Sanctions are modern barbarism disguised as diplomatic responsibility. This I have said time and time again, and it remains as true today as when I first stated it, and as true as when others have said it before me. In the piece of mine that bears this title, I went about discussing blockades and sanctions, and how the former, a most primitive and timeless function, was, in our modern time, widely abandoned in lieu of the economic sanction, as it has come to be known over the recent several hundred years.
Yet, to be sure, economic sanctions existed in the ancient world as well, alongside their siblings, the siege and the blockade, albeit less developed than we know them to be today. They were rarer, to be sure, than either other noted option, but they were present, and unsurprisingly, were not remarkably popular with all parties. They were, like today, employed by the strong over the weak, to coerce and convince, as well as to wither. Also like today, it was a policy that cost less in troops than the alternative remedies and was hoped to push city-states and proto-nations in the desired direction. These sanctions sometimes had their desired effect, but most often led to unwanted reprisals and consequences, as we still witness when sanctions are deployed today.
What can be learned from appraising the scenarios and sanctions of centuries gone by? Apart from learning of the trials of our forebears, we learn too the consistent psychological and sociological responses that humans have seemingly always had to debilitating sanctions levied at them from far-off lands, and by far-off peoples.
“Realize that war is common and justice is strife, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife.” – Heraclitus
Like our modern world, posterity and even antiquity found these attacks on the very resources needed to sustain a population entirely intolerable, and while blockades and sieges physically starved out cities, and later states, the sanction created a substantially lower quality of life for a city or region that, eventually, after some time, might cause severe repercussions for the lauding, aggressive and predatory city, state or nation.
What is considered, by some historians at least, to be the first ancient example of economic sanctions is seen in ancient Greece, and it comes from the west’s favorite Greek city of antiquity, Athens. Not only did it involve Athens, but the great famous and historical leader of that City-State, Pericles. The Megarian Decree of 432 BC, levied upon Megara and its allies, was designed to punish the Megarian people and society, as well as the greater shared economy, for the Megarians alleged crimes against the Athenians, as well as the Goddess Demeter.
It allegedly barred Megarians and their allies from accessing harbors of markets across the Delian League, and as these allies of Sparta controlled important trade routes in the region, these efforts by Athens would have been seen as an effort to seize further economic and practical power within the region. In actuality, they wished for the Megarians to join their Delian League, and to abandon their Peloponnesian allies. Asserting power in this way was bold for Athens, and, unfortunately for them, did not produce the desired capitulation or innovations.
This famous bit of “diplomacy,” as it would still be referred to as today, essentially led, after several decades, to the massive losses eventually sustained by Athens over the course of what is known today as the Peloponnesian War. The Megarians appealed to the Spartans, who as their allies, agreed to take up conflict in their cause, and, after 25 years of fighting, were able to defeat Athens and their Delian League of allies, before installing what history calls the Oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants.
Pericles, in all of his wisdom, famously turned down opportunities to negotiate a reasonable peace with Sparta, thereby ending the conflict without the eventual devastation of Athens, citing his belief that the negotiations were a slippery slope of sorts, to enslavement by the Spartans. He was, therefore, quite fortunate to die before the final outcome was determined. While this secondary blunder was an historically “cold take,” to quickly use a modern term, it was his first folly, that of misjudging the strength and position of his great Athens in choosing to issue the Megarian Decree in the first place, that remains a particularly poignant lesson to posterity.
While some historians no longer classify the Megarian Decree as an example of early economic sanctions, choosing instead to wait several hundred more years, even near 1000 years for some, before organized, more modernly coherent sanctions are identified, I prefer to include the decree for the sake of highlighting the multiple intellectual spirits that lie within the fateful pronouncement of Pericles. These aforementioned thinkers, on the other hand, highlight the inconsistent language, lack of concrete details, and likely difficulty of practical application of the decree, and instead appraise it as an effort of little practical significance at the time, and, therefore, of much greater historical significance.
We see today, in any event, the fallacy of the logic of Pericles and Athens in this instant, as clearly as many ancient thinkers did, and we see from our own experience that what we believe will happen, and what actually occurs, are very different. In this first instance, while the Athenians believed that their power and their local hegemony, born from a greek word itself mind you, further expressed through the Delian League, would permit them to set economic terms for the rest of the Greek City-States.
Their greatest mistake was, as can usually be understood as the case, their own underestimation of the localized forces, of Greeks and Persians, that would team up just enough to punish Athens for its extreme hubris and pomposity over the other people of the region. While Athens imagined that their pressure would yield capitulation and eventually, business as usual, what they did not count on, is what no large and powerful nation or state ever seems to count on when they try to bully smaller polities: The pride and determination of people, like waves crashing upon the rocks of a cliff, eventually wear away even the greatest of megalithic institutions, and Athens was certainly no exception.
Iran in modern times is, I think, the best example to illustrate this point, for a number of reasons. They have been bullied by the world for decades, specifically the United States, the strongest modern nation on the face of the planet, and yet have not relented, even in the face of such a powerful force and its allies. They have stayed the course, even with this great pressure and have yet to be quelled; they have attempted to work alongside the nations that have mistreated them when those nations have decided to give them a chance, and they have proven themselves to be quite reasonable when treated in such equitable manners. Their current containment in the paradigm of economic sanctions is a travesty, especially as the JCPOA that was previously agreed to, and that should be just over six years old at the time that this piece was written, was helping to bridge the chasms that had grown over the previous thirty or so prior years.
During that time, and of course, in the time since Donald Trump took the United States out of the Iranian Nuclear Deal that his predecessor had wisely helped to create and initiate, the US has treated Iran with the same disdain that Athens demonstrated to those members of the Peloponnesian League. While the severity and effectuality of this famous ancient Greek decree are each up for debate, what cannot be debated is the timbre with which they were handed down from Pericles; the practical political and economic powers of Athens and its league were being used to bully a neighbor, in order to satiate an interest of the bullying polity, and this mindset would not perish swiftly, no matter the result that it ultimately spurred.
“The road up and the road down is one and the same.” – Heraclitus
While we see no more famous or outright sanctions or embargos like we might ourselves recognize today for sometime after this decree, this concept can be seen once again by the famous Roman Emperor Justinian, in the codes that contemporaries and posterity alike would come to call the Code of Justinian, or simply, and partially incompletely, Roman Law. Through the concept of Quae res exportari non debeant, or “What things must not be exported,” the empire could and routinely did abstain from sending certain types of cargo abroad, whether that be weapons, armor, or just particular luxury items.
It would take less than two centuries to test this particular concept within the realm of foreign policy, however. This eastern bloc of the Roman Empire, known to posterity as either the Byzantine or else the Greek or Eastern Empires, would, before the end of the seventh century AD, give those glimpsing back into history another example of an embargo or sanction with the policy that they maintained regarding their former middle eastern and north African provincias or provinces.
After losing these long-held lands to the Rashidun Caliphate in the late 630s, early 640s AD, a policy of embargo or sanction was placed upon the still newly independent lands in 693 AD. By this time, the lands in question, comprising of Syria, the Levant, Egypt and neighboring territories, were being held by a related offshoot clan of Muslims, during what is known as the second caliphate, which is called the Umayyad Caliphate. In any event, the embargo created by the Byzantines would still be intact several hundred years later, as a well-preserved Venitian document of some interesting details, yet what did this behavior actually positively accomplish?
The answer, as witnessed previously, is not too much. Its effectiveness has been questioned, as has the very weight of the pronouncements outside of the eastern Empire, by modern historians, and should we discount these questions or statements, the truth that history has taught us impresses the failure of such policies. While a similar conceptual understanding as Quae res exportari non debeant existed, disconnected but still partially related, in regards to the exportation of certain commodities to external cities, states or populations in the Carolingian Empire of western Europe of this time period, the political stakes and young, still developing natures of the particular region and its varying societies, meant that the consequences of these policies for the Carolingian’s were less historically noteworthy or dramatic than their eastern counterparts.
