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Weaponized Interdependence

Conflict in our time starts from the fact of deep integration. The different sides are so deeply connected through political, economic and technical links that no clear borders can be drawn and everyone is, in a way, present inside the enemy camp, and will try to weaken his forces from within. The image of conflict is no longer that of battling warriors but of species competing for the same ecosystem, struggling forces which are at the same time part of a single system.

And the weapons, just as in the case of competing species, tend to be insidious: false signalling [sic], mimicry, deception, poison and that old favourite of natural selection, sapping the energy of an adversary by directly accessing its vital flows or subverting its nervous system.”

Bruno Maçães, “The Dawn of Eurasia”

There was little economic contact between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War. By contrast, new state competitions often occur between states with deep economic entanglements. Further, between the USA and USSR the shared and justified fear of escalation to nuclear armageddon led to a shared understanding about the rules of engagement; today’s new state competitions are lower stakes (less clear roadmap to total war or nuclear exchange) and have hazier rules. The actors, capabilities, and networks involved are still not very well understood in the new world of globalized, entangled systems. In their article in Lawfare Farrell and Newman note given this ignorance and inexperience “States will probably make many mistakes over the next few years.”

Asymmetric network structures create the potential for ‘weaponized interdependence,’ in which some states are able to leverage interdependent relations to coerce others. Specifically, states with political authority over the central nodes in the international networked structure through which money, goods and information travel are uniquely positioned to impose costs on others. If they have appropriate domestic institutions, they can activate networks to gather information or choke off economic and information flows, discover and exploit vulnerabilities, compel policy change, and deter unwanted actions.

Farrell & Newman, “Weaponized Interdependence”

Many internet businesses have worked hard to leverage network effects to create moats for themselves, becoming large centralized networks for reasons that have nothing to do with statecraft; however, these levers of power are probably attractive to states that might have it within reach.

Two clear strategies the authors present for utilizing hubs in financial or information networks:

  • The Panopticon: Surveilling adversaries OR third parties upon which adversaries may depend. This is key information that can help military or political leaders determine where and how disruption can be most effective.
  • The Chokepoint: Cutting off adversaries or third parties from hub access. In the early 20th century, the UK had a near-monopoly on submarine cables used for communication, which it planned to use to disrupt the economies of its rivals. Germany was forced to attempt to innovate in wireless communications; in the early 21st century, the Trump administration backed out of the JCPOA, effectively sanctioning European entities that still trade with Iran; arguments are being made that Europe must build its own financial infrastructure in order to act independently in its own interest.

States will have heterogenous approaches to weaponizing interdependence. First, some networks have many hubs, and most states won’t have access to hubs anyway, meaning that different levels of inter-state or inter-organizational cooperation would be necessary. Oftentimes, we will still be talking about the USA, the EU, and China, when we talk about genuine network control. Second, different states have different legal/regulatory capacities to seize or influence those hubs- the USA does not enjoy the unilateral coercive power that China has. We can talk of some agents having, for example, some Panopticon capability but little chokepoint capacity over a network. Existing norms are also hard to change, so e.g. the EU’s data privacy laws would be difficult to radically change in order to weaponize particular information flows.

Authorities for and in the United States have often spoken of the transformative power of the internet and financial networks in benign and laissez-faire terms, and in the early internet years the US government yielded a significant amount of power to private actors. There was (and still is, mostly, and as far as I know) limited institutional capacity to seize these capabilities for direct use against adversaries. This does not mean that the USA does not enjoy what may turn out to be significant and enduring network hegemony through these large home-grown hubs, especially for panopticon purposes. On the other hand, America’s weaponized use of financial tools has pushed peripheral actors like Russia to seek alternative systems (thus their interest in blockchain for their Eurasian Economic Union), and America’s particular use of weaponized interdependence may lead disgruntled allies to build alternatives of their own as well, possibly eroding American power further.

More micro-reading

Livetweets of a conference with several players in this conceptual space:

A few interesting bits:

  • Energy and transit may have some weak angles for weaponized interdependence, but they might be overrated given our concerns about them.
  • For example, Gazprom is mostly for corruption, not statecraft; Belt and Road’s coercive capabilities, it is argued, are overblown.
  • Crypto-using states have to bring their assets home eventually, someone argues. That’s true for now?
  • No one has brought up weaponized migration
  • Mark Blythe is on a panel- I recently did a notes post on him, but here the tweetstorm cowers before unwritten climate comments he made. Interested to hear more.

On-topic twitter account: https://twitter.com/WorldWeaponized

Published in notes

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