The Economic Weapon punctures the myth that sanctions have been an alternative or antidote to war, while tracing their shifting purpose from preserving inter-state relations to toppling internal political regimes. Based on rigorous and broad research, it offers crucial lessons for historians and policymakers. Despite the hopes pinned on them, sanctions typically don’t produce the regime change desired, and they take an enormous toll on those subjected to them. The very anticipation of sanctions triggers actions that preclude their effectiveness: aggressive states’ ambitions are stoked further by desire to secure additional resources to immunize against the deprivations of threatened sanctions. The premise of sanctions — that societies make political decisions based on economic rationalism like fear of falling living standards — is not borne out by history. People often prefer bad conditions to foreign rule.
This is precisely why so many anticolonial movements use tactics of boycott, depriving themselves of cheap goods and other forms of ease in the name of self-reliance. How do we differentiate between these kinds of economic pressure? Going by the indignant cries of hypocrisy that the sanctions punishing Russia for occupying Ukraine elicited among many of those calling for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli occupation of Palestine, the question is urgent. Without a full grasp of evolving understandings of empire and war after 1918, the distinction between state-led sanctions and anti-state boycott movements remains elusive. In rounding out Mulder’s story, this essay seeks to clarify that distinction and show how sanctions fit alongside other tactics of covert militarism after 1918.
Abuse of language was integral to sanctions’ ability to shift “the boundary between war and peace.” As George Orwell noted of his time, political language allowed “defence of the indefensible,” consisting “largely of euphemism […] Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air,” and “this is called pacification.” Writing the history of this time requires treading carefully through its verbal deceptions.
In 1920, the humanitarian E. D. Morel perceived that the Versailles treaty of 1919 had concluded a certain phase of armed conflict but not armed conflict itself, creating a time of “peacewar.” More than a peace settlement, the treaty was a set of great power agreements that extended war in many parts of the world. The quick and illegal flow of arms as formal hostilities ended fueled these struggles.
Britain faced uprisings across its empire, wreaking military revenge on entire villages. With a newly mass-democratic British citizenry desperate for demobilization and control of foreign policy, the government invented ways to prosecute war with fewer boots on the ground and greater discretion, drawing on the innovative tactics of its Great War campaigns in the Middle East, especially aerial counterinsurgency. It and other powers were also deeply involved in the Russian Civil War, which extended into Persia and Central Asia. Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for Air and War, executed a sustained chemical attack against Bolshevik-held villages.
In Somaliland and Iraq, the British bombed rebels from the air. In India, they ordered a military assault on protestors in Amritsar and bombed protestors against that assault. This activity deepened concern about India’s frontier with Afghanistan, triggering the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919. Iraq and the Indian frontier became spaces of permanent war under British aerial policing, later extended to other colonies. When questions arose about the system’s inhumanity, British officials responded that “all war is […] indiscriminate in its brutality,” acknowledging they were at war in Iraq. The Air Secretary knew that things happened there “which, if they had happened before the world war, would have been undoubtedly acts of war.”
Continual contestation of the artificial borders that Versailles imposed on the Middle East — giving Britain and France “mandates” (essentially, colonies) in former Ottoman territories — prompted a series of conferences that attempted, futilely, to “close” the war (1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which drove the long Turkish War of Independence; 1921 Cairo Conference; 1923 Treaty of Lausanne; 1926 Frontier Treaty). Meanwhile, the Irish war for independence prompted British recourse to the infamous “Black and Tans” paramilitary force. It was followed by an Irish civil war. All this was in addition to military activity in Europe (including French occupation of the Ruhr) and beyond, such as US occupation of Haiti, where marines staffed the policing body, the Haitian Gendarmerie.
The peace of 1919 did not merely set the stage for World War II with its war guilt clauses and demands for German reparations; it provoked continued conflict that bridged the two bouts of total war, including the internationalized Spanish Civil War. Today’s war on terror is continuous with this era.
