The Economic Weapon by Nicolas Mulder

Navy War ship USS Simpson sails with the NATO Fleet on a multi-year joint naval blockade against shipments to former Yugoslavia. (Image credit: U.S. Navy)

(Navy War ship USS Simpson sails with the NATO Fleet in 1995 on a multi-year joint naval blockade against shipments to former Yugoslavia. Image credit: U.S. Navy.)

When we think of international sanctions, a list of economic disputes with difficult regimes comes to mind: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Russia. The latter remains top of mind as Russia persists with its bloody invasion of Ukraine, and NATO countries press ahead with some of the most wide-ranging sanctions to be deployed since the start of the twentieth century. 

Recent history shows us, however, that sanctions largely do not work, and only one in three economic blockades deployed over the course of the twentieth century have achieved partial success.

Cornell economic historian Nicolas Mulder painstakingly chronicles the genesis of the economic weapon, which came into existence in its current form after World War One. Old European powers presiding over the League of Nations sought to ensure that weaker countries followed their rules of free trade and sovereignty.

Since then, sanctions have morphed into highly sophisticated levers of influence. America, which previously viewed them with a high degree of suspicion, now deploys the economic blockade as a cornerstone of foreign policy.

Mulder’s thesis centers on questions that policymakers and financial institutions across the globe are urgently trying to answer, as they relate to the current crisis: what medium-term effects do sanctions have on the country being targeted, and what ripple effects might they have on other countries and economies.

While historical evidence is stacked against the success of sanctions, Mulder demonstrates that they can at least provide proponents of liberal internationalism with the space to work for the common good with outlier countries, even when differences are vast.

This worked well under the Obama administration when it negotiated the 2009 Iran nuclear agreement (at least until the U.S. walked back its commitment), where creative discussion and the removal of trade barriers in much-needed areas for Iran helped to get a deal over the line.

THE ECONOMIC WEAPON is published in hardback by Yale University Press, pp. 448, $32.50, January 2022.

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