Economic warfare

The Oxford English Dictionary defines economic warfare or economic war as involving "an economic strategy based on the use of measures (e.g. blockade) of which the primary effect is to weaken the economy of another state".[1]

In military operations, economic warfare may reflect economic policy followed as a part of open or covert operations, cyber operations, information operations[2] during or preceding wartime. Economic warfare aims to capture or otherwise control the supply of critical economic resources so that the military and intelligence agencies can operate at full efficiency or deprive enemy forces of those resources so that they cannot function properly.

The concept of economic warfare is most applicable to conflict between nation states, especially in times of total war - which involves not only the armed forces of an enemy nation, but mobilization of that nation's entire economy towards the war effort. In such a situation, causing damage to the enemy's economy directly damages the enemy's ability to fight the war.

Policies and measures in economic warfare may include blockade, blacklisting, preclusive purchasing, rewards and the capturing or control of enemy assets or supply lines,[3] tariff discrimination, sanctions, the suspension of aid, the freezing of capital assets, the prohibition of investment and other capital flows, and expropriation.[4] Scorched earth policies have often been applied to prevent an advancing enemy from gaining resources.


American Civil War

Attacks on infrastructure

Union forces in the American Civil War had the challenge of occupying and controlling the 11 states of the Confederacy. It was a vast area – larger than Western Europe. The economy of the Confederate States of America proved surprisingly vulnerable.[5] Union forces were faced with guerrilla warfare supported by a large fraction of the Confederate population, providing food, horses, and hiding places for official and unofficial Confederate units.[6] Before the war, most passenger and freight traffic moved by water, through the river system or coastal ports. Travel became much more difficult during the war. The Union Navy took control of much of the seacoast, and the main rivers such as the Mississippi River and the Tennessee River, using the Mississippi River Squadron of powerful small gunboats. Land transportation was contested, as Confederate supporters tried to block shipments of munitions, reinforcements and supplies through West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, to Union forces to the south. Bridges were burned, railroad tracks torn up, telegraph lines were cut. Both sides did this, effectively ruining the infrastructure of the Confederacy.[7][8]

The Confederacy in 1861 had 297 towns and cities with a total population of 835,000 people; of these 162 with 681,000 people were at one point occupied by Union forces. In practically every case, infrastructure was damaged, and trade and economic activity was disrupted for a while. Eleven cities were severely damaged by war action, including Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond. The rate of damage in smaller towns was much lower, with severe damage to 45 out of a total of 830.[9]

Farms were in disrepair, and the prewar stock of horses, mules and cattle was much depleted; 40% of the South's livestock had been killed.[10] The South's farms were not highly mechanized, but the value of farm implements and machinery in the 1860 Census was $81 million and was reduced by 40% by 1870.[11] The transportation infrastructure lay in ruins, with little railroad or riverboat service available to move crops and animals to market.[12] Railroad mileage was located mostly in rural areas and over two-thirds of the South's rails, bridges, rail yards, repair shops and rolling stock were in areas reached by Union armies, which systematically destroyed what they could. Even in untouched areas, the lack of maintenance and repair, the absence of new equipment, the heavy over-use, and the relocation of equipment by the Confederates from remote areas to the war zone ensured the system would be ruined at war's end.[13]

The enormous cost of the Confederate war effort took a high toll on the South's economic infrastructure. The direct costs to the Confederacy in human capital, government expenditures, and physical destruction totaled perhaps $3.3 billion. By 1865, the Confederate dollar was worthless due to high inflation, and people in the South had to resort to bartering services for goods, or else use scarce Union dollars. With the emancipation of the southern slaves, the entire economy of the South had to be rebuilt. Having lost their enormous investment in slaves, white planters had minimal capital to pay freedmen workers to bring in crops. As a result, a system of sharecropping was developed where landowners broke up large plantations and rented small lots to the freedmen and their families. The main feature of the Southern economy changed from an elite minority of landed gentry slaveholders into a tenant farming agriculture system. Disruption of finance, trade and services, as well as transportation nodes, severely disrupted the prewar agricultural system, forcing Southerners to turn to barter, ersatz, and even spinning wheels. The entire region was impoverished for generations.[14]

