A new history of prohibition contains uncomfortable lessons for today

J.UST later With the end of World War I and the extinction of Austria-Hungary, one observer noted that “every clock in Prague [was] Gone are the days of melting for metal. “Another, in Vienna, saw children” wrapped in paper for lack of sheets and blankets. ” The title of Nicholas Mulder’s new book, Economic Weapons, was first used, but never ended. One-third of the world’s population lived under sanctions by 2010. Among the current targets is Russia, which will face further sanctions if it invades Ukraine. Mr. Mulder, of Cornell University, has seen sanctions for three decades after World War I – and has come to an uneasy conclusion.

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Economic warfare against civilians is a centuries-old phenomenon. During the Hundred Years’ War, English troops launched countless brutal sieges against French garrisons, often acknowledging their submission. The siege was an important part of the 18th century naval war toolkit. The bans were different. Instead of being imposed by one country on another, they often involve groups of countries that have come together to punish rogue states. The formation of the League of Nations in 1919-20 simplifies the integrated process. And instead of being seen as an act of war, sanctions were often meant to prevent it.

Sanctions were also the product of the first great wave of globalization. From 70 to 1914 trade flows increased by 5% worldwide GDP 14%, then the all-time high. As the economy became more integrated, sympathetic governments had many advantages over the rebels, refusing to supply them with important raw materials or buying their products.

The role of money really sets sanctions apart from previous economic wars. Annual capital inflows averaged 4% worldwide in 1870-1914 GDP. The Allies controlled the world’s major financial centers. Economists, as well as traditional military types, thus helped to design sanctions. Their goal was to strike at the aggressor states where they were most vulnerable: in need of their funding.

Mr. Mulder’s book is full of anecdotes about how prohibitions worked in practice. As signs of impending war escalated in 1935, Italian companies such as Pirelli (tires), Fiat (cars) and Montecatini (chemical) were denied funding by the Bank of England for their import needs. By August 1941, expansionist Japan had lost 90% of its foreign oil supplies and 70% of its trade revenue, isolating the rest of the world economy. In a world of increasing financial efficiency, much effort is needed to enforce sanctions. In the late 1910s, a Dutch bank’s Buenos Aires affiliate, Banco Hollandes de la American del Sood, used five different names to transact for various Latin American subsidiaries of German banks.

William Arnold-Forster, a British administrator, argued that sanctions could “make our enemies reluctant to have children”. In fact, they can have terrible effects. Of the three main weapons targeted at civilians during this period – air power, gas warfare and economic blockades – the blockade was the deadliest, Mr Mulder argued. “The pens seem to be a much cleaner tool than the bayonets,” Arnold-Forster remarked angrily.

Whether the sanctions have served their purpose is another matter. Smaller countries may be forced, for example, on two occasions in the 1920s, when the threat of sanctions prevented the conflict in the Balkans from escalating into a major war. The larger forces were cracked nuts. Overall, “most economic sanctions have not worked” – the first reading of Mr. Mulder’s book. Most notably, they did not deter Germany from choosing war.

Sanctions sometimes fail because of insufficient political will. Americans have long held the view that sanctions are essentially an anarchist form of non-American, European-style imperialism. In other cases, instead of expanding financial globalization, it restricts the house of sanctions for strategy. Britain refrained from imposing a strict financial embargo on Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s because British banks borrowed heavily from Germany. Reich will cut off lending in the event of sanctions, and British financiers are concerned that the city could face a financial crisis.

The second lesson in Mr. Mulder’s book is that sanctions can have unintended consequences. By 1930, world politics and economics had changed radically since the 1920s. The Great Depression sent many governments into a protectionist path. Global trade was in a long recession. Fascism advanced.

Doom loop

The ban, Mr Mulder shows, added fuel to the fire. Governments that believed themselves to be at risk of sanctions have moved further away from the world economy to secure strategic independence. In the 1930s, Japan sought to establish a “yen bloc”, an economic zone, including Korea and Taiwan, in order to reduce its dependence on allied powers. In the mid-1930s, Germany fired for “freedom of the raw material”, in part by building massive capacity for synthetic oil production. (Anyone who has witnessed Russia’s efforts to free itself from Western money in recent years can conclude that nothing much has changed.) It also required victory. In 1939, Adolf Hitler said, “I need Ukraine,” so that they would never again starve like in our last war. “

In that sense the international search for effective sanctions and the ultra-nationalist search for dictatorship are “stuck in a growing spiral”. Sanctions did not work in a degrading world, and it continued to crack, resulting in the aftermath of World War II. Mr Mulder is a historian wary of parallels between what happened during the civil war and today, when geopolitics is once again divided and globalization is receding. But the lessons are calm. 3

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This article was published in the print edition of the section “The wonks’ weapons” in the section on finance and economics.

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