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Economic warfare in twentieth century history and strategy

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Economic warfare in twentieth century history and strategy

In the run up to VE day on 8th May 2020, our Senior Research Fellow, Mark Harrison, considers the role of economic warfare in twentieth century history and strategy

Read the working paper 

'In two world wars, both sides committed substantial resources to economic warfare. Before the event, influential thinkers believed that the threat of blockade (and later of bombing) would deter aggression. When war broke out, they hoped that economic action might bring the war to a close without the need for a conclusive military struggle. Why were they disappointed, and what was the true relationship between economic warfare and combat between military forces?

The answer to this question depends on the effects of economic warfare, which can be understood only after considering the adversary’s response. When the full range of responses is considered, it becomes clear that economic warfare and combat were usually strategic complements.

What does it mean if economic warfare and combat were complements? It means that economic warfare made combat more effective (and conversely) and did not take its place. Attempts to impose economic sanctions without military measures did not avoid war and often led to war. Efforts at combat that missed opportunities for economic warfare were less effective for that reason.

There are implications not only for history but also for policy. For example, Western governments today often use economic sanctions as if they provided peaceful means for resolving conflicts. Too often, this has been a mistake.'