World War I

The British used the greatly superior Royal Navy to tightly blockade Germany and closely monitor shipments to neutrals so they could not be transshipped into Germany. Germany could not find enough food—its younger farmers were all in the Army—and the desperate Germans were eating turnips by the winter of 1916-17.[15][16] US shipping was sometimes seized; Washington protested. The British paid monetary compensation so that the American protests would not escalate into serious trouble.[17]

World War II

Clear examples of economic warfare occurred during World War II when the Allied powers followed these policies to deprive the Axis economies of critical resources. The British Royal Navy again blockaded Germany, although it was much harder to do than in 1914.[18] The United States Navy, especially with submarines, cut off shipments of oil and food to Japan.

In turn, Germany attempted to damage the Allied war effort via submarine warfare—the sinking of transports ships carrying supplies, raw materials, and essential war-related items such as food and oil.[19]

Neutral countries continue to trade with both sides. The allies made a special effort to cut off sales to Germany of critical minerals such as wolfram (a tungsten ore; used to make steel armor) and mercury from Spain and Portugal.[20] Germany wanted Spain to enter the war but rejected its terms, which included control of French colonies in Africa. It was essential to keep Germany and Spain apart, so Britain used a carrot and stick approach. Britain provided oil and closely monitored Spain's export trade. It outbid Germany for the wolfram—the price soared and by 1943 wolfram was Spain's biggest export earner. Britain's cautious treatment of Spain brought it into conflict with more aggressive American policy. Washington cut off oil supplies in 1944, but then agreed with London's requests to resume oil shipments.[21][22] Portugal feared a German invasion, but when that became unlikely in 1944 it virtually joined the Allies.[23]

The economic war in the interpretation of the French School of Economic War

Christian Harbulot, director of the Economic Warfare School in Paris, provides an historical reconstruction of the economic balance of power between states. In this study, he demonstrates that the strategies that states put in place in order to increase their economic power – and their impact on the international balance of power – can only be interpreted through the concept of economic warfare.

1973–74 oil embargo

In 1973–1974, the Arab nations imposed an oil embargo against the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Japan and other industrialized nations which supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. The results included a sharp rise in oil prices.[24]

U.S. embargo against Cuba

The United States currently imposes a commercial, economic, and financial embargo against Cuba.[25][4]

U.S. sanctions against Iran

The United States applies economic, trade, scientific and military sanctions against Iran. In 2019, BBC reported that U.S. sanctions against Iran "have led to a sharp downturn in Iran's economy, pushing the value of its currency to record lows, quadrupling its annual inflation rate, driving away foreign investors, and triggering protests."[26]

