Scholars and strategists have long debated whether cutting off an opponent’s trade is an effective strategy in war. In this debate, success or failure has usually been judged based on whether the state subjected to economic isolation surrenders without being defeated on the battlefield. This approach, however, has missed a more important way in which economic isolation affects its target: strategy. Economic isolation constrains a state’s strategic choices and leaves its leaders to choose from the remaining options, which are almost always riskier. As analyses of German decision-making in World Wars I and II demonstrate, these riskier strategies often involve escalating the conflict at hand.
How does a state’s access to the international economy affect its strategy to prevail in war? This question bears on some of the most important international challenges facing the United States today. Economic sanctions have become a frequent tool in American foreign policy — witness the current campaigns of “maximum pressure” against Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela as well as increased economic sanctions against Russia and the return of the embargo against Cuba.1 The United States would almost certainly expand such measures as part of its strategy were one of these disputes to escalate into open conflict. More importantly, perhaps, a strategy of economic isolation is already being explicitly discussed as an option in the event of a war between the United States and China. China is highly integrated into the international economy, and some U.S. strategists argue that blocking the Strait of Malacca to disrupt China’s supply of oil would be a good alternative to the “AirSea Battle” concept, whose advocates call for strikes against sensors and long-range weapons located in mainland China to reduce threats to U.S. forces in the region at the start of a conflict.2 On the other hand, not all potential U.S. adversaries are so well connected to the international economy. North Korea, for example, maintains a national ideology of self-sufficiency and does its best to isolate itself from the world, to avoid being vulnerable to such maneuverings. If the United States found itself at war with either of these countries, what would a strategy of economic isolation accomplish? Would it lead to victory?
The traditional scholarly answer is “no”: Industrial economies are sufficiently robust and economic isolation is sufficiently difficult such that states facing economic isolation can easily adapt, except in extraordinary circumstances.3 This article challenges that claim. While economic isolation alone may not lead directly to defeat, it places important constraints on a power’s strategic decision-making by limiting the options that are available. Economically isolated powers tend to pursue riskier strategies, often launching attacks that expand the conflict at hand. These broader conflicts then frequently end in defeat. Moreover, this effect holds regardless of a state’s prewar level of economic integration.
In the first section of this article, I begin by reviewing the debate surrounding the potential U.S. strategies in the event of a conflict with China, before discussing the principal existing arguments about how prewar economic integration affects wars and the effects of economic isolation during war. In section two, I develop a theory of how economic isolation leads to risky decision-making, identifying two ways in which economic isolation impacts a country’s decision-makers as well as two types of obviously risky strategies. I briefly discuss case selection before exploring two critical examples of economic isolation in sections three and four: Germany in World Wars I and II. I conclude the article with a discussion of the relevance of these two cases today and the implications of my analysis.
Source: Read full article on Texas National Security Review.