Christian Harbulot, director of the Economic Warfare School in Paris, provides an historical reconstruction of the economic balance of power between states. In this study, he demonstrates that the strategies that states put in place in order to increase their economic power – and their impact on the international balance of power – can only be interpreted through the concept of economic warfare.
According to Harbulot, the true goal of these economic clashes has so far been hidden. Therefore, there is no academic discussion or understanding of this topic that is capable of providing an effective reading of international relations. There are many factors that will potentially trigger tensions between states in the future: the crisis of liberal principles promoting a positive view of economic development and globalization as a tool for establishing peace between nations; gradual resource depletion; energy issues; challenges to the Western economic leadership posed by the process of deindustrialization and the development ambitions of emerging economies.
This perspective sheds light on the importance of recognizing the legitimacy of the concept of economic warfare and lay the theoretical foundations to analyze the economic strategies states adopt to increase their power. In Harbulot’s opinion, the principles of economic warfare can be historically retraced in the fight for survival and for the control of resources and territories. The first example of economic warfare in history is the incursions of the nomad populations aimed at raiding the wealth of sedentary populations. In modern times, the economic warfare increased its spatial scope so that maritime and terrestrial commercial routes became the theater of continuous clashes for the control of some specific resources.
At that time, maritime piracy became an effective tool to exert power. In fact, the British pirates – that were attracted by trade routes between Europe, Africa and America, became the ancestors of the British Royal Navy. Both at sea and on the ground, the economic dimension became a key feature in military and diplomatic operations. By the end of the Middle Age, some kings used the economic power in order to support their military actions. An example of this is the war between the French king Louis XI and Charles I of Bourgogne: the French king commanded his fleet to block corn and herrings supplies to the Flanders (in the kingdom of Bourgogne), convinced the bankers to stop funding his rival and encouraged the hosting of fairs in Lyon in order to reduce the money flux to Geneva, which at the time was the trade hub between Bourgogne, Germany, and Italy.
In the 17th century, the newly created states considered the security of their territory (cities and countryside) as a strategic priority. In this time, the Seven United Provinces of the North created the first model of sanctuary area, meaning the securitization of a given territory from any kind of attack from the enemy. A net of fortresses and natural barriers like rivers was meant to protect the Provinces from the attacks coming from Spain. Similarly, Vauban’s France built up fortifications along the frontiers of the newly acquired territories in the north. This defense system led to the concept of “pré-carré” (squared field) that made reference to the geometric shape coming out from the disposition of these fortifications on the map that looked like a garden, divided in different flowerbeds. From then, this term evolved to nowadays’ meaning of “external sphere of influence” from the diplomatic, military and economic point of view. In order to guarantee their territorial integrity, states also exploited the military capabilities of an allied state in exchange of economic concessions. Portugal, for instance, signed an alliance treaty with the United Kingdom in 1373 in order to get its protection against Spain’s attempt to incorporate it. If at the very beginning this alliance was set up between pairs, later on it became the framework for the establishment of British protectorate over Portugal, so that for centuries the UK offered military protection in return of financial and commercial control over Portugal. Economic warfare has always been a feature of each stage of colonization, from the Roman Empire to the maritime empires established in the 16th century that gradually acquired control of natural resources and trade routes. Human trafficking is the most evident example of how economic interest impacts power relationships. In this regard, the colonization process of North America clearly shows the overlapping of conflicting dynamics of different economic interests.
The exploitation of American settlers in cotton plantations as well as the fiscal policy and the trade restrictions applied, led Great Britain and its colonies to war. Harbulot mentions this historical case to show how the control of trade routes is a key feature of economic clashes between states. In the 16th century, before becoming an Empire built up on its maritime trade power, Great Britain was a poor country with no military power. At that time, Spain and Portugal dominated the sea routes. When the British decided to became a maritime power, they started with piracy actions threatening the superiority of the enemies’ fleets.
Under the reign of Elizabeth I, the British pirates started pillaging Spanish and Portuguese ships carrying precious metals from South America. Afterwards, the British started expanding their trade networks to Turkey, Russia, the Caribbean and Asia. Finally, in 1707 the birth of Great Britain out of the fusion between Reign of Scotland with the Reign of England, led to the creation of one of the greatest free trade area of the time and to the first model of mass consumption in the world. During the 17th century, the British tried to exploit the great trade potential of British territories overseas and established the East India Company that paved the way to the colonization of India.
The colonial aspirations of Great Britain led to a military escalation that was necessary to defeat local sovereigns opposing the British hegemony, and to face the rivalry with other European powers. Great Britain went to war with the Netherlands (1652-1784) to win the control of the main trade routes with their colonies, which was threatened by the dominant position of the Dutch company of East India. Again, the necessity of securing maritime routes, led the British Empire to many other wars like Afghanistan (1839 -1842 and 1878 -1880) in light of contrasting Russia’s expansionism in India; the opium war with Chinese Empire (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) in order to force the Qing dynasty to open up to world trade; the occupation of Egypt in order to control the strategic platform in Cairo; the Boer wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) to ensure strategic control over Cape Town. After taking into account the British case as an example of how the ability to control sea routes is a key asset in geostrategic clashes, Harbulot analyzes the overlapping between war and economics that became evident for the first time during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1792 – 1815).
William Pitt – British Prime Minister at the time – tried to preserve Great Britain’s predominant position in international trade. His strategy aimed at controlling the sea routes and establishing an indisputable maritime advantage through the Royal Navy – which was the only British force that could compete with France’s military capacity. The British military fleet was therefore empowered with 105 ships, whereas the French one could count on only 70. While Prussia – Great Britain’s ally – was able to contain France and its allies on the continent, the British fleet weakened France’s economic potential through preventing its access to the sea routes. For the first time in history, the economic warfare became global and delineated two blocks: on the one hand, Great Britain put in place a maritime block against France; on the other hand France locked the access to British exports to Europe.
The original feature of these two blocks consisted in the fact that both states wanted to adopt economic retaliation strategies to win the conflict. For example, Russia’s withdrawal from Napoleon’s continental block triggered Napoleon’s Russian campaign, that had disgraceful consequences for the French Emperor. The overlapping between traditional and economic warfare paved the way to some mechanism for economic warfare that were kept in place even in peacetime. By the end of the 18th century, France’s industry resulted to be significantly weakened by the military efforts carried on during the revolutionary wars. Napoleon then chose the scientist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, to reform the French industry and protect it from Great Britain’s trade threats.
In addition, Napoleon instructed the National Industry Encouragement Society to detect the strength and the weaknesses of the British economy: France was willing to do everything in its power in order to fill the twenty-year gap with the British, even smuggling machineries that were illegally purchased or stolen in Great Britain. In the framework of the continental block imposed by France, Napoleon consolidated this system of economic defense through a militarization of the custom check-points (whose officers in 1815 represented 20% administrative personnel of France besides the army). Despite the costs of the wars with France, Great Britain managed to keep its advantages: the industrial revolution that had started long before compared to the rest of the continent made British products more competitive; British colonies ensured a significant supply of raw materials and British naval supremacy allowed the control of the main sea routes.
It was paramount for London to reduce trade barriers in order to export its products to Europe, therefore the British government adopted the first techniques of economic warfare peacetime. In particular, a commission led by the political economist John Bowring was instructed to negotiate with French authorities for the opening up of trade. What Bowring did in reality, was lobbying for the creation of groups supporting British liberal trade in France and using the local press to influence public opinion that was the main tool to reach this goal. It was only with WWI, though, that the principles of economic warfare were formalized.
Already in 1914, in light of the likely long duration of the conflict, the powers involved elaborated the typical practices of the economic warfare: i.e. reducing the availability of materials for the enemy’s army, and raw materials for its industry – with an extremely negative impact on the population – blocking trade and finance flows that directly hit the enemy’s food supplies. In addition, over the course of the conflict, some specific structures dedicated to the economic warfare were created. In 1915, the French Ministry of War set up a Control Section responsible for collecting necessary information to support economic warfare. Similarly, Great Britain created an independent organization, the War Trade Intelligence Department, attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1916, Italy set up a special office entrusted with collecting and checking economic news, attached to the Ministry of War.
These structures were coordinated by an Inter-allied office located in Paris. During the conflict, economic warfare actions became more and more targeted against international objectives and supported by military operations, which became more sophisticated thanks to the development of aviation technologies. However, in 1918 there was no general consensus between France, Great Britain and the United States about the goals to reach. Paris wanted to use economic warfare to force Germany to surrender and accept international control on its possession of raw materials, so that France could still have the upper hand. Washington was aware of the leverage the economic warfare could play to stop Germany’s economic expansion and get to a peace treaty, however its main interest was to stress the liberal principles and play a dominant role in international trade; London aligned itself with the United States while keeping its focus on its economic interests. As the conflict ended, the structures dedicated to economic warfare were dismissed but were restored after the break out of WWII. In 1939, Great Britain created an actual Ministry for Economic Warfare, with similar tasks of the dismissed War Trade Intelligence Department.
In June 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill set up a new service called Special Operations Executive – that was basically the offensive component of the Ministry of Economic Warfare – and entrusted it to conduct sabotage operations on the continent and fuel uprisings in the territories occupied by the Germans. At this stage, the interaction between war and economy shed light on the problems related to the economic warfare. However, in the second half of the 20th century, this topic was overshadowed. On the one hand, during the Cold War, Western bloc countries were keen to cover the economic disparities between them and powered their ideological projection against the Soviet bloc. On the other hand, the United States – the new global superpower – elaborated their version of the British strategy of influence and promoted the free trade theories and competition as the main model for the Western world economy.
According to Harbulot, an effective analysis of the economic warfare must consider the evolution of the methods states used to conquer territories, increase their trade and power. Over the 19th century, states preferred to conquer markets (through economic warfare) rather than territories (through traditional warfare) in order to acquire more influence on the international level. Harbulot identifies the cases of Japan and Germany because of the importance these states gave to the seek for a “vital space”, to be conquered through territorial acquisition and trade influence. In 1854 U.S. commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open up its ports to Western powers. However, in 1867 Mutsuhito ascended the throne of Japan and decided to reverse the established balance of power. His modernization policies aimed at filling the gap with major Western economies and hinder their leadership.
The Meiji Restoration – whose slogan was “Enrich the country, strengthen the military” – was framed in a policy aimed at acquiring a comprehensive expertise in many fields, following the example of the leading countries in a given sector. Japan also pursued an expansionistic policy through the annexation of Korea and claimed a trade protection on China – that threatened the United States’ interests in developing business ties with the country. Japan’s main goal was to establish a sphere of regional co-prosperity with East Asia countries, occupied by the imperial army. Therefore, the Japanese empire occupied Manchuria and founded the state of Manchukuo, a classic example of the reproduction of military systems invented by the Portuguese and then imitated by the Dