In the aftermath of the First World War, military theorists across the West were desperate to fashion a path around the next war’s trenches. Engineers and tacticians spent that war tinkering away on machines that promised an escape from attrition: the gas shell, the U-boat, and the armored tank were all deployed with these hopes. All were found wanting. The aeroplane was not expected to have quite the same impact. The flying contraptions of the First World War were feather-like: they were both too light for heavy ordinance and too slim for bulky fuel storage. Few of these biplanes and triplanes could penetrate deep behind enemy lines. None carried a payload capable of making a serious dent in the nearer trench works. Thus the incipient air forces of the First World War were chiefly used to reconnoiter the static defense works of the enemy—or to shoot down the enemy’s reconnoiterers.1 But the airmen flying and dying in Europe’s gray skies dreamed of something more.
My comments here on WWI and the interwar developments broadly follow David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2009); 143-157; Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 11-69; Jonathan House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2001), 43-49, 68-70, 168-173; David Jordan et. al, Understanding Modern Warfare, 2nd ed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 250-266; Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 123-145.
Two developments allowed these dreams to take flight. Improvements in engine strength and aeronautics led to larger, longer ranged planes capable of carrying much heavier payloads at much higher altitudes. The concurrent creation of independent air arms allowed airmen to free themselves from the tasks that army officers most wanted planes to be used for—reconnaissance and close air support. The airman wanted to fight for the air. But what good was winning the air, exactly? Why should politicians and general staffs allow them to prioritize destroying an enemy air force over an enemy army? What plausible need was there for the institutional independence of the airborne?
The answer to these questions was “strategic bombing.”
The most important technology of the First World War was not the machine gun but the railroad: only the constant clacking of railcars loaded down with ammunition kept the perpetual conflict machine going.2 Supplying the railroads were thousands of factories and millions of factory workers; behind them, an elaborate consortium of merchants, bureaucrats, and central bankers pulling strings and passing memos to ensure that all the cogs were being paid on time. The men in the trenches were the just the cutting edge of an entire nation mobilized in a life-or-death fight to the finish. The aim of the airmen was to jump over this cutting edge and directly target the fragile inner gears that kept the machine in motion.
As Marc Ferro points out in his classic study of the war, Joffre was the first commander to realize this, and the French victory at the Battle of Marne can be attributed to this realization. See his The Great War, 1914-1918, trans. Nicole Stone (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 61.
With the power to leapfrog the tanks and the trenches, attrition would be relegated to the wars of the past. The fight of the future would be a short, sharp contest for the skies. The victor of that bout would then turn their focus to the cities of the enemy, unleashing a rain of fire that would force the enemy’s civilian populace into a panic—and the enemy government to surrender. I described these visions last year in an essay for Palladium:
The strategists… proposed that civilians unused to military discipline would meet the destruction of their cities with “panic on such a scale [that] their governments would have to abandon the war.” British strategist J.F.C. Fuller described their visions of future warfare vividly: “if a fleet of 500 aeroplanes” came to London, he wrote, it would “throw the whole city into a panic within half an hour of their arrival.” For several days, London would become “one vast raving Bedlam,” where “the hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, [and] the homeless will shriek for help.” As for the government, “it will be swept away by an avalanche of terror. Then will the enemy dictate his terms, which will be grasped at like a straw by a drowning man.” For elites, the disastrous element of this hypothetical panic would be the loss of political control over the masses.
This belief was soon entrenched in militaries across the world—at least those militaries that had no firsthand experience as a target of enemy bombing. Great Britain’s Marshal of the Royal Air Force channeled the new airpower consensus when he argued in 1937 that the Royal Air Force must reorient itself around air defense. There was no other defense against the potential “panic [caused] by indiscriminate attacks on London.” If Britain could not defeat enemy bombers before they released their payloads, he wrote, “we might possibly be defeated in a fortnight or less.” Similar beliefs drove the RAF’s offensive thinking. The purpose of the British bombing campaign of German cities and civilian targets, commanding officer Arthur Harris wrote in a 1943 memo to his subordinates at Bomber Command, was “the breakdown of morale at home and on the battlefront by fear.”3
Tanner Greer, “The Myth of Panic,” Palladium , 15 July 2021.
