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The Sanctions Trap

Forged in the crucible of World War I, modern economic sanctions have long been regarded as tools for preventing shooting wars and deterring international bad actors. But a closer look at the history suggests that such punitive measures amount to war by other means.

LONDON – The point of historical study is to improve our understanding of ourselves and our world. Some histories – especially those concerning remote times or narrow specialist topics – may seem relevant to our current concerns only as food for thought about the human condition. But others, like Cornell University historian Nicholas Mulder’s The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, face the opposite problem: the topic’s relevance risks eclipsing the historical analysis.

Yet Mulder steers a skillful course around this hazard. His description of how “economic sanctions arose where the conditions of advanced globalization encountered the techniques of total war” reads like an autobiography of our age in its formative years. Where some might have been tempted to cherry-pick the historical record to serve some contemporary polemic, Mulder has delivered a scholarly tour de force, reflecting a mastery of sources in diverse and complex areas – from economics, finance, and trade (including logistics) to administration and law (both domestic and international).

Tying all these elements into a history of diplomacy and politics, Mulder tells the origin story of the modern world’s “economic weapon,” which was forged through the Entente blockades against the Central Powers in World War I, and then applied more frequently in the decades that followed. Mulder’s story ends with the re-forging of the economic weapon in the 1945 Charter of the United Nations.