For Mulder, in their abstraction of a wartime tactic into “peacetime,” post-1919 sanctions represented a dramatic break. He dismisses a German diplomat’s comparison of sanctions in 1914 to Napoleonic-era blockades for failing to grasp how much more industrial, commercial, urban, and democratic the world had become, such that Great War blockades were “without historical precedent.” Once we accept the illusory nature of peacetime, however, it’s unclear how sanctions of this era were distinct from earlier wartime sanctions. Perhaps the real innovation was designation of an era of conflict as "peacetime"? Certainly, Britain’s and Napoleonic France’s economic war was not about starvation, given self-sufficiency in food in most places. But their aim to destroy the commerce on which their enemy’s war-making powers depended was a tactic of attrition not unlike the first actual implementation of League sanctions: the 1935 effort to undermine Italy’s war-making capacity by targeting its foreign exchange reserves. If the United States’ use of the “positive” economic weapon — the disbursement of inter-Allied funds in World War II (Lend-Lease) — recalls British funding of allies in World War I, it also recalls Britain’s provision of cash and arms to allies in the struggle against Napoleon. There’s a reason that conflict is sometimes called the “first total war.” Understanding how modern blockades were inspired by and found legitimacy in earlier uses might allow us to better understand how and when enemy starvation became normalized as a blockade objective alongside other tactics targeting civilians.
That process transpired in the realm of European empire, such as the early-19th-century British blockades in the Persian Gulf and French blockade threats against Haiti that gave currency to the idea that sanctions protect “civilization” from “barbarism.” (Mulder confusingly also says that colonial blockades resembled 20th-century sanctions in blurring the line between “formal peace and open war,” but cites the British and French blockade supporting Greek insurgents against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s as the first such instance.) The unrivaled naval power that Britain acquired from the Napoleonic Wars gave it the blockade power that 20th-century sanctions presumed. The dream of using blockade in an official peacetime recalls the declaration of a “Pax Britannica” in an era of constant aggression disguised as policing. War and policing existed on a continuum of imperial control.
Morel was far from alone in questioning the reality of the peace. The British state itself saw sanctions as “belligerent measures.” The Conservative speaker of Parliament said that boycott of Germany was a way of carrying on the war with different weapons. A German politician affirmed that “so-called sanctions” were “nothing but acts of violence.” Herbert Hoover saw them as an aggressive act of war. They were recognized as a “practicable substitute for armed force.” (Indeed, the bulk of the manpower for fighting in World War II would come from the Red Army and Chinese Nationalists while the Allies coordinated massive economic warfare.)
Despite this awareness, the final draft of the League Covenant’s Article 16 didn’t specify that sanctions responding to an “act of war” took place in a “state of war,” explains Mulder. This unintended rhetorical innovation yielded a means of prosecuting war while denying it formally. Europeans could now be aggressive in Europe without declaring war just as they had long been elsewhere. League sanctions were understood as “policing” — the established imperial model. Declarations of war actually became superfluous as war became a permanent condition.
The “interwar” period was thus an era of constant denial of violent reality — what Orwell would skewer with the slogans of 1984 (1949): “WAR IS PEACE.” The Great War had honed government propaganda skills, and the ensuing era saw myriad declarations disconnected from ground realities, such as the British declaration of Egyptian independence in 1922. (Egypt was occupied till 1956.)
So, if economic coercion was “reframed” as an antidote to war, can we then say that French occupation of the Rhineland set a precedent for military occupation as part of “peacetime” sanctions? Or does doing so indulge slippery contemporary usage? Given the shaky contemporary meanings of war and peace, describing sanctions as “the use of force in peacetime” is confusing. The period of “peacewar” extended well past 1921.
That Japan used sanctions against China from 1937 to 1945 in an undeclared war surely puts paid to the idea that we can take contemporary designations of “peace” as any guide. President Roosevelt, too, avoided acknowledging the state of war between China and Japan to avoid triggering an American arms embargo. Seeking to fight the fascist powers “without declaring war” himself, he fumbled for an evasion of even the word “sanctions.” Mulder shows us how in real time these designations became meaningless. By continuing to use them as if they are valid descriptors of historical reality, we may miss the way these rhetorical illusions twisted our understanding of US involvement in World War II: if sanctions against Japan, which US officials understood as a war measure, triggered the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States looks less like a bystander taken by surprise and compelled into war.
