Home Are Trade Sanctions Ever Worth It: Part II

Are Trade Sanctions Ever Worth It: Part II

In researching American sanctions against Japan prior to World War II, I was taken by John Denson’s essay all the way back to the First World War. Denson argues in his essay that a proper understanding of WWII requires a recognition of the role that the international relations in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century had in shaping the First World War, and the ensuing Treaty of Versailles.

This post will not be on trade sanctions per se , but will deal with the related topic of the English blockade of Germany during (and, importantly, even after ) World War I. I think that, even though it is slightly off topic, it provides an important illustration of the unintended consequences of economic warfare and, even more than that, should be considered highly historically relevant.

Denson begins his story with an argument pertaining to the strategy of economic and naval dominance that was pursued by the British Empire up through the end of the nineteenth century. Since this is not absolutely relevant to my case, I will not elaborate here, but will simply say that Denson provides evidence to suggest that one of Britain’s major motivations for pursuing war in the early twentieth century was to stave off German economic dominance. He does provide some convincing primary sources for this point, and the early portion of his essay is devoted to it, so I’d encourage you to explore for yourself if you are interested.

Anyway, Denson eventually makes his way to mentioning the British blockade of Germany that occurred over the course of the First World War. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British used their superior naval fleet to establish blockades preventing any “contraband” materials from entering Germany. Although this in and of itself is not really surprising, Ralph Raico notes in his review of C. Paul Vincent’s The Politics of Hunger: Allied Blockade of Germany 1915-1919 that civilian food supplies were included on the last of contraband materials. Winston Churchill himself, “First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914 and one of the framers of the scheme,” gloated that the goal was as follows:

to starve the whole population–men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound–into submission.

Raico points out that this policy actually violated two international agreements to which Britain was party–the Declaration of Paris of 1856 and the Declaration of London of 1909–and that the British increasingly expanded definitions of contraband while at the same time “putting pressure on neutrals (particularly the Netherlands, since Rotterdam more than any port was the focus of British concerns over the provisioning of the Germans) to acquiesce in its violation of the rules.” America readily went along (although Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan chose to resign in protest of the war in 1915).

As for the heightening of the blockade, Raico quotes from Vincent’s book:

All food consigned to Germany through neutral ports was to be captured and all food consigned to Rotterdam was to be presumed consigned to Germany…The British were determined on the starvation policy, whether or not it was lawful.

By 1915 and 1916, rationing had set in for the civilian population of Germany. By 1917, German civilians were allowed a diet of roughly 1,000 calories per day and, by 1918, the civilian mortality rate had risen by 38% since the beginning of the war.

All of this is bad enough but could, conceivably, be rationalized as strategy from the point of view of a military professional or war hawk. (That is not to absolve those responsible for the 430,000-800,000 deaths that resulted from the policy, but simply to suggest that it could at least then be construed as an ill-advised tactical course). Raico really drops the bomb next, however:

When the Germans surrendered in November 1918, the armistice terms, drawn up by Clemenceau, Foch, and Petain, included the continuation of the blockade until a final peace treaty was ratified.

Thus, despite the suspension of hostilities and the declaration of the armistice, the Allied forces maintained the starvation blockade for an extra 5-9 months, resulting in an estimated additional 100,000 civilian deaths from starvation . (I say 5-9 because food shipments began arriving at the end of March, but it was not until the summer, following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, that general bans on imports and exports were lifted).

Again, as if this weren’t all bad enough, there is more, and this is where the starvation blockade of the First World War really helps to illustrate the unintended consequences of trade sanctions. Raico points out that both Vincent as well as Peter Loewenberg reach the conclusion that the social, physical, and psychological effects of the blockade on German young people could be perceived as a major contributor to the later enthusiasm of German youth for the Nazi movement. Loewenberg also observed of Theodore Abel’s 1936 Why Hitler Came into Power: An Answer Based on the Original Life Stories of Six Hundred of His Followers that “the most striking emotional affect expressed in the Abel autobiographies are the adult memories of intense hunger and privation from childhood.” Denson also notes independently that a German boy ten-years-old at the time of the Treaty of Versailles would have been 22 during the rise of the Nazis to power.

Now, Hitler came into power for several reasons, not all of which necessarily have to do with the much maligned Treaty of Versailles (although I do tend to agree with the historians who suggest that the treaty played a significant role). That, however, is not the subject of this series of post. What is the subject of this series of posts happens to be the unintended consequences of trade sanctions, and the starvation blockade of World War I represents an extreme, but extremely enlightening example.

Trade sanctions and blockades are typically depicted as unified events that play out on national scales, i.e. an “American” sanction against trade with “Japan,” or “Iraq,” or “Iran.” This, however, is not actually how things really play out, and the thinking behind this falls prey to the problems of viewing collective actions as aggregates that are somehow something more than the sum of individual actions. Anyway, what is functionally going on in a sanction situation is not an “American” refusal to trade with “Iran,” but rather a forceful moratorium by the United States federal government on any exchange between civilian citizens of the United States and the civilian citizens of Iran. There are a number of problems with this reality.

First of all, there are problems and inconsistencies that can be exposed by a basic praxeological examination of the nature of sanctions in general, which I plan to go into either tomorrow or, more likely, on Monday (I will probably use tomorrow’s post to go into sanctions on Japan leading up to our involvement in World War II). To briefly close out this post, however, I think it’s important to note that, although sanctions are almost always rationalized as this sort of peaceful measure against an opposing regime, they are really anything but. First of all, sanctions can only be enforced by threat of force and so, almost by definition, cannot be peaceful. And, on top of that, they are only rarely entirely successful in undermining the regime they seek to topple.

In order to make this point, I think it’s important to use a hypothetical scenario. Imagine that another nation–let’s say China–voluntarily elected to join some other enemy in a war against us. Then, suppose that China set up some devastating starvation blockade against us, in an effort to undermine our resolve for the war. Imagine that sanctions lasted for years and years, and that many in our population–friends, lovers, family members–died of starvation and other indirect causes related to the blockade. (I realize that I am using sanctions and blockade interchangeably for the moment, but bear with me). Is it likely that we would primarily blame our own government for this? It’s likely that we would place some of the blame with them, but wouldn’t most of us blame China more? After all, it would have been China who would have executed this blockade, and whose actions would have directly resulted in the deaths of our loved ones. And, again, would our regime really have been all that weakened? Sure, it’s possible, however not to the same extent as our civilian population .

This is the crucial thing to know about sanctions and blockades: they primarily impact civilian populations who usually are more or less powerless to topple the regime under which they live, and thus usually succeed in nothing more than fomenting hatred of the blockading nation in the citizens of the blockaded.

One Response

  1. Bobby Cathey

    Hello, Sir. I have just discovered your blog and, as an Austro-libertarian, I find it very insightful. Keep up the good work. I’ll try to comment regularly on your posts.