I’ve said several times (TiB 50
) that I think “weaponised interdependence
” (WI) is one of the most important ideas for understanding contemporary geopolitics. The core idea is that states can exploit their control over the chokepoints of global economic networks to achieve their strategic goals. Good examples include the US’s use of SWIFT and of the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency in their actions against Russia (and previously Iran). But WI has its limitations. Lars Gjesvik has a great new article
that looks at how private ownership of global infrastructure can limit the ability of even very powerful states to weaponise it.
He explores this through the lens of transatlantic submarine cables
- a strategically important infrastructure that has evolved rapidly over the last two decades. Gjesvik explains that modern cables were largely built in two waves - one in the late 1990s, primarily by telcos and with the US and UK as the two main hubs; the other since 2015, primarily by the big internet companies, and more geographically distributed. He argues that before the second wave, the US and the UK were successful in “weaponising” their control of this infrastructure (above all for signals intelligence - e.g., via PRISM
), but since then their ability to do so has been more limited. Why? Gjesvik identifies four factors that he argues mediate states’ ability to achieve their goals through WI.
First, power asymmetries
: Google, Facebook et al are much more powerful than the telcos. Second, alignment of values
: the telcos were often national champions or even partially state owned, which made collaboration easier. Third, materiality of the network
(or what we might call here the “stubborn persistence of the physical
”): because cables are today less geographically concentrated, the chokepoints are less powerful. And fourth, legitimacy
: claims to regulate things physically located in your country tend to be more compelling than extra-territorial claims (Snowdon
probably didn’t help either). I believe both WI and clashes between states and corporations are going to be increasingly important, so I expect this will a useful framework to keep in mind.