'Economic Warfare' and 'Strategic Goods': A Conceptual Framework for Analyzing COCOM

Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Førland, Tor Egil (1991) 'Economic Warfare' and 'Strategic Goods': A Conceptual Framework for Analyzing COCOM, Journal of Peace Research 28(2): 191–204.

​The Western export control organization COCOM is often viewed as an example of `economic sanctions'. This is misleading, as the COCOM embargo was never intended to coerce Soviet leaders into changing their conduct, but to weaken the Soviet Union's military capabilities. COCOM is better understood as `economic warfare'. Analysts differ as to whether to base their definition of economic warfare on means employed or on ends sought after; the solution preferred here is to view economic warfare as a continuum of policies aiming to weaken the economic base of the adversary's power. `Strategic embargo', defined as restrictions on the export of strategic goods, is viewed as a means either to conduct economic warfare or to control the export of predominantly military items. Analysts building on the theory of comparative advantages and fungibility of resources define strategic goods as items which are relatively inefficient to produce domestically and needed for a given strategy. By importing such items, resources can be freed for more effective production. Not all inefficiently produced items are strategic: they should also contribute, directly or indirectly, to the adversary's military potential. Attempts to control strategic exports through the concept of contraband were built on this observation. In the world wars these efforts ended in the embargo of almost all goods, however, as very few commodities are irrelevant to war potential. Western Cold War perceptions of Soviet intentions have had it that the Kremlin has been bent on aggressive expansion. The logical policy to follow such an analysis would be a severance of trade relations with Eastern Europe. West European policy-makers refrained from this course, probably out of fear of political and economic repercussions. The logical policy to follow the current re-evaluation of Soviet intentions after the end of the Cold War would be to embargo only arms and items solely or predominantly useful for military purposes, but not to abolish COCOM as long as NATO exists.

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Tor Egil Førland

Tor Egil Førland