How Economic Sanctions Shaped Today’s Global Powers

The week after Vladimir Putin decided to send troops into Ukraine, Western newspapers were filled with analysis about the economic sanctions that might be imposed on Russia. After a few days, the sheer number and severity of those sanctions surpassed the expectations of almost every previous analysis—and rightly so, because the speed in implementing them and their scale and implications had little precedent when it came to an economy the size of Russia’s. Despite this surprise, however, new questions arose about the consequences that this new set of sanctions could have, both for the war itself and at the level of the global economy.

Nicholas Mulder, a professor of modern European history at Cornell University, is the author of The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, which provides a deep and nuanced understanding of the emergence of sanctions in the years after World War I, tracing their evolution and impact throughout the interwar period, World War II, and the formation of the United Nations. But Mulder was not just looking at history to explain the role of sanctions in the 21st century. As he states in this interview, we should not extrapolate lessons from the past without being careful to recognize how the global context has changed. This means that although the history of sanctions illuminates what we are seeing in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we should not assume that history repeats itself. The current global economy looks quite different from the interwar period, and therefore sanctions perform a different role.

I spoke with Mulder about his new book and the likely consequences of the sanctions imposed on Russia. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Pablo Pryluka

Pablo Pryluka: I would like to start this conversation with a personal question: How did you get interested in the history of sanctions? Why did you find it interesting?

Nicholas Mulder: When I arrived in graduate school, I had a plan to work on a different kind of project, which was an intellectual history of the idea of the war economy, the war economy as an experience in the 20th century, and all sorts of interesting links with the welfare state and ideas of planning developmentalism. But when I started at Columbia, there was a big new wave of interest in the history of internationalism, and particularly the League of Nations in the interwar period. So I found myself at the center of that. And this is really a project that, at a purely historiographical level, started with a topic that I wanted to read more about, but could not find a book about it. But I’ve always been interested in policy, and also in my own personal background, between college and graduate school, I sort of dabbled around in that world a bit, with some work experience. I was interested in the issues confronting policy-makers, but in a very multifaceted sense. So not in a classical, elite-only way, but actually thinking a little bit about how certain things in the world even come to be seen as a problem—and, conversely, how certain things emerge as an instrument. And I couldn’t really find any good explanation for why sanctions had begun to be so important in the 20th century: When did this way of thinking about the world as a set of flows that you can interdict and use as a weapon begin?

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