Fall 2022
Money, Sanctions and International Law

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Sanctions. Artist: Peter Halley. Date: 1997. Photographed by: Larry Qualls. Acrylic, Day-Glo & metallic acrylic and Roll-a-tex on canvas.
“Sanctions.” Artist: Peter Halley. Date: 1997. Photographed by: Larry Qualls. Acrylic, Day-Glo & metallic acrylic and Roll-a-tex on canvas.

Money, Sanctions and International Law

Prompt for Discussion

Contributors:  Rawi Abdelal/Alexandra Vacroux, Charlotte Beaucillon, Ben Coates, Anna Gelpern, David Singh Grewal, Daniel Neilson, Stephen Park/Suzanne Katzenstein, Adam Tooze.

This Roundtable deals with questions about the system of international monetary production, international law, and politics that have come into sharp relief in the context of economic sanctions issued against Russia.

In response to an aggressive Russian war against Ukraine, the ‘West’, and most prominently, the US and EU, announced a slew of sanctions designed to cripple the Russian economy, and hurt the interests of a select number of its oligarchs.  This round of sanctions, marked most prominently by their design to cut off Russian banks from the system of international finance, is the most coordinated effort of the ‘West’ in decades. Two broad sets of questions arise.  First, what does the fact that western leaders chose to deploy the economic weapon chiefly in the financial form teach us about international politics? What undergirded the belief that cutting Russian banks from the SWIFT system would be more devastating than the traditional economic blockade or trade embargo?  Has the experience with Russia thus far undercut that belief?  Or, in keeping with trends in modern warfare, is the sanctions strategy now more targeted? If so, who does it target and whom does it spare? And finally, how should we theorize power in international politics, given possible divergences between states that exercise authority over the system of international monetary production, and those who have large nuclear arsenals?

Second, how do we conceptualize these sanctions at the level of international law – as tools of war, or as punishment for the breach of peace? If Putin’s assessment that these sanctions represent the ‘total war’ waged by the West is accurate, how should we assess the question of success? On the other hand, if they are understood as the collective decision of many states to punish the aggressive violation of international law, we enter a murkier territory of assessment. If ‘sanctions’ are the mode of enforcing liberal international law, how effective can they be against a state where domestic politics is structured to repudiate foundational assumptions of liberalism?  Do they assume that an economically rational people will overthrow authoritarian leadership after the sanctions cause enough pain? Or should we conceptualize the pressure in another way?  More theoretically, what myths about the normative character of international law must we reinforce, and what must we dismantle, to capture these sanctions against a permanent member of the Security Council, even rhetorically, within a framework of international law?

With these questions in mind, this roundtable aims to generate deeper insights about the ways in which matters of high international politics (war) have been reframed by the context of the modern transnational architecture of monetary production.


October 19, 2022
Sanctions and International Order 
Benjamin Coates, Wake Forest University

October 31, 2022
Are the West’s Sanctions on Russia Working?
Rawi Abdelal and Alexandra Vacroux, Harvard University 

December 5, 2022
International Law and 21st Century Financial Warfare
Suzanne Katzenstein, Duke University, and Stephen Park, University of Connecticut

December 20, 2022 
Sanctions and Decoupling After Neoliberalism
David Singh Grewal, UC Berkeley