Just under a million Chinese, Japanese, British, and German civilians were killed when these theories were operationalized in the Second World War. In their book The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey Michaels describes the appeal of targeting civilian populations as bound up in with the belief—shared by both the airmen of both the Axis and the Allied powers—that a sharp distinction could be drawn between the “masses” and the “elites” of the enemy, and that fault for the war lay with the latter. To quote Freedman and Michaels:
On both sides during World War II there were assertions that the enemy elite in crucial ways was alienated from the masses, committed to the war for its own purposes but able to use the state apparatus to mobilize the masses to follow its lead. There was an obvious propaganda element in such assertions. At the same time, they reflected a widely held assumption that the government hold over the population was tenuous. In this sense the mass was the elites ‘Achilles heel’— a soft target that was also the foundation of the national effort. Aerial bombardment would jolt the populace into an awareness of the risks they were running for the government’s war policy. The relationship between the mass and elite would be disrupted: either the people would cease to do the bidding of the government through a generally lackluster approach to war projects or else, preferably, they would demand of the government that it sued for peace.4
Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey Michaels, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 4th ed (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 9.
The bombers’ theory of victory was premised on flawed psychology. Panic is a myth: human societies respond to sudden catastrophe not with disintegration, disorder, or abject terror, but with feats of sacrifice, a spirit of stoicism, and the strong sense of solidarity that comes only through shared suffering.5 Moreover, nationalism and the mass ideologies of liberalism and fascism were powerful forces in the lives of ordinary men and women. These civilians did not need to be manipulated or coerced into sacrificing for such causes—especially in the early stages of the conflict. Contra the expectations of the air theorists, the war united mass and elite more often than it divided them; in one nation after another, class alienation was subsumed under shared struggle against a deadly outside threat.
See footnote 3, also Lee Clarke, “Panic: Myth or Reality?,” Contexts, vol 1, iss 3, 21-26 ; Charles Fritz, “Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn From Disaster Studies,” University of Delaware Disaster Research Center: Historical and Comparative Research Series #10 (1996); Rebacca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).
The air theorists’ faulty psychology reflected the general biases of their class: as a rule modernist intellectuals represented the masses as an easily manipulated and mercurial mob.6 But this was not the theorists’ only problem. Freedman and Michaels identify several conceptual flaws in their theory of victory that would pose problems for the belligerents even if enemy masses had acted as mob-like as the strategic bombers had hoped:
John Carey, The Intellectuals And The Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (New York: Faber and Faber 2005).
- There was nothing stopping manipulative elites from using attacks on civilians to redirect anger away from themselves and towards a hated enemy.
- There was no reason to believe that “a change in attitude [among the civilian population] would automatically result in a change in behavior—and that this would take the form of activism rather than apathy.”
- There was no reason to believe that “the means would be available for mass activism to transform the government conduct of the war”—especially if said government was as coercive as its enemies portrayed it.7
Friedman and Michaels, Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 9.
These failures to think through the sticky points of strategy mattered. When combined with the flawed psychology informing the entire enterprise, strategic bombing could not attain its planned purpose. Bombs were dropped; governments did not fall. Cities were burnt to the ground; the war continued. Slowly the goal of strategic bombing changed from shock to pain. The trouble was that by the time strategic bombing began in earnest, pain was something the nations of World War II were already well acclimated to. The amount of pain these nations could absorb were staggering. Neither Japan nor Germany was pushed to the negotiation table by the firebombing of their cities. Only the singularly destructive power of the atom bomb was capable of doing that.