While this Carolingian Empire would morph over the years, spawning the future European proto-nations of yesterday and polities of today, like France, Burgundy and the German states, Constantinople did not ever reclaim the lands that they lost to Islam in the seventh century, and would continue to lose territory until entirely usurped and finally overpowered by the Turkish Osman or Othman tribe, later Ottoman, by 1453.
Between these two Christian Empires, however, of Western and Eastern Europe, this practice and precedent of economic warfare, however primitive or advanced that these sanctions were at the time, would survive conceptually, to be worked primarily alongside, in an ancillary manner, the practical military applications of physical siege and barricade
Yet to be sure and to reiterate further, these tactics, as I’ve previously mentioned in other pieces, were more commonplace and effective during many of the centuries before those of a more recent era, say 200 to 400 years ago. This is partially because diplomatic organizational methods greatly improved after the hundreds of years that precede these more recent centuries, but also due to the further development of economic concepts and functionality that became more and more evidently important for states or conglomerate nations or kingdoms beginning around this time.
By the time that we arrive at the late 16th century, to the rivalry between England and what we now call Spain, under the rule of Philip II, these embargoing and sanctioning practices were becoming more and more important in the ever-greater nuance of foreign relations. While nations as we know them today were still, for the most part, unclear and fragmented dutchies, city-states, kingdoms, electorates or even simply locally held principalities, the function of capital was becoming more clear than ever before, while the means for creating it were expanding at hither too unseen rates into new, previously unknown realms of human life.
And so across the following several hundred years, sanctions, as we now call them, would become more readily pursued by the powerful, well-positioned nations and states of the time, in the hope of creating advantages for themselves and disadvantages for their neighbors. This would include a great number of places that would not officially do business with the Ottoman Empire that was able to shockingly topple the eastern Roman Empire in the middle of the 15th century; France would be the first exception when Francis I became friendly with Sulieman the Lawgiver (the Magnificent in Europe) after the former’s bid to become the Holy Roman Emperor failed.
France would find itself under pressure from nations like England or Spain, even the Imperial territories of the Holy Roman Empire, before they would, eventually themselves sanction cities and parts of the low countries in the centuries to come. Those folks of the low countries, known collectively at the time as the Netherlands, would also find themselves sanctioned by the Spanish first, as well as the English for a time in the upcoming years, before both England and the rapidly materializing Dutch state(s) allied with one another against Catholic domination across numerous conflicts. The list of events and conflicts that inspired the sanctions or embargos of the eras, that were subsequently placed upon these proto-nations, dutchies and city-states could take up an entire essay in itself, I assure you, and they all continued to build upon themselves, and upon the relationships, good or bad, that were being cultivated throughout these decades and centuries.
By the time that the American Revolution was occurring in the late 18th century, as well as the subsequent French Revolution, its fallout, and the unimaginably intricate Napoleonic Wars that would consume nearly 20 years of European energy, the tension that economic battle and maneuvering had created was wearing upon all of the most powerful of the continent, as well as many of their colonies. Napoleon’s Continental System, in my mind, embodies the sheer tension that had been growing in the lead-up to it.
Napoleon was hellbent on forcing the British to capitulate to him, even as he understood that the French Navy was no match for that of either Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger or his successors for the duration of the conflict, Lord Grenville, the Duke of Portland, Spencer Perceval, and the nearly-as-famous Lord Liverpool. After conquering nearly all of Europe, he created not only a metaphysical barrier of sanctions around the United Kingdom, but would physically barricade the continent and its coastline too. This, while representing the tension and timbre of the world that had led up to this moment, also, in my mind at least, represents the true start of the modern era of the economic sanction as an important tool and weapon in the endless struggle to subdue and opponent, no matter how long it might take.
Indeed, while Napoleon was scatterbrained, and became more so as his reign and development as a person and leader evolved, it is fairly clear to this writer that, were he and France to have non faltered, the empire would’ve attempted to starve the United Kingdom out of resources and partnerships until such a time as they appeared weak enough to defeat in some manner. That Napoleon failed to hold the Iberian Peninsula and also badly miscalculated Russia as an environment and as a people, helped to ensure that the plan vis-a-vis the UK was unable to be implemented as vigorously, and for as long, as the French would have wanted.