British officials pushed for economic war beyond 1918 because, after a devastating war to end all wars, they had to continue conflict discreetly, not least to evade the check of working classes whose Russian loyalties made them liable to sabotage an acknowledged war. Like “covert empire,” covert war allowed the state to evade the check of an assertive new mass democracy. The cheapness and low “visibility to the British public” that made blockade attractive for this purpose were the very features that led to “air substitution” in the Middle East. Air control allowed the government to satisfy insistent demands for demobilization and elude public oversight in a time of growing anticolonialism. The RAF owed its survival as a permanent third military service to this work; the British economist Ralph Hawtrey dubbed blockade “a fourth Fighting Service.”
For both, distance made administering violence more tolerable. Wartime Minister of Blockade Robert Cecil’s desire that sanctions be carried out without legal limitations, to maximize their terror and thus deterrent power, paralleled the refusal to allow legal constraints on airpower in the Middle East. Air Ministry officials defended “the great humanity of bombing,” arguing that its “appalling” violence lowered casualties by forcing the enemy to give up quickly. “Terror” was air control’s acknowledged tactical principle. Woodrow Wilson similarly supported sanctions as a “terrible remedy,” at once “peaceful” and “deadly.” Playing on recent memories and “deliberately spelling out the horror of enforced deprivation,” internationalists hoped sanctions would maintain the post-1919 order. Both were expected to work through “moral effect,” and both stiffened resistance.
Their stories are not merely similar; they are connected. In World War I, British and French ministries for economic warfare included blockade and strategic bombing. Cecil, primary architect of “peacetime” sanctions, was a key figure in the networks of Middle East experts who invented aerial policing. Bombardment’s elision of the distinction between combatants and civilians was justified by comparison to blockade’s similar annihilation of that distinction. After a war of attrition, Europeans strove to invent new ways of prosecuting war, and airpower and sanctions seemed to offer a way forward. Turning civilians into impromptu “soldiers” and soldiers into cannon fodder, wrote the military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, the war had shown that conflict could no longer be restricted to “paid gladiators” and that the moral imperative was to minimize casualties as a whole rather than civilian deaths in particular. Romanticizing the Middle East as a land of perennial warfare, the Air Ministry saw it as an ideal setting for acculturating Britons to the new reality: these officials sought “to avoid emphasizing the truth that air warfare has made such restrictions [between civilian and military targets] obsolete and impossible. It may be some time until another war occurs and meanwhile the public may become educated as to the meaning of air power.” In 1923, when Ramsay MacDonald foresaw a future war of “blockade and […] air raids […] which will simply devastate whole towns and whole countrysides,” he spoke against this backdrop of colonial air control. Airpower and sanctions, the tactics at the heart of total war in their blindness to distinctions between civilian and military targets, were seen as means of pursuing war outside declared war, on the logic that this might prevent war on the scale of 1914–18. Together, they made violence a permanent everyday feature of international interaction.
Yet, Mulder pooh-poohs analogies interwar people made between blockade and airpower, claiming that the effect of airplanes was primarily “psychological,” since fewer Europeans died from air bombing in 1914–18 than blockade (forgetting deaths outside Europe, where airpower was used more intensely). His claim that blockade was deadlier than airpower in “the interwar period” — an impossible assessment to make, since the British did not collect casualty figures for air control — is based on 1914–18 figures. The argument that, unlike bombing, the lethal effects of blockade were “difficult to render visible and condemn” flies in the face of British interest in air control precisely because its cheapness and minimal manpower made it difficult for a watchful democracy to detect or condemn — especially since the RAF could justify not counting casualties in an “oriental” land of mystery.