Later defenses of the air theorists would argue that the Allied strategic bombing campaigns contributed to the economic exhaustion of the Axis powers, and with that their eventual defeat—but this was a modest gain in light of the theorists’ original aims. Instead of making war by attrition obsolete, strategic bombing turned out to be nothing more than another instrument of attrition.
No one argues for old style strategic bombing anymore. It took several decades—including an utterly futile strategic bombing campaign over North Vietnam—for the U.S. military to fully realize the limits of strategic bombing. But the lessons have been learned. The strategies of the early air theorists, however, are not entirely dead. They live on through two more successful descendants. Men like John Warden and John Boyd would reimagine the structure and purpose of the air campaign in the 1980s, arguing that the collapse imagined by the early air theorists of the ‘30s was possible if the indiscriminate carpet bombing of World War II were replaced by surgical, precision strikes on enemy fuel depots, transportation nodes, communications hubs, command and control headquarters, intelligence centers, and surveillance assets.8 The goal of this bombing campaign was not pain but paralysis. The 1991 Gulf War is the classic demonstration of this sort of successful shock campaign.
Frans B Osinga, Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007); John Warden, The Air Campaign, rev. ed (Excel Press, 1999).
The second child of strategic bombing is nuclear strategy. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, military theorists have recognized that nuclear weapons are chiefly about the threat of pain. Atomic forces once did provide a shortcut between attrition and surrender. But the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings occurred when the United States possessed an atomic monopoly. That advantage was fleeting. By the mid ‘50s the situation had changed entirely—and both sides of the Cold War recognized that the amount of pain a nuclear stockpile could unleash loomed too large for practical use. For the last sixty years nuclear strategy has been less about unleashing pain on the enemy than on the deterrence posture and bargaining tactics needed to keep a nuclear enemy from unleashing pain on you.9
Friedman and Michaels, Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 83-129.
Today the closest analogue to the logic of the strategic bomber lies in the world of economics. I speak of sanctions. The parallels are plentiful. Neither trade embargos nor financial sanctions targeting entire banking systems are precision instruments. Just as the bombers of World War II did not have the means to distinguish civilian targets from military ones, so too do attacks on a foreign economy fall hardest on vulnerable civilians. We imagine that the pain these civilians experience will translate into political change—either a change in regime, or a change in regime behavior. But as was the case with strategic bombing, the mechanism by which civilian suffering leads to change is not made clear.
This is most clear in our recent sanctions campaign against the Russians. As with strategic bombing, the entire enterprise is premised on exploiting a psychological and social divide between ruler and ruled that might not exist. Like our grandfathers before us, we have a difficult time accepting that the everyday citizen of an authoritarian regime might be motivated to sacrifice their lives and living standards for abstract, nationalist ideals. As in World War II, we deny these civilians culpability for the war while simultaneously devising tactics that make them the first target of our fury.
Our campaign against the Russian economy even follows the traditional arc of the strategic bombing campaign: early hopes that the shock of sudden economic assault might upturn the Russian regime or war effort have faded. Now we tweet about the need to “pressure” Putin with maximum economic pain. The sanctions we impose will eventually have a material effect on the front—but only in the attritional and indirect fashion that firebombing Japanese cities degraded Japanese fighting capacity over time.
There are many plausible reasons one might inflict economic harm on an opposing country: pain might be used to try and compel a foreign power to change its behavior. Restrictions might be intended as a bargaining chip for the eventual war settlement negotiations. Or they might be kept in place to degrade the Russian economy over the long term, thus frustrating Russian attempts to modernize their military in the decades to come. The use of sanctions may be principally about credible deterrence—the threat of sanctions will only deter hostile powers from taking actions if they believe we are willing to accept the costs of employing economic weapons. We must act now to make those threats credible in the future.
