The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War
Nicholas Mulder. Princeton, NJ: Yale University Press, 2022. 434 pp. Notes. Tables. Index. $26.99.
Reviewed by Commander Eric Schuck, U.S. Navy Reserve
One of the striking aspects of the global response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was the speed with which the United States and European Union deployed economic sanctions. For a variety of reasons, Western nations clearly opted to lead with the “E” in “DIME” (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic instruments of national power).
Reaching for sanctions first and weapons second is a uniquely modern reaction. Indeed, it is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary rules-based collective security policies. This was not always the case, and, as Nicholas Mulder observes in his new book, The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War, an approach whose origins are too-little appreciated. Tracing the roots of contemporary economic warfare from World War I, Mulder examines how the first great era of liberal international trade exposed the degree to which modern economies were subject to and threatened by blockade, embargo, and sanction. He then examines the evolution of sanctions as a form of economic warfare through the interwar period—including the increasing reliance on them within the League of Nations—into its application in World War II.
By drawing distinctions among the legal, diplomatic, and military aspects of economic warfare, and then analyzing how these different facets coevolved through the interwar period, Mulder provides a detailed history of why and how sanctions came to be a key element in modern security policy. A variety of interesting points come out of this. To start, based on experiences in World War I, notions of economic warfare expanded through the 1920s and 1930s to encompass more than simple blockades. Indeed, recognition that international banking systems and balance of payments controlled through private banks in Wall Street and London represented a point of control over a nation’s economy opened up whole new channels of economic warfare, particularly against import-dependent Italy and Japan.
Mulder also notes that in the period immediately preceding U.S. entry into World War II, the United States employed both positive (aid-based) and negative (coercive) economic tools. Recognizing how economic warfare really represents a spectrum of tools, and explaining how that spectrum came to be, is a very interesting element of this book and provides a useful historical foundation to the use of these tools both in support and in lieu of armed conflict.
Also useful is Mulder’s candor. Throughout the book, he is quick to emphasize both the strengths and weaknesses of sanctions. While stressing the degree to which the League of Nations sought to wield sanctions as an alternative to conflict, he also makes it clear that the Axis powers’ responses to the threat of sanctions—varying degrees of autarky achieved through militarism and expansionism—contributed significantly to World War II. This leads directly to perhaps Mulder’s most salient observation: The efficacy of economic warfare as a policy tool can differ from its effects. Indeed, one of his key points is that in many cases the threat of sanctions has proven more effective than the action of sanctions.
The conclusion is where the value of the book truly lies. By simultaneously explaining the origins of modern economic sanctions and identifying their capabilities, Mulder frames not only why we operate in the system we do, but also what that system can meaningfully achieve. That matters, especially when our reflexes have evolved to lead with “E” first and “M” second.
Commander Schuck is the executive officer of the Navy Reserve Headquarters Detachment for Fleet Logistics Center Pearl Harbor. He holds a PhD from Washington State University and is the Dean David Hansen Professor of Economics at Linfield University.
The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley
Wesley Morgan. New York: Random House, 2021. 672 pp. Glossary. Notes. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Shane Halton, U.S. Navy
The U.S. military is a Type A organization full of Type A people who want to do Type A things. Our preference for immediate, continual action is betrayed by our professional vocabulary. We seize, we hold, we move out, we regroup and reengage. Even when we are not doing much more than sitting around we are still digging in and holding the line. It is not just combat—our preferred way of thinking about counterinsurgency is winning hearts and minds. No half-measures allowed here; you either have won the peace or you have not.
This preference for bold action, for taking the initiative, bestows many advantages on the U.S. military but it also saddles its members with a presentism, a prejudice toward prioritizing only what is immediately in front of us at any given moment. This presentism in turn is reinforced by the nature of deployment schedules—particularly those of Army and Marine Corps units during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which 12 months in country was the norm. Units on this schedule could spend the first month or two just getting their feet under them and six months honing their skills and their optempo to the point at which they could begin to feel confident in their abilities for the final few months—right before they deployed back to the States, in some cases never to return.
Wesley Morgan’s The Hardest Place depicts what happens when a Type A organization crashes headlong into one of the most complex operating environments on the planet. It is not just the rugged mountainous terrain of Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, its almost unfathomable linguistic diversity, or its complex web of tribal and political relationships. The U.S. military never decides what it is supposed to do, repeatedly undercutting its efforts. Over and over in the book a new unit will deploy to the Pech with no prior experience of the region, little understanding of even the recent history of Allied operations there, and armed with a different mission statement than the unit it is replacing. Was the mission to hunt Bin Laden (2001)? Pick up his trail once it goes cold (2002)? Hunt for holdout al Qaeda in the region (2003)? Win hearts and minds (2005 onwards)?
This book succeeds because it offers a compelling corrective to the U.S. military’s innate presentism; it sits in one place for almost 20 years and meticulously records what happens as a generation of U.S. military units moves through the Pech and its surrounding environs. Early on, Americans develop good working relations with local leaders throughout the valley, but over time the accumulated weight of cultural misunderstandings, aggressive U.S. counterterorrism operations (including drone strikes, nighttime raids, and scores of civilians accidentally killed) as well as the frequent turnover of U.S. military leadership sours relations, making U.S. deployments to the region progressively more difficult and deadly. Eventually, U.S. presence in the Pech becomes a magnet for insurgent forces, who deploy new recruits to the region to engage Americans to gain valuable combat experience.
It can be tempting to draw broad lessons about U.S. military operations during the war on terror years from The Hardest Place, in part because it furnishes so many great and well-told examples of genuine misunderstanding, hubris, and overreach; however, this would in a sense undercut the central theme of the book. Morgan did not set out to write a great book about counterinsurgency; he wrote a great book about counterinsurgency by telling the story of a small part of a relatively small war very well.
