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The lessons of Pearl Harbor

American warships on fire in Pearl Harbor in 1941. MPI/Getty

As the war in Ukraine drags on, Western powers are “tightening the screws” on Vladimir Putin, says Hal Brands in Bloomberg. The next move appears to be a European ban on purchasing Russian oil – which is the “right policy”, given oil money is the one thing “keeping the Russian economy alive”. But our leaders need to be clear-eyed about the risks. “Revisionist powers have sometimes become most violent when campaigns of economic strangulation against them are about to succeed.” Just look at Japan before World War Two.

In the 1930s, Tokyo had embarked on a “military rampage”, seizing Manchuria, invading China and expanding into Southeast Asia. In 1940, the US began supporting the Chinese government financially, and the following year Franklin D Roosevelt instituted a full oil embargo. It was a “hammer blow” for Tokyo – Japan imported 90% of its gasoline from the US. But rather than concede, the Japanese upped the ante. They seized oil-rich colonies in Southeast Asia and then tried to wipe out the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Their leaders didn’t really think they could win. But, as the military strongman Hideki Tojo put it, sometimes “one must conjure up enough courage, close one’s eyes, and jump”. Like Japan, Russia has “options for making things worse” – Putin has regularly hinted at nuclear escalation. If he worries he might not survive this war, or Western sanctions, “his incentive to close his eyes and jump could be strong indeed”.