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Choke Point

The Folly of Sanctions

Sanctions were conceived as an alternative to war. But they may have made the world more violent.

Soon after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the British launched a naval blockade of the English Channel and North Sea, in an attempt to bring Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire down. For nearly five years, the blockade held, preventing the shipment of manganese and other metals essential for manufacturing. At first, the British and allies allowed neutral parties through, but slowly most trade destined for Central Europe was cut off.

The result was devastation. An American doctor visiting Hungary in 1919 wrote that the “blockade has done its work. Absolutely nothing left. Every clock in Prague gone, melted for the metals.” And it went far beyond timepieces. The British journalist H.N. Brailsford described “children dressed in suits neatly made of sacks,” and hospitals that used paper to swaddle babies because there were no blankets to be found. It’s estimated that between 300,000 to 400,000 civilians died of blockade-induced illness or deprivation in Central Europe, far surpassing the number killed by gas warfare or air raids. And it’s likely that half a million more perished due to the blockade in the Ottoman Empire. While chemical weapons and bombs killed scores of people immediately, the blockade killed more. And more slowly.

Though the conflict dragged on through four years of a brutal war of attrition, the impact of the blockade was dramatic. “We tried ... to make our enemies unwilling that their children should be born,” wrote William Arnold-Forster, a British politician, “we tried to bring about such a state of destitution that those children, if born at all, should be born dead.” Serious stuff. And at the end of World War I, it was widely recognized that the blockade, which would soon become formalized by the newly formed League of Nations as economic sanctions, was a deadly tool in Britain’s arsenal. Compared to chemical and aerial weapons, sanctions were an “infinitely more terrible instrument of war,” said Woodrow Wilson. This was the point. Sanctions, then known informally as the “economic weapon,” were such a demonstrably violent and effective weapon that, the hope was, just threatening their use would bring aggressive countries to heel.

The Economic Weapon
by Nicholas Mulder
Yale University Press, 448 pp., $32.50
Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against U.S. Interests
by Agathe Demarais
Columbia University Press, 304 pp., $36.00

“Today, economic sanctions are generally regarded as an alternative to war,” writes Nicholas Mulder in his new history of sanctions, The Economic Weapon, “but for most people in the interwar period, the economic weapon was the very essence of total war.” Economic sanctions were, in effect, the atomic bomb of their day. So while some argue that the League of Nations failed because it didn’t have any enforcement mechanism, no standing army, Mulder argues that it might have had a weapon that was simply too powerful. After the Great War, countries like Germany, Italy, and Japan undertook concerted, deliberate efforts to protect themselves from sanctions. Nationalism and autarky were in part born of a desire to blockade-proof their economies, reshaping the world away from the globalized, imperial trade arrangements that made the initial blockade so effective.

Sanctions became the go-to weapon of war for the next century, dramatically increasing in use, their devastation continuing. In 1990, one day before the beginning of Operation Desert Shield, in which the United States intervened in Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait, the United Nations placed sanctions on Iraq that cut off the flow of food and medical supplies. Malnutrition swept the country, infant deaths soared, and once-vanquished diseases like malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis resurfaced. Iraqi public opinion of the West soured quickly. Several thousand children died as a result of the sanctions.

Did those sanctions work? Do sanctions work? Surprisingly, as Agathe ­Demarais argues in her new book, Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against U.S. Interests, the answer is a resounding no. A study of U.S. sanctions between 1970 and 1990 found that the sanctioned countries only changed their ways 13 percent of the time. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2019 that the U.S. government does not track whether sanctions meet U.S. policy goals, meaning that there is little oversight or accountability as to their use. “There is little evidence that sanctions are as effective as policy makers would like,” Demarais writes. “In fact, history shows that most of the time, nations resist and sanctions fail.”

As a journalist who follows economic policy, I have to admit I was shocked by how definitive both Demarais and Mulder are about the harm-to-futility ratio of sanctions. My perception of them was that they are levied almost constantly by the United States against rogue nations. And indeed this is true: From 2017 to 2020, the Trump administration put more than 3,900 entities under sanctions, three per day. Former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin bragged that he likely spent half his time implementing sanctions. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Biden administration outdid the previous administration in per-day rate by sanctioning 1,000 Russian-linked individuals, businesses, and financial institutions in two months. It’s still not clear whether this has influenced state actions toward U.S. goals.

This contradiction, between an increasing use but decreasing efficacy, calls for the thorough examination of the sanction’s history and effects. Mulder, a professor of history at Cornell, traces the origins of sanctions, while Demarais, a global policy expert, provides a contemporary analysis of U.S. sanctions’ place, function, and effects in the world. Together, they illuminate how globalization became weaponized by superpowers and how it might have fractured the world, created forever wars, and further turned other countries against the United States.

It is sometimes said that the first period of globalization began when European countries sailed out across the world, developing imperial trade routes, and it ended in World War I. Toward the end of this period, sanctions were the weaponization of the British Empire’s monopoly on some modes of global trade. Britain took advantage of the fact that many nations now relied on trade to feed their citizens and run their industry, and that Britain had an unparalleled navy, with the power to block essential routes. After the conclusion of World War I, opposition countries decided they could no longer risk operating in this globalized arrangement.

The painful memory of the blockade was like a brand burned into the minds of the ascendent fascist parties in Italy and Germany and Japan’s imperialists. Each of these parties’ rise to power was defined by a desire for economic self-sufficiency. This was the first in a long line of ways that sanctions failed, backfired, or caused harm.

In the early 1930s, Germany enacted a program to obtain resource independence, and in 1936 began a policy of Blockadefestigkeit, or “blockade-resilience,” focusing on aluminum, coal, and petroleum as well as staples like potatoes, sugar, and meat. Italy’s effort began in 1925, when Benito Mussolini launched the Battle for Grain campaign, which aimed to make Italy free from the “slavery of foreign bread.” The plan continued for the next decade, reaching its first big test with the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The League of Nations slapped sanctions on Italy, and for the most part they didn’t have much of an effect on Mussolini’s military action or subsequent occupation. While the threat of sanctions had prevented a few small countries from starting wars in the period after World War I, they might have actually encouraged Mussolini to invade, as expanding Italy’s empire became the best way around trade blockages. “The deterrence theory of economic sanctions had been shown to work, but perhaps it worked too well,” Mulder writes. The constant threat of sanctions meant powerful countries might develop entire systems to evade them and economies that could function while under them.

In fact, a fundamental problem with sanctions was that they could be levied at any time, which permanently shifted the meaning of war. Sanctions, once a wartime action, were seen as a tool that could be used as a threat and thus a prophylactic to war itself. This turn, as Mulder argues, was well-intentioned: Many thought it would bring a period of unending peace. But it led to a blurring of the lines between conflict and peace. “Long-standing traditions, such as the protection of neutrality, civilian noncombatants, private property, and food supplies, were eroded or circumscribed,” Mulder writes. This totalizing and perpetual threat of sanctions was the beginning of forever wars and pushed aggressive countries to annex as much territory as possible. “Conquest appeared as an avenue of escape from the anxiety of living under the Damoclean sword of international blockade,” Mulder writes.

Part of the original theory of sanctions was that cutting off the resources to an entire society would cause its citizens to oppose a war-making government. Politicians argued that while Imperial Germany’s population in World War I, say, was at the whim of a militaristic dictatorship, they should still bear some of the responsibility. Many accepted this premise, but without the levers of democracy—whether through voting or the right to protest—it’s hard to see how it is a reasonable tack. In other ways, it seems like a case of victim blaming. Unfortunately, this specious theory of sanctions-as-regime-change-stimulus continues today, as sanctions on Venezuela and Iran demonstrate. The problem, of course, is that regime change is almost never induced by the effects of sanctions. In fact, as Demarais points out in her book, some of the only cases in which sanctions appear to work is when they target a well-functioning democracy. Effective sanctions target countries with many trade links to the United States, work immediately, and have small goals (like the release of a political prisoner or settlement of a trade fight). Everything else doesn’t.

The speed with which sanctions work is important to note. Many sanctions have no sunset clause and can often be in place long after it has become clear they aren’t working. Examples of long-running, ineffective sanctions are abundant. Cuba, for one, has been under U.S. sanctions for more than 60 years, and yet Castro’s regime was not overthrown. North Korea, similarly, has been sanctioned with little impact on regime change. Of course, medical supplies, food, and access to basic goods there are scarce. But this highlights a problem with long-running sanctions: The country completely abandons the notion of regular trade relations with the United States and allies, and adapts to a new normal. Countries like Cuba and North Korea, not to mention Russia, where many institutions have been targeted by U.S. sanctions for decades, form new alliances with new trade partners, like China and other ascendant economies. They’ll also develop effective means of evading the sanctions. North Korea in particular has developed extensive processes for evading energy sanctions. Compliant trading firms will turn off transponders on the petroleum carrying ships, change ship registration numbers, and perform any number of open sea maneuvers to transfer oil without actually docking in the country.

Today, physical blockades of goods and sanctions on trade are less common than financial sanctions on the bank accounts of governments and individuals. This tactic relies on the compliance of international banks and their desire to stay in the good graces of the U.S. government. However, if the balance of power shifted away from U.S. financial institutions, and fewer global transactions were settled in dollars, this tactic would dramatically lose its power. Furthermore, evading financial sanctions has become almost a sport among kleptocrats and oligarchs across the world—as Demarais notes, with the example of two billionaire Russian brothers who used the international art market to smuggle money in and out of the country.

Sanctions on Russia in general have been hefty for the past decade, and the main result is not regime change but that trade links between the United States and Russia have reached a low point. The thousands of sanctions placed on Russian state actors and individuals recently are unlikely to make any difference to people in power. This seems to be true for most sanctions placed nowadays. Venezuela’s citizens have suffered from malnutrition, record inflation, and inadequate access to medical supplies and care, caused in part by their government but certainly made worse by Obama- and Trump-era sanctions. But the citizenry hasn’t seen even a glimmer of Washington’s desired outcomes.

Yet, despite all this very public evidence of failure, the great paradox is that sanction use doubled in the 20 years after 1990, compared to the 35 years between 1950 and 1985. Sanctions start to seem a lot like an addictive substance: The more they are used, the less they work; the more problems they cause, the more they seem necessary. Yet we keep going back for another hit, hoping, against all odds, that they’ll work exactly like the first time.

So what then is the appeal of sanctions? They may raise the approval rating for politicians who implement them, and rarely, if ever, do they receive scrutiny in the popular press. Mulder suggests that they have the attraction of a utopian technocratic tool that resolves global problems with the stroke of a pen instead of the end of a Scud missile. We hope that sanctions will allow us to intervene in conflict without actually appearing to do so. Sanctions are an almost invisible tool of diplomacy. As we saw in the case of the 1990s Iraq, the cost can be quite high. When sanctions do have a significant impact, it often is not the desired one.

“Interwar sanctionists assumed state behavior was driven by popular opinion and the material self-interest of populations and elites,” Mulder writes, but “this view was dangerously single-minded.” Sanctions rely on a notion popular in classical economics of the perfectly rational subject, who consistently acts to maximize their interests. They would “no doubt work better” in a world of such beings, Mulder writes, “but this is not the world we actually inhabit.”

Sanctions do not circumvent war. They are a limited tool that can actually encourage nationalism, conquest, and a turn away from U.S. interests. Worse, they have been a deadly weapon with serious humanitarian consequences. Recently, anti-war protesters near my house came up to me and said, “No war in Ukraine! Bombs and guns will not solve this problem!” I thought, Add sanctions to that list, please.