When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the United States and the European Union implemented harsh economic and financial sanctions on Moscow. The financial costs and repercussions of these sanctions have been felt throughout the globe. As a result, Nicholas Mulder’s latest book, which explores the development of economic sanctions as a weapon for policymaking in the 1920s, comes at an ideal moment.

Mulder, a history professor at Cornell University, aims to clarify “how economic sanctions began in the three decades following World War I and grew into their contemporary form.” “The economic weapon exposes itself as one of liberal internationalism’s most durable creations of the twentieth century,” he writes in his conclusion.

The economic weapon exposes itself as one of liberal internationalism’s most durable creations of the twentieth century.

Economic pressure has always been an element of international relations, but more often as a supplementary tactic to outright hostilities, as in the case of Britain’s blockade of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet, after World War I, the notion that economic sanctions may be used to penalize and deter aggressors during times of peace emerged. Sanctions were no longer only a tool of war; they may have served as a peacemaker. At least, it is what the League of Nations’ founders envisioned. The notion, according to Mulder, ‘had a considerably more significant influence on modern history than is typically supposed. It fundamentally affected the interwar world and, consequently, the structure of the political and economic system we live in today.

Mulder’s book is organized into three sections, each with multiple chapters. The issue of sanctions during the Paris peace talks after World War I and the usage of blockades during those talks are covered in the first section. The discussion amongst liberal internationalists concerning the advantages of sanctions vs. neutrality in different wars is covered in the second chapter, which looks at the ‘legitimacy’ of sanctions throughout the 1920s. The third section investigates the use of economic penalties throughout the 1930s crisis before the start of World War Two. One chapter concentrates on the League of Nations’ penalties against Mussolini’s Italy for the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Those measures forced the Axis nations to work towards self-sufficiency. The book contends that ‘the strengthening of autarky in the mid-1930s might be regarded as motivated partly by a broad “blockade-phobia” spurred on by memories of economic war and maintained alive by sanctions’.

In fact, according to Mulder’s account, the unwinding of economic restrictions did not go as expected. Sanctions were utilized by the powerful against the powerless rather than as deterrence by the powerful. Western European nations used sanctions as a “disciplinary tool of the Western empire” and “a type of dominance without hegemony” against the periphery. Additionally, the weaker nations that were the target of sanctions suffered great harm. After World War I, malnutrition and disease caused by the blockade killed between 300,000 and 400,000 people in Central Europe, while the Anglo-French embargo also caused 500,000 fatalities in the Ottoman territories of the Middle East.

Sanctions could have even backfired. “Sanctions encouraged this nationalist trend rather than halting it and the danger of conflict it implied,” says Mulder. Target nations’ efforts to become robust and intensify their pursuit of economic security led to an “unintentional disruptive effect” played by sanctions that boosted the forces of nationalism and autarky.

Mulder considers it amusing that following World War II, the United States, which had technically declared itself neutral throughout the interwar years, often used the policy while first opposing it. He is concerned about the human cost of sanctions and that they are not employed to prevent conflict but for other objectives.

Mulder thinks that sanctions often fail to accomplish their goals, cause collateral harm, and sometimes have unintended effects. The ‘history of sanctions is primarily a history of disappointment,’ he writes, and ‘ultimately, weaving enmity into the fabric of international relations and human interaction is of small service in transforming the world.’ He is appalled by the function that sanctions have in the contemporary world. ‘Now, as the international economy struggles from financial crises, nationalism, trade conflicts, and a worldwide pandemic, sanctions are exacerbating existing tensions within globalization, unintentional injuries may be equally as damaging as intentional ones.

The book is thorough but may only interest those who wish to delve deeply into the history and application of sanctions during the interwar era.

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