Nicholas Mulder’s account of the modern economic sanctions regime sheds new light on an era of extreme destabilization and destruction.

By Nick Serpe, Dissent

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. In this edition, Nick Serpe talks to Nicholas Mulder, the author of The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War (Yale University Press).

The U.S. and European responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have generated the widest discussion and debate on economic sanctions in recent memory. Who are the targets? What are the mechanisms for implementing these policies, and can they be circumvented? What is the ultimate goal of sanctions, and how likely are they to achieve it? Could they escalate the conflict? What costs will be borne by ordinary people?

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In The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, Nicholas Mulder provides a historical backdrop for these questions. In the wake of the First World War, sanctions were embraced as a potential pathway to a more peaceful international order, but they were also immersed in controversy. From the beginning of the twentieth century until the dawn of the Second World War, Mulder writes, “deaths by economic isolation were the chief man-made cause of civilian death.” His account of the sanctions regime during the interwar period sheds new light on an era of extreme destabilization and destruction, and offers much to consider for anyone troubled by how war and peace, violence and humanitarianism, and internationalism and great-power dominance are intertwined in the current moment. We spoke a month ago, in the weeks leading up to the war in the Ukraine.

Nick Serpe: Some form of economic warfare has been around since the origin of warfare itself—the siege, the blockade. What is distinctive about sanctions, and their place in the politics of war and peace?

Nicholas Mulder: The idea of applying pressure to civilian societies and economies has been around as a practice and an idea for a very long time, but it was traditionally seen as part of the repertoire of war. Sanctions lift that technique from the realm of wartime into peacetime. That’s why the birth of modern international institutions after the First World War is so important, because they really affected that switch.

Sanctions are also often confused with economic restrictions that have other kinds of political or economic purposes—things like tariffs and protectionism. We’re in an era of general increasing economic nationalism in the wake of the 2008 crash and the COVID-19 pandemic. Tariffs are a matter of domestic regulation and protecting one’s own market from foreign competition, but sanctions are about trying to influence and deprive other territories.

Serpe: In the book you discuss some of the preconditions for a world where you could conceive of a sanctions regime. Some of this is just the fact of economic globalization; some of it is about bureaucratic capacity. But there’s also an intellectual underpinning to this: a theory of individual rationality, and a theory of how a people relates to its government. Could you say more about why sanctions emerged when they did?

Mulder: Some sort of idea of a sanctions-like instrument already existed in the nineteenth century, and there was a long series of discussions about how countries could come up with a form of international policy that would stabilize interstate relations and prevent war. The yearning for perpetual peace goes back all the way to the Enlightenment. But in the nineteenth century, there wasn’t really a good solution at hand, and in reality balance-of-power politics always devolved into trying to stop war with war itself.

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