Lieutenant Commander Halton is an intelligence officer currently serving on exchange with the Royal Australian Navy. He has previously served as the AF-PAK team lead at the Joint Improvised Explosive Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and as a requirements officer at the Navy’s Digital Warfare Office.
Party, Politics, and the Post-9/11 Army
Heidi A. Urben. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2021. 200 pp. Notes. Append. Biblio. Index. $45.
Reviewed by Captain Bill Bray, U.S. Navy (Retired)
For military officers and students of U.S. civil-military relations in general, early 2021 headlines regarding the number of military veterans and, in a few cases, reserve and active-duty military members involved in the 6 January attack on the Capitol were alarming. Indeed, a few days later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a memorandum to the force denouncing the attack as an act of insurrection and sedition and reaffirming the military’s nonpartisan, apolitical culture and loyalty to the Constitution and the law. As someone who served the nation for nearly 30 years in uniform, I was not alone in finding the need for such a memorandum disheartening.
But maybe not surprising. The shift to an all-volunteer force nearly 50 years ago always had the potential of a military gradually cultivating leaders who supported the political party that favored it more, both fiscally and culturally. Over time, too many officers have come to conflate partisanship with patriotism. This trend has been bad for the military and the society it serves.
But how partisan has the military become and how big a problem is it? Long before 6 January 2021, Heidi Urben, a recently retired Army colonel and now Chamberlain Fellow at Howard University, was digging into this question as part of her graduate work. Reliable data on this issue is difficult to unearth, and her original survey research over the past decade focuses almost solely on the Army and builds on older surveys dating to the late 1980s. Specifically, she examines three popular claims—that the U.S. military officer corps is too partisan, too politically vocal, and too resistant to civilian control. For nonpartisan purists such as myself, what she found is both good and bad news, if more of the latter.
On the positive side, while there has been a growing concern that the military is becoming a breeding ground for extremist groups, officer surveys in the past decade reveal a trend toward centrism rather than extreme right- or left-wing political views. A large majority of officers consider themselves politically moderate (although most identify with a political party and do not register independent, which the majority did into the late 1970s). This indicates that military service as an officer has a tempering effect and does not cause extreme partisanship.
Findings concerning inappropriate political discussion in the workplace, explicit or implicit pressure to vote for the Republican Party, and, most interesting, the outsized impact social media has had on damaging the perception of a nonpartisan military are causes for concern, however. With social media, officers’ personal political views too often spill into digital view, and the impression sailors, soldiers, or Marines have of an officer under whom they serve being stridently partisan cannot be erased or forgotten just because the latter obeys the rules while in uniform the following day. Indeed, as Urben explained in her September 2021 Proceedings article, “Partisan Activity on Social Media Hurts the Military Profession,” the Defense Department has thus far failed to address this problem.
While she often hesitates to draw definitive conclusions from much of the survey data, Urben has delivered a thorough analysis that should encourage military and civilian defense leaders to enact policy reforms, where needed. To my knowledge, she is the only academic in the country doing this level of research, and it is unfortunate we do not have similar analyses for the Navy and Marine Corps. I suspect there would be notable differences.
Captain Bray is a retired naval intelligence officer and the deputy editor-in-chief of Proceedings.
Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators
Beverly Weintraub. Guilford, CT: Lyon Press, 2021. 304 pp. Glossary. Sources. $32.95.
Reviewed by Captain Cecily Walsh, U.S. Navy
In her book, Wings of Gold, Beverly Weintraub takes readers to the U.S. Navy of the early 1970s, in which Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s Z-116 made way for six determined women to enter flight training and earn their wings of gold. The book follows these women throughout their careers as well as the Navy’s policy process through the repeal of the combat exclusion. In particular, Weintraub brings to life the story of Captain Rosemary Mariner (a member of the U.S. Naval Institute Editorial Board from 1994 to 1996), who was a strong advocate for female aviators and whom I never knew existed. Through Mariner’s stories, readers meet many other amazing female aviation pioneers. As a female aviator, I was unfamiliar with many of these pioneering women, and I enjoyed learning of their hard work.
Weintraub weaves through the Navy’s interpretations, manipulations, policy modifications, and creative blocks to women’s continued growth in aviation, providing a multidecade map of the process to opening all of aviation to women. As the map is developed, the military and civilian people are brought to life as they worked to support or defeat the idea of women in all cockpits in the Navy.
Mariner was an advocate for women banding together to open aviation to female pilots. She also was supported by a number of women and men in powerful positions who worked with her to make the voices of women heard.
In 1985, women were continuing to push for the repeal of the U.S. military combat exclusion, and there were some great male naval officers giving a voice to the change. Admiral Zumwalt supported women in combat stating, “We can no longer afford the luxury of discriminating against 50 percent of the population that has the kind of talent that is difficult to get.”
Although the book focuses on the career paths of the original women, the stories of many other female aviators are told as well. One is Barb Bell, who was the first female Test Pilot School instructor. I am off to read Bell’s book Fight Lessons after I learned of her work with Mariner on Capitol Hill.
Ultimately, the process these women led was a story that needed to be told. I have found in my career that women are often less boastful about themselves. Their contribution is no less important, as seen in this book. I had not heard their stories before I read them here. Weintraub has brought the path and players forward in a constructive and clear tribute to those who paved the way for women in naval aviation.
Captain Walsh is a Test Pilot School graduate and a former P-8 naval flight officer. Currently, she is associate chair of the Aerospace Engineering Department at the U.S. Naval Academy.