Chapter Two: The History Of Sanctions

History of Sanctions

Sanctions are a powerful instrument in international relations, profoundly impacting world geopolitics, and can drastically alter a nation’s social and economic landscape.

These measures are strategic political tools deployed in response to specific situations concerning security, diplomacy, or humanitarian issues. Often associated with international conflicts, human rights abuses, and internal repression, sanctions have a solid record in shaping world events. In this article, we dive into the multifaceted impacts of sanctions on societies, examining their historical usage and contemporary relevance.

First Uses Of Economics As A Foreign Policy Tool

Sanctions trace their earliest roots back to ancient history. In 432 BC, the Athenian Empire imposed economic sanctions on Megara, contributing to the spark of the Peloponnesian War. The so-called Megarian Decree prohibited merchants from Megara from trading in the markets of Attica and barred their ships from entering the ports of the Athenian Maritime Alliance.

Medieval & Renaissance Periods

During the Middle Ages, the landscape of European geopolitics was significantly shaped by the imposition of trade embargoes between rival kingdoms. Two of the most formidable maritime republics of this era, Venice and Genoa, were particularly adept at leveraging economic blockades as instruments of power and influence. These city-states, renowned for their vast trade networks and naval prowess, employed economic sanctions not only as defensive mechanisms but also as aggressive tools to assert dominance and control over critical maritime trade routes. The rivalries between these republics, often manifesting as economic warfare, played a crucial role in the regional politics of the time, underlining the growing importance of economic measures in medieval conflicts.

Early Modern Era

Moving into the Early Modern Era, the Napoleonic Wars provide a striking example of the evolution and significance of economic sanctions in European history. The Continental System, spearheaded by Napoleon Bonaparte, was a grand strategy aimed at economically and politically isolating Great Britain from mainland Europe. This blockade, which stretched across the continent, attempted to undermine British naval power by cutting off its trade links.

The Continental System had far-reaching consequences, significantly impacting not only the economies of Europe but also altering global trade patterns. This large-scale embargo highlighted the strategic use of economic sanctions as a means of warfare, demonstrating their potential to influence international relations and the balance of power on a global scale.

20th Century

During World War I, under the leadership of Britain and France, the Allied and Associated Powers initiated a novel form of economic conflict against the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans. They set up specialized ministries and international panels to strategically obstruct and manage the distribution of goods, energy, food, and information to their adversaries. This approach had a profound and dire impact, particularly in Central Europe and the Middle East, leading to the death of hundreds of thousands from starvation and illness and causing significant disruption to civilian life.

Cold War Era

The Cold War intensified the use of sanctions. The US embargo on Cuba after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the subsequent Soviet blockade of West Berlin were prominent examples that heightened tensions between superpowers.

A widely known oddity of the embargo on Cuba: During the Cold War, one peculiar effect of the US sanctions on Cuba was the rise of the “almendrón” or “maquina” – the vintage cars that became iconic on Cuban streets. When the US imposed an economic embargo on Cuba, it restricted the import of goods, including automobiles. As a result, Cubans could not import new cars, leading to a scarcity of vehicles.

To cope with this scarcity, Cubans became incredibly resourceful, maintaining and repairing the cars they already owned, some dating back to the 1950s or earlier. These classic cars became a symbol of Cuban resilience and ingenuity, and today, they are not just relics but a vital part of Cuba’s identity and tourism industry, drawing visitors fascinated by the sight of these vintage automobiles cruising the streets.

Modern Era

In the 21st century, there has been a notable shift towards smart or targeted sanctions, aiming for precise impacts while mitigating broader humanitarian costs. This modern era is characterized by the increasingly frequent presence of asymmetric threats in the international system, notably posed by international terrorist groups.

Contemporary examples of sanctions include those imposed on Iran, which have had significant economic impacts. According to a 2019 report by the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s economy contracted by around 9.5% following the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions. Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the proclamation of the so-called independent Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, sanctions by the EU, U.S., and other countries have been estimated to reduce Russia’s GDP by up to 2.5% in 2014-2016, according to a study by the International Monetary Fund. In 2022, after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) dropped by 2.1%

Moreover, the European Union has adopted comprehensive horizontal regimes targeting not only terrorism but also cyber-attacks, the proliferation of weapons, the use of chemical weapons, human rights violations, and the production of substances that deplete the ozone layer.

Throughout history, sanctions have demonstrated both efficacy and ethical dilemmas. While they have been instrumental in coercing policy changes in some instances, they’ve also caused unintended humanitarian consequences, impacting civilian populations and creating socio-economic hardships. Their usage reflects a continuous evolution from Athens to the present, underscoring the complex interplay between achieving political objectives and ethical responsibilities.

Understanding this history is vital for comprehending current international relations, as sanctions remain a crucial element in the arsenal of global politics.

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