This took a toll on the French Empire, as did the multiple, ever-multiplying fronts that popped up across an unruly empire of unhappy polities of which were somehow all run by family members of the French Emperor. By the time that Paris was occupied by the many militaries of Europe in 1814, foreshadowing the fate that would await Berlin as the Second World War wound down, the gig was up as they say, and all long-term, as well as short-term, commitments or plans, were for naught.
With the defeat of France’s beloved Emperor from Corsica, two times mind you, the Concert of Europe, of which grew out of the Quadruple Alliance that had persisted between 1813 and late 1815, and which was chiefly devised by the famous Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria, while imperfect, especially in today’s age, created a cross tangle of secret and open alliances designed to ensure peace through a sort of balancing arrangement more openly secular than previous understandings across Europe had been up until that time. To this point, where once the Ottomans had been looked at as infidels, they now were appraised as a power that needed to be maintained, if only for the purpose of keeping territory, economic and practical resources, as well as power, away from other kingdoms, nations, and empires of the time.
Yet this balance was impossible to keep, especially as the 19th century’s zeal for colonies and land developed and evolved further. While a relative peace was found towards the latter end of that century, there had been minor wars and conflicts across the bulk of the century. None of it, however, was really as stable or paradigm-changing as those intellectuals of the time, such as Henry James, had imagined it to be; his sentiment to a friend the day after the British entered the Great War that began in 1914, expresses the naive feeling better than anything I could ever describe it.
“The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness…is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.” – Henry James
In many ways, the world that Henry James imagined was developing in the years before this Great War, or as we generally refer to it today as, the First World War, has still not woken up from the realization of which he articulated to a friend so many years ago. Not only has barbarism continued across the world, as it always has, perpetrated by those deemed civilized by those who feel themselves civilized, as well as those who wouldn’t even waste a moment considering the concept whatever, but sanctioning has become more and more popular too.
In the hope of avoiding war and bloodshed, in the hope that economic coercion could achieve more than traditional violence and conflict, sanctions have become used more and more frequently by the powerful nations of this earth. Whether from the League of Nations, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, modern China, or even the United Nations, these actions have come to be understood as nothing more than analogues of the very violence and suffering that they were thought of to avoid.
While the physical siege or barricade might starve the population of a city, state or nation, only for those inhabitants, which usually include a leader or opposing military force, to eventually have to give themselves up, the sanction is a device that actually spares the most powerful and important, even as nations and leaders attempt to target them specifically and particularly. This has been born out by document leaks, special reports and even the public acknowledgements of those that are actively being targeted.
To be sure, the world is coming to understand, finally, that still greater imagination will be necessary to find truly diplomatic, non-violent remedies for the disagreements of nations. To be sure, this process is one that has been ongoing for centuries, and while I am critical of the progress that has been made, it is only because the slow march of time has yielded a progress that still leaves many millions of people in positions of suffering and want, even as the powerful of the world proclaim their desire to end suffering as completely as possible.
Was this suffering something relatively new, then perhaps I could find a bit more empathy for those leaders of the world who continue to use ineffective methods of diplomacy to “solve” problems, yet it clearly is not. We have evidence from multiple eras of history, some dating back nearly 2500 years, that this alternative method of targeting resources and economic potentialities does not soften up any polity so as to be truly more malleable than it was beforehand. If anything, it further hardens them and atrophies a relationship that might otherwise be worked on and improved upon through open communication instead of isolation.
Should the modern world refuse to learn from those lessons imparted to us by leaders and civilizations of ancient and more recent history, it should not expect to develop much further beyond where it rests at the time that this essay was written. On the other hand, if it acts with bravery and creativity, it might manage to save humans across the world from unnecessary suffering, while at the same time, creating an internationally amicable and mutually and collectively accountable league or institution of arbitration. Whatever innovations are devised or imagined, they must simply differ from those that have, like sanctions, been attempted over the previous decades and centuries of human existence, for the sake of the future decades and centuries of human existence.