is ends-means, that success is most likely when the scope of objectives pursued is proportional to the severity of the means used.

Even comprehensive sanctions are limited means, well short of uncle-saying coercive capacity. The other is differential relative valuation of interests, success being less likely on issues with asymmetry of motivation by which the target has more highly valued interests at stake than the sender.

Still, going back to Mulder’s main argument about sanctions potential counterproductivity, his distinction between effects and efficacy is an important one. Sanctions can impose economic costs (effects) but not bring about policy compliance (efficacy). It’s what I call the economic impact-policy compliance gap.

True, some success is inherent in the very imposition of costs. The regime has more burdens to bear. Targeted sanctions hit its supporters’ bank accounts. Regime allies, who may also be adversaries of the sender, get pinched by having to ante up more support.

But even substantial economic costs have often not led to policy compliance. Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif defiantly declared that his people would absorb sanctions, even “eat grass,” rather than give up its nuclear weapons. Sanctions against North Korea have imposed plenty of costs, but its nuclear weapons programs have grown ever bigger.

President Trump’s “maximum pressure” pushed Iranian oil exports down from over 2 million barrels per day to less than 300,000, GDP tanked by −10 percent, and the rial had to be so devalued that the regime renamed it the toman with unit revaluation 10,000 to 1—but Iran refused to comply, indeed escalated on a number of fronts. Cuba has borne American sanctions for over half a century, yet the regime has stayed very much in place.

Indeed, a 2019 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report was unusually frank about how thin the operative definition of success is within a government that uses sanctions as much as the US does. Impact typically gets measured in economic terms with few “assessments of the effectiveness of sanctions in achieving broader U.S. policy goals.”

In his March 2022 Foreign Affairs article on the US-led Russia-Ukraine sanctions Mulder raises this point as well as concerns about broader fallout for the global economy. These ripple effects have become increasingly evident. Climate change is being set further back with the Biden administration rolling back limits on domestic oil and gas drilling and Europe shifting back to coal to offset sanctions on Russian oil and natural gas.

With the sanctions and war coming on top of COVID-19 pandemic’s two-plus years of economic disruption, the effects on the global economy are quite extensive. Global GDP growth projections have been cut from 4.4 to 3.6 percent. Inflation has been ratcheted up in the US, Europe, and most everywhere. Poor and developing countries have been especially hard hit.

Estimates are that 40 million people are being pushed into poverty. Of particular concern is food insecurity. Nearly half the world population is facing food shortages. While Russian war tactics are principally responsible—destroying Ukrainian agricultural infrastructure, blockading ports, even launching a missile strike on an Odesa food warehouse—African leaders also blame Western sanctions.

If the Russia sanctions do end up helping end the Ukraine war, they will warrant some of the credit. But only some. Had the Ukrainian forces not been so skilled and courageous, and the US and NATO not provided such massive military aid, no sanctions would have stopped Putin from conquest.

Skilled diplomacy will be needed to get to terms acceptable to Ukraine and the international community but also well short of Putin saying uncle. Even at that Mulder’s broader fallout will have to be taken into account for any serious net assessment of the overall global impact.

Sanctions have to stop being the “the Swiss army knife” of American foreign policy, the default option readily turned to crowding out potentially more effective policy options in the moment, and over time risking making American economic power a wasting asset.

About the author

Bruce Jentleson is William Preston Few Distinguished Professor of Public Policyand Professor of Political Science at Duke University. In 2022 he has been a Distinguished Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

This article draws on his forthcoming book, Sanctions: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, September 2022) and a recent article Russia-Ukraine Sanctions, Wilson Quarterly,  Summer 2022.


The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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