See also


  1. "economic war - definition of economic war in English from the Oxford dictionary". Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  2. "Economic Information Warfare, Robert Deakin, QUT" (PDF). Retrieved 1 June 2003.
  3. David A. Baldwin, Economic Statecraft (Princeton UP, 1985).
  4. Shambaugh, George. "Economic warfare". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  5. Roger L. Ransom, "The economics of the Civil War." EH. net Encyclopedia 24 (2001) online.
  6. Anthony James Joes, America and guerrilla warfare (2015) pp 51-102.
  7. Daniel E. Sutherland, "Sideshow No Longer: A Historiographical Review of the Guerrilla War." Civil War History 46.1 (2000): 5-23.
  8. Daniel E. Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War (U of North Carolina Press, 2009). online
  9. Paul F. Paskoff, "Measures of War: A Quantitative Examination of the Civil War's Destructiveness in the Confederacy," Civil War History (2008) 54#1 pp 35–62 doi:10.1353/cwh.2008.0007
  10. McPherson, James M (1992). Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. Oxford University Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-19-507606-6.
  11. William B. Hesseltine, A History of the South, 1607–1936 (1936), pp. 573–574.
  12. John Samuel Ezell, The South since 1865 (1963), pp. 27–28.
  13. Jeffrey N. Lash, "Civil-War Irony-Confederate Commanders And The Destruction Of Southern Railways." Prologue-Quarterly Of The National Archives 25.1 (1993): 35-47.
  14. Claudia D. Goldin, and Frank D. Lewis, "The economic cost of the American Civil War: Estimates and implications." Journal of Economic History 35.2 (1975): 299-326. online
  15. Hans-Jürgen Teuteberg, "Food Provisioning on the German Home Front, 1914–1918." in Rachel Duffett and Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, eds. Food and War in Twentieth Century Europe (2016). 77-89.
  16. The alternative theories of Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (2012) are refuted by John W. Coogan, "The Short-War Illusion Resurrected: The Myth of Economic Warfare as the British Schlieffen Plan," Journal of Strategic Studies (2015) 38:7, 1045-1064, DOI: 10.1080/01402390.2015.1005451
  17. Charles Seymour, "American Neutrality: The Experience of 1914-1917," Foreign Affairs 14#1 (1935), pp. 26-36 online
  18. W.N. Medlicott, The economic blockade (1978).
  19. David Livingston Gordon, and Royden James Dangerfield, The Hidden Weapon: The Story of Economic Warfare (Harper, 1947).
  20. Leonard Caruana, and Hugh Rockoff, "A Wolfram in Sheep's Clothing: Economic Warfare in Spain, 1940–1944." Journal of Economic History 63.1 (2003): 100-126.
  21. Christian Leitz, "‘More carrot than stick’, British Economic Warfare and Spain, 1941–1944." Twentieth Century British History 9.2 (1998): 246-273.
  22. James W. Cortada, "Spain and the second world war." Journal of Contemporary History 5.4 (1970): 65-75.
  23. Donald G. Stevens, "World War II Economic Warfare: The United States, Britain, and Portuguese Wolfram." Historian 61.3 (1999): 539-556.
  24. "The Arab Oil Threat". The New York Times. November 23, 1973.
  25. "General Assembly Adopts Annual Resolution Calling for End to Embargo on Cuba, Soundly Rejects Amendments by United States". United Nations. 1 November 2018.
  26. "Iran oil: US to end sanctions exemptions for major importers". BBC News. April 22, 2019.

Further reading

  • Baldwin, David A. Economic Statecraft (Princeton UP, 1985).
  • Clark, J. Maurice et al. Readings in the Economics Of War (1918) 703pp; short excerpts from primary sources on a very wide rance of economic warfare topics online free
  • Dobson, Alan P. U.S. Economic Statecraft for Survival 1933–1991 (2003). excerpt
  • Duffett, Rachel, and Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, eds. Food and War in Twentieth Century Europe (2016)
  • Einzig, Paul. Economic Warfare 1939-1940 (1942) online free
  • Esno, Tyler. "Reagan’s Economic War on the Soviet Union," Diplomatic History (2018) 42#2 pp 281–304.
  • Christian Harbulot,La machine de guerre économique, Economica,Paris, 1992.
  • Christian Harbulot,La guerre économique, PUF,Paris, 2011
  • Christian Harbulot,Le manuel de l'intelligence économique, PUF,Paris, 2012
  • Christian Harbulo,Techniques offensives et guerre économique, éditions La Bourdonnaye,Paris, 2014.
  • Christian Harbulot,Le manuel de l'intelligence économique, comprendre la guerre économique, PUF,Paris, 2015
  • Christian Harbulot,L'art de la guerre economique,Editions Va Press,Versailles,2018
  • Jack, D. T. Studies in economic warfare (1940), covers Napoleonic wars, laws, WWI and 1939-40 online free online]
  • Jackson, Ian. The Economic Cold War: America, Britain and East-West Trade, 1948–63 (2001)
  • Joes, Anthony James. America and guerrilla warfare (2015); Covers nine major wars from the 1770s to the 21st century.
  • McDermott, John. "Total War and the Merchant State: Aspects of British Economic Warfare against Germany, 1914-16." Canadian Journal of History 21.1 (1986): 61-76.
  • Siney, Marion C. The Allied blockade of Germany, 1914-1916 (1957) online free
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