It is not clear to me which, if any, of these rationales motivate our current sanctions regime. The popular press shows an extraordinary disregard for this question. New York Magazine asks “Are the Sanctions Against Russia Working?” without ever stating what work the sanctions should be doing (see also Michael McFaul’s argument that “sanctions are working, but need to work better” ). The Washington Post describes “why sanctions can be so effective” without telling us what they are effective at achieving. The New York Times reports a list of every sanction the United States has levied to “pressure” Russia without writing a line on what this pressure aims to accomplish.10
Michael McFaul, “The West Needs To Up Its Sanctions Game,” Washington Post (3 May 2022); Kevin Dugan, “Are the Sanctions Against Russia Working or Not?,” New York Magazine (9 April 2022); Andrew Van Dam, Youjin Shin, and Alyssa Fowers, “How Russia Will Feel the Sting of Western Sanctions,” Washington Post (24 March 2022); “How The World Is Seeking to Put Pressure on Russia,” New York Times, last updated 26 May 2022.
Biden officials are usually no better—take Janet Yellen’s explanation for the most recent round of sanctions:
Today we are further constricting Russia’s economy and access to services and technology it needs to conduct this unprovoked invasion,” said Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen. “Preventing Russia from accessing the United States’ valuable professional services increases the pressure on the Kremlin and cuts off its ability to evade sanctions imposed by the United States and our partners. We are also targeting Putin’s ability to generate revenue that enables his aggression, as well as entities and their leaders who support his destructive actions. 11
“U.S. Treasury Takes Sweeping Action Against Russia’s War Efforts,” Press Release, Department of the Treasury, 8 May 2022.
With the exception of the line about Russian government revenue, all Yellen tells us is that the sanctions will “increase pressure on the Kremlin,” and more effectively target “entities and leaders” who support Putin. How this pressure and targeting will translate to better outcomes for the United States, or for Ukraine, is not stated. The aims of our sanctions regime remain under theorized.
The aims matter. There is a difference between a sanction campaign that attempts to destroy an enemy industrial complex vs. a campaign aimed at compelling an enemy to change their aggressive behavior. In security parlance, that second sort of campaign is labeled coercive diplomacy. “Escalation is the currency of coercive diplomacy,” writes Richard Nephew in The Art of Sanctions. If your aim is “to inflict some measure of pain in order to change [the] policy” of an enemy state, then “opponents must believe that you are not only prepared to go further, but that doing so is inevitable without resolution of the underlying problem.” The goal of the sanctioning state is to offer a choice: “you can stop this now or suffer worse.”12
Richard Nephew, The Art of Sanctions: A View From the Field (New York: Columbia, 2017), 11, 50.
But in order to offer this choice, the sanction setters must also “define [the] minimum necessary remedial steps that the target state must take for pain to be removed.”13 Have we done this? Do we have any clear idea of what specific steps the Russians should take for the West to let up on the pain it now inflicts? On the other hand, can we credibly commit to escalate the pain we impose if Moscow does not change course? Or have we repeated the error of sanction’s regime against Iraq, where the sanctions were so onerous to begin with that the U.N. could neither negotiate easily nor threaten further?
ibid, 4. For more on this point, see 181. On Iraq, see pp. 25-26.
One could contrast the slap-dashery of the sanctions campaign with the carefully calibrated military and political response to Russia’s invasion. NATO will soon include Sweden and Finland inside the alliance, billions of dollars of equipment have been securely delivered to the Ukrainians, intelligence assets have been mobilized to supply the Ukrainians with information needed for battlefield victories, and a rotation of statesmen, politicians, and diplomats make their way to Kiev—and all this has been done without moving up the escalation ladder. We are less likely to be sucked into a general war with Russia today than we were in February. The Biden team should be credited with these accomplishments. With the exception of Biden’s unfortunate off-the-cuff speculation on the need to remove Putin from office a month back, the Biden team has hit the right diplomatic notes at each stage of the crisis. Their actions have been substantive—but also measured, proportional, and carefully planned. The purpose of their actions on the security front have been clearly and convincingly articulated. They possess a coherence that our sanctions regime against the Russians lacks.
