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Sanctions and Appeasement: 1941 and 2014

There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

The executive director of the “realist” Center for the National Interest think tank is clearly opposed to Western sanctions on Russia. Instead, he says, the U.S. should be offering the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin some carrots along with the threat of a stick or two. He worries that that the constant attacks on Russian policy combined with President Obama’s lack of credibility will not only not deter Putin from more adventurism; he thinks it might actually impel Moscow to do the unthinkable and launch invasions of former Soviet republics that are today NATO allies of the U.S. like the Baltic states.

Saunders is right that no matter what policy the administration pursues, without Russia believing that Obama is serious about stopping them, nothing will work. In that sense, sanctions may well ultimately fail.

But Saunders’ argument that the only applicable precedent for the standoff with Russia today is the failed attempt by the United States to force Japan to cease its campaign of aggression in Asia is completely off the mark.

Saunders is correct that the U.S.-Japan dispute involved miscalculations on both sides. President Franklin Roosevelt feared that Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific would ultimately end in armed conflict. Yet the oil embargo imposed on the Japanese Empire and the seizure of their assets in the U.S. was an attempt to give Tokyo a chance to back down before it was too late. Rather than seizing an opportunity for negotiations that might have provided them with a chance to avoid a suicidal war, Japanese militarists saw the sanctions as a challenge to their legitimacy that must be met with further aggression. Hence, rather than slow down the path to war, the embargo may have speeded it up.

From this, Saunders draws the lesson that great powers can’t be deterred by economic sanctions, only incited to up the ante in a game of international poker. The Japanese wrongly thought Roosevelt was bluffing and believed the U.S. was too materialistic and spiritually weak to wage a war of annihilation against them. Perhaps, similarly, the Russians today believe, not without some justification, that the Obama administration will ultimately back down if push comes to shove. The fear that Iran has the same evaluation of Obama’s character and fortitude makes the current nuclear negotiations with Tehran all the more perilous.

But the analogy with Japan gives Putin and Russia too much credit. Japan was vulnerable to economic sanctions because of its lack of national resources and dependence on oil imports. But it was also an expanding empire with a crack military machine whose hunger for great power status and hemispheric hegemony was such that it could not be stopped by negotiations or bought off. It had been waging an active genocidal war of aggression in China since 1937 and its occupation of Indochina (today’s Vietnam) illustrated its intentions to expand even further. There was never any chance that anything short of war would ever force Japan to give up its Chinese conquests or their dream of Pacific domination.

By contrast, as dangerous as Putin might be, his nation is a shell of a once formidable empire with a ramshackle military that struggled to deal with Chechen rebels and is now flummoxed by the ragtag army opposing them in eastern Ukraine. Though it stole a march on the Ukrainians and seized Crimea with ease, the Russians appear to be in retreat with little sign that they would dare risk a conflict with the West by attacking members of NATO. Putin would like to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. But if the U.S. and its European allies were sufficiently determined to punish Russia—something that is still in doubt even after the atrocity of the shooting down of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine by Russian loyalists—Moscow would be put in a difficult spot with little alternative but to back down.

But Saunders, stuck as he is in his realist mindset, seems to miss a broader point about the arc of American foreign policy than just the narrow question of the utility of sanctions. The “proud empire” of Japan that the U.S. sought to deter was an ally of Nazi Germany and already guilty of unimaginable atrocities when sanctions were imposed on them. A U.S. deal that would have left them in possession of China was not an option, even for an American government that would have preferred not to fight. The notion of a reasonable accommodation between the U.S. and Japan was not merely far-fetched but immoral, something that Roosevelt, though hopeful of staying out of the war that had already begun in Europe and Asia, seemed to understand. Just as appeasement of Japan’s ally Germany failed, so, too, would the course of action that Saunders seems to think would have been a good idea.

America’s embrace of sanctions against nations like Japan and Russia is a function of its values and interests, not merely a calculated effort to pursue a great power agenda. Feeding the appetite of nations like Japan and Russia for small nations never works. While some policymakers are too glib about using World War Two-era analogies about the dangers of appeasement, rethinking the virtues of such a discreditable course of action is even more misguided.

Saunders’ fears of a too-forceful use of American economic power is not only misplaced with respect to Russia; the idea that the goal of these confrontations is splitting the difference with aggressors is his real mistake. Offering Japan enough carrots in order to avoid an attack on U.S. territories would have been a disaster. The same is true of any misguided effort to buy off Putin.

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