Economic Sanctions

George Washington, as portrayed on the $1 note.

Washington’s writings are replete with revelations about the hopes and aspirations for the country. Often, it is common for modern Americans to think that the Founding Fathers, despite all of their wisdom, could hardly imagine what the United States would become. For instance, now, the world is interconnected in a way as never before. One may be tempted to posit that the world has become a more complicated place, and our recent leaders have created new tactics to deal with geopolitical issues. One such tactic that one may imagine is newly created is the use of economic sanctions.

In fact, the Founding Fathers not only contemplated the use of economic sanctions, but sought for the implementation of sanctions in lieu of going to war. In George Washington’s letter to Lafayette, dated August 15, 1786, he noted “the probable influence that commerce may hereafter have on human manners and society in general,” hoping that it could lead to the demise of “the devastation and horrors of war.” Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of Washington, 28: 520. Nor was Washington alone in this belief. Far from it.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had consistently hoped for the same, aspiring for the day where American sanctions would divert wars but preserve American interests. Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, (New York, 2009), 138.

As is clear from modern history, economic sanctions have shown their utility, whether they be imposed for ideological differences, such as against Russia and former Soviet Union countries or imposed to discourage nuclear development and proliferation, such as against Iran. The use of economic sanctions is of course premised on America having a fundamental role in the world economy, which has certainly been the case in the last century and continuing until now.

Presently, the United States accounts for 23% of global gross domestic product and 12% of merchandise trade. The Economist, Vol. 417, No. 8958 (October 3, 2015). Having such a significant role in the world economy gives the United States the “soft power” of influencing other countries to act in accordance with America’s best interests, without America committing significant resources.

The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom and their grand hopes for the United States, hoped to see this day, where the sheer size and power of the economy would force others to bend to American interests. Their imagined use, or the threat of use, of economic sanctions has come to fruition. Just another instance of the prescience of the Founding Fathers.

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