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Sanctions have been a predominantly American weapon since WWII

An outdoor board showing currency exchange rates of U.S. dollar against the Russian rouble in Saint Petersburg, Russia
REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
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The recent volley of US sanctions against Russia is part of broad international campaign to force Vladimir Putin to withdraw from Ukraine.

This kind of collective effort, however, is an exception. Since World War II, the US has been by far the world’s most prolific user of economic sanctions, and for much of that time, it has acted alone.

From 1950 to 2019, the US turned to sanctions far more often than other countries, according to a Quartz analysis of historic sanctions using the Global Sanctions Database.

The lackluster success rate for sanctions over this period has not deterred the US. Indeed, its willingness to throw its economic weight around to change other countries’ behavior has remained a constant since the 1950s.

That leverage has gotten stronger, as the latest sanctions against Russia attest.

A timeline of US sanctions

European countries, which tested economic sanctions during World War I in the form of blockades, envisioned them as a tool to prevent countries from going to war. They used them again before World War II, without much success.

But after the war, Europe was in no position to economically muscle others. The UN, meanwhile, was hamstrung by the Soviet Union’s veto power, making it hard to impose collective sanctions.

So the US took on the sanction mantle. “In 1945, the US controlled half of all world GDP, the highest ever in modern times,” said Benjamin Coates, a history professor at Wake Forest University. The country also saw itself as the supporter of the “free peoples…resisting attempted subjugation,” as former president Harry Truman put it.

In the following decades, the US accounted for the biggest share of sanctions, which it slapped on nations it saw as cozying up to the Soviet Union, like Cuba and Guatemala.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the world’s economies became more interdependent, increasing the leverage of sanctions. That’s why we see a spike in the number of sanctions in the 1990s, as well as in the shares of other players, like the EU and the UN, where post-Soviet Russia became more cooperative.

When the US started using financial sanctions

Under fire for the humanitarian devastation caused by sanctions in Iraq, the US had to shift its approach at the turn of this century. Policymakers started targeting bad actors’ financial assets to avoid harming civilians, something easily accomplished because of the dollar’s central role in the global economy. “This was a way for the US to exert a lot of unilateral power,” said Coates.

These so-called smart sanctions ballooned under the Obama and Trump administrations, which saw them as a way to show resolve, without troop deployments or the risk of public backlash. That’s behind much of the increase in US sanctions over the last decade.

The latest sanctions against Russia, most of them financial, are a culmination of that trend. Regardless of whether they change Putin’s mind, they are bound to shape the next 70 years of US sanctions.

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