Napoleon Bonaparte may have said that an army marches on its stomach, but it is perhaps even truer that a military force marches, sails, flies, and attacks on the back of its nation’s economy. Cripple an enemy’s economy and not only will the stomachs of its fighting forces go empty, but commerce, trade, and innovation will grind to a halt, sapping the will of the people and depriving the leadership of most of the parts needed for the machinery of war.
Ancient civilizations recognized that economic warfare could destroy an adversary during conflict and weaken him during more peaceful times to keep him from becoming a rival. The catalyst for the Peloponnesian War nearly 2,500 years ago was an act of economic warfare. The Athenians imposed crippling economic sanctions against an ally of Sparta in order to sow dissension and weaken the coalition’s ability to threaten Athens and its allies. Recognizing the danger, Sparta responded with military action. The war culminated in a final act of economic warfare when Sparta (with Persia’s assistance) blockaded Athens and forced its surrender.1
Closer to our own time, Napoleon made wide use of economic aggression in hopes of shaping the battlefield to his advantage. In 1806, in an attempt to weaken England’s fighting forces by ruining the economy that undergirded its power, he issued the Berlin Decree declaring the British Isles to be in a state of blockade. While not as successful in that case—in fact, some scholars blame it for the ultimate ruin of France—the military strategy of using economic means to cripple the adversary has never fallen out of favor.2