Nicholas Mulder: When Sanctions Work – And Don'tHistorians in the News
tags: Russia, Ukraine, international relations, sanctions
The United States, the European Union, and countries around the world have cut Russia out of the global economy. Moscow’s central bank is struggling to support the ruble. Russian financial institutions are blocked from the global payments system. Far-reaching import and export bans have choked off trade to and from the country. Russian markets have seized up. Will these sanctions pressure Vladimir Putin to withdraw the Russian military from Ukraine? Or will their main effect be to hurt Russian civilians and damage the world economy?
This week, I put those questions to Nicholas Mulder, a historian at Cornell University who recently published The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War. The book traces the history of sanctions from the Peloponnesian War to today, with particular focus on the development of modern sanctions in the period between the two world wars.
Mulder finds that sanctions have always proved controversial, given their capacity to immiserate, impoverish, and injure civilians. He also shows that sanctions have often failed to achieve their desired political outcome, for all the damage they cause. Indeed, in the 20th century, sanctions were partially successful or wholly successful just one-third of the time, with their efficacy degrading as their use has expanded in recent decades. “The history of sanctions is largely a history of disappointment,” he writes.
We discussed what makes sanctions successful, what makes them harmful, what Washington might want, and what Moscow might accept. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Annie Lowrey: The United States has sanctioned Moscow’s central bank. Other financial institutions have been kicked off SWIFT, part of the global payments system. PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard are no longer working in the country. The economy is collapsing. How unusual are these sanctions, from a historical perspective?
Nicholas Mulder: We’re in totally new territory. The speed, the sweep, and the size of the sanctions, or the size of the targets of the sanctions—those three factors make them extraordinary. An intense sanctions package came together—supported not only by the U.S. but by the entire European Union and a number of Asian allies as well—within four or five days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And there’s potentially more coming.
Before this, the states that were targeted by sanctions tended to be U.S. adversaries or adversaries of the West, but many of them were small- or medium-sized—Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, also the Taliban government in Afghanistan. They are significant actors in their regions, but they’re not hugely important in terms of the global economy.
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