As the West unites to confront Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, it faces an intensely dangerous dilemma. To intervene militarily – by, for example, declaring a no-fly zone that could result in NATO aircraft shooting down Russian warplanes – may trigger a disastrous escalation to nuclear conflict. To do nothing, on the other hand, would be both feebly to accede to the destruction of the rules-based international order that guarantees our security and to fail a fellow democracy made victim of brutal invasion. In search of a way through, Western countries have directed an unprecedentedly severe battery of punitive economic measures against Russia, ranging from freezing the assets of its central bank to commercial boycotts. For those of us seeking better to understand this reaction and to gauge its likely efficacy, there is no better place to turn than Cornell historian Nicholas Mulder’s erudite and uncannily timely book on the origins of economic sanctions.
Sanctions, a term covering an eclectic mix of coercive naval, diplomatic and administrative measures designed to apply political pressure through interrupting flows of goods, food, energy and information, can be derided as tepid gestures by states unwilling to risk lives in pursuit of their objectives. Although in recent decades their use has proliferated, most sanctions fail: only in a third of instances have they achieved even partial success. Yet this statistic belies sanctions’ fearsome origins. As Mulder ably explains, the modern application of economic pressure in international politics is rooted in Britain and its allies’ blockade of central Europe during the First World War. The methods invented in 1914–18 to sever flows of finance and cut supplies of raw materials and food to Germany did not win the conflict, but they inflicted a terrible toll. By the time the blockade on Germany was lifted in July 1919, eight months after fighting had ceased, some 400,000 civilians had died of starvation and malnutrition-related illnesses.
This experience had a profound impact on the interwar world, and particularly on its new international guarantor, the League of Nations. The League is often seen as toothless. During its design, US opposition had denied it the power to organise armed intervention. However, under Article 16 of its