Their shared origins are necessary to understanding the World War II entanglement of blockade and airpower, when the British Ministry of Economic Warfare was central to preparation for strategic bombing. The minister, Cecil’s nephew Lord Selborne, saw naval blockade of German imports of war material and bombing of German factories producing war material as a joint attritional strategy. In this, his vision did not go “beyond” Cecil because of “new technologies”; airpower had long been recognized as having this role among Cecil’s networks.
Mulder’s goal of correcting the presumption that League sanctions were a fiasco  makes his book something of a companion volume to Susan Pedersen’s work rehabilitating the League’s mandate system, but the mandates remain off-stage, despite Cecil’s common centrality. Mulder thus misses the significance of the 1930 Convention’s failure to establish a “positive” economic weapon (aid for states that suffer another state’s aggression) due to the collapse of the related 1933 World Disarmament Conference: a key sticking issue there was British insistence on preserving aerial policing.
Sanctions, like air control, were seen as suitable to peripheral and “semi-civilized” countries, “less a new peacekeeping practice than the latest disciplinary mechanism of Western empire.” The notion that they upheld “civilization” against “barbarism” gave them a racial lens. Mulder notes that the British and French were willing to go further in pressuring Asian as opposed to European people — while also doubting whether “oriental” peoples would respond rationally to deprivation. Indeed, 1920s League blockade efforts in the Balkans, Turkey, and China possessed a “profoundly imperial dimension. The Economist’s concern that sanctions might drive Turkey to let Anatolia “sink to the economic level of Afghanistan or Abyssinia” was thus less about whether Turkey would “embrace liberalism” than whether it would emulate those two countries famous for holding out against conquest by Europe and its civilizing mission.
“[P]eoples on the Eurasian landmass remained an intractable object for the economic weapon” because it served transparently colonial ends in a vociferously anticolonial era, bumping up against anticolonial forms of economic pressure: the British governor of Hong Kong’s retaliatory sanctions against the Canton-Hong Kong general strike prompted a full boycott of the colony by the strike committee. This context of competing forms of economic pressure is crucial to understanding the US government’s billing of Lend-Lease as an “arsenal of democracy,” despite the program’s disinterest in democratization: in a war fought for freedom, it could hardly be owned that it was an “arsenal for the [British] Empire,” as Henry Morgenthau styled it in his diary.
While European powers normalized sanctions by analogizing them to colonial practices, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany defended their aggressions against the 1919 order as no different from British, French, and American imperial actions, and could liken their drive for autarky to the protective British imperial trade bloc established in 1932. But European and American political elites also analogized sanctions to anticolonial forms of economic pressure, while Germans leaned on the latter’s moral legitimacy in seeking immunity from sanctions that were understood as imperialistic: they too sought an end to dependence on and exploitation by Britain and France. Though anticolonial thinkers recognized Nazism as an extension of imperialism to Europe, some Nazis from the 1920s saw Germany as the head of an alliance of peoples oppressed by the Versailles order, as David Motadel has shown, and some anticolonialists who favored revolutionary and militaristic nationalism saw Nazi Germany as an ideological beacon — a sympathy the Nazis exploited, despite their own racism.
Contemporaries also thought about how “statist and civic versions” of boycott “could be used in concert” — such as the possibility of the revolutionary Russian state and European working classes uniting against capitalism. Political elites worried about external sanctions and internal boycotts and strikes. How then should we distinguish between state-led sanctions and other kinds of boycott movements?
Scholars have fortunately plumbed their differences — and the politicization of hunger with which they are entangled. In Gandhian noncooperation, withdrawal was not a punitive (and thus violent) act but based on “love for the opponent’s humanity,” Faisal Devji explains. Sacrificing conveniences and rendering themselves open to punishment, protestors’ voluntary suffering aspired to convert their opponents. State-led sanctions offered escape from precisely this loving dynamic by skirting the aggressor’s discomfort with having “to go on sticking his bayonet into the passive resisters,” as the internationalist William Arnold-Forster perceived. Hence did anticolonial figures like C. L. R. James oppose Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the “Imperialist trap” of state-directed sanctions against Italy, calling instead for “workers’ sanctions.” Today, too, many discourage any comparison of BDS to sanctions against Russia, pointing to the radical difference between sanctions administered by states and targeting an entire population and economy, and those urged by civil society to nonviolently target the structures upholding occupation and apartheid. 