Here is my hypothesis for this discrepancy: Washington has a stronger memory of Cold War style conflict bargaining. We know what nuclear brinkmanship looks like and have long theorized how to respond to it. We know what military coercion is; libraries have been written on the sort of response it demands. In the realms of diplomacy and hard power we have reduced the linkage of ends, ways, and means down to formula. This is not true when it comes to economic coercion.
Earlier I quoted from Lawrence Friedman and Jeffrey Michael’s The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. The book is a compendium of the debates theorists and practitioners have had about the nature of nuclear forces and nuclear posturing from 1945 to the present day. It is 804 pages long. It references hundreds of sources. A similar compendium of sanctions strategy—perhaps it would be titled The Evolution of Economic Coercion—could not be written. There simply is not a comparable wellspring of theory and practical experience to draw on.
The irony here is that sanctions—including banking sanctions—are actually older than nuclear weaponry. W.N. Mendlicott’s two volume The Economic Blockade, Nicholas Mulder’s The Economic Weapon, Nicholas Lambert’s Planning Armageddon, Edward Miller’s Bankrupting the Enemy, and Michael Barnhart’s Japan Prepares for Total War lay out the origins of modern economic coercion in the first decades of the 20th century. But our record of the decades that follow is spottier.
There is a small academic literature which is assesses whether sanctions are statistically correlated with successful compellence; there is also a literature estimating the economic effects that this or or that set of sanctions have had. But they are not large. More recently a new literature on “weaponized interdependence” has sprouted up, which sketches out positivist accounts of the newer methods of financial coercion. Juan Zarate’s memoir narrates his role inventing and implementing some of these new tools of financial coercion. To my knowledge, Richard Nephew’s The Art of Sanctions: A View From the Field is the only attempt to provide a prescriptive, user-oriented theory of economic coercion that we have.14
Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Shott, Kimberly Elliot, and Barbara Oegg, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd ed, is the most comprehensive catalog of trade sanctions activity between 1945 and 2010 and is the foundation of the literature on sanction’s effects. Robert Pape and David Baldwin’s debate in “Evaluating Economic Sanctions,” International Security 23, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 189–98, along with the Pape paper it was written in response to, set the terms of academic writing on sanctions for the last two decades. Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman’s “Weaponized Interdependence: How Global Economic Networks Shape State Coercion,” International Security 44, no. 1 (July 2019): 42–79, is the most important development in the literature since then. A recent edited volume on weaponized interdependence gives a sense for this research agenda’s growth: Daniel Drezner, Henry Farell, and Abaraham, The Uses and Abuses of Weaponized Interdependence (Washington DC: Brookings Institute Press, 2021). Worthwhile work has also been done in law journals on all of this, cf. Suzanne Katzenstein, “Dollar Unilateralism: The New Frontline of National Security,” Indiana Law Journal 90 (2015): 293–351.
So much is still lacking. We lack any systemic account of economic and financial coercion between the Second World War and the War on Terror. We lack detailed histories of economic coercion under Bush and Obama, when the new financial tools used by the Treasury Department to punish America’s enemies were invented (the world cries out for a biography of Stuart Levy—easily the most significant figure of this century that no one recognizes!).15 Most of all, we lack the Thomas Schelling and John Warden of economic coercion. Men like Schelling and Warden did not just write positivist, social scientific descriptions of strategic decision making, but provided tools for action. We need theorists who can detail the ways and means of a successful sanctions campaign. We need theorists who can lay out the principles of the strategic interaction in the coercive economic domain.
Robin Wright, “Stuart Levey’s War,” The New York Times, October 31, 2008, sec. Magazine,
In time this might happen. Richard Nephew’s book might be the first from many retired practitioners with practical experience waging economic warfare. Rising scholars like Nicholas Mulder, Erik Sand, Edourdo Saravalle, and Moana Ali might be up for the challenge of integrating their accounts with larger historical experience. But for the moment we grope in the dark, as the strategic bombers once did. We, like them, are condemned to inflict mass suffering because we lack the theory to do otherwise.