We might apply the distinction Mulder draws between autarchy (a psychological condition of self-command) and autarky (material self-sufficiency) here: earnestly anticolonial boycotts saw the latter as the route to the former. They did so because they recognized that colonialism’s economic life was rooted in militarism.
The prospect of states exercising power over “private” businesses to administer 20th-century blockades appeared odd only because of quite recent notions of separate public and private sectors. In fact, industrialism originated in a war-fused amalgam of the two. Military contracting was central to the 18th-century British Industrial Revolution. War triggered mass production of armaments and goods with both military and civilian uses, like food and clothing. The ideal of discrete “public” and “private” sectors emerged out of frustration with this system of “Old Corruption.” But a “military-industrial complex” persisted as arms-making remained central to industry generally, as confirmed by the United States’ Nye Committee and the British Royal Commission on arms manufacture in the 1930s. Hence arms-makers’ power to resist American proposals to embargo arms sales to aggressors, and the understanding that supplying aggressor states with any resources constituted “gun-running.” In an era of total war, when it was impossible to draw a line between war material and other goods or between soldiers and civilians, all supplies for human life were “armaments.” The Nazi goal of economic self-sufficiency, its rationale for imperialism, followed from a long history of European colonialism chasing resources and profit. The United States’ ability to wield the positive economic weapon after World War II in turn depended on its economy’s wartime growth. It’s impossible to disentangle the history of war and Western industrial economies. Modern war was always a “war of the factories.”
And it always imagined peace as a function of a mutually terrorized world. The deterrence theory of sanctions anticipated the Cold War, Mulder discerns, but even during the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith, assuring that firearms favored the “extension of civilization,” looked forward to the world reaching “that equality of courage and force which, by inspiring mutual fear, can alone overawe the injustice of independent nations into some sort of respect for the rights of one another.” When the mass spread of ever deadlier firearms instead culminated in a horrific war of attrition, sanctions again strove to create a world held in thrall to the threat of annihilation and called this “peace.” Again, a system designed for deterrence triggered aggression. Perhaps Smith might hear Mulder’s coruscating conclusion, after two centuries of devastating mass violence, that “stitching animosity into the fabric of international affairs and human exchange is of limited use in changing the world.”
The normalization of sanctions as compatible with “peace” depended on conceiving and creating “the economy” as a self-contained domain of monetarized exchanges for rational and numerical study. The League’s blockade committee claimed Article 16 was “essentially economic in nature,” abstracting that realm from the political and military, despite the recent total war and the long history of military-industrial economies. Economists were central to organizing the strategic bombing tied to sanctions. Their violence became the domain of bureaucrats — another way in which war was civilianized and thus sanitized and made more discreet.
Mulder’s indispensable book traces the consolidation of international sanctions and their myriad effects, illuminating how the United Nations came to distinguish between coercive measures that were “war proper” and those that “preserved peace in notional terms.” It is up to us to recognize the “notional” nature of those terms, even in recounting the history of the preceding decades. The Holocaust and Hiroshima expanded the spectrum of imaginable violence so that sanctions seemed relatively mild, as Mulder observes, but in accepting them as relatively mild (even if objectively not) and adhering to the vocabulary of “peacetime,” we indulge the same logic as advocates of air control — this is, indeed, how the forever war of drones has been justified.
 His defense of sanctions’ continued relevance in the 1930s does however make it harder to understand British and French acceptance of Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland.
 For example, Sana Saeed’s Twitter thread (March 1, 2022). See also the BDS Movement. Devji argues that BDS demands sacrifice only from supporters who live in or have connections to Israel and the occupied territories.
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University, focusing on the history of Britain and its empire. She is the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia (2008) and Empire of Guns (2018). Her newest book, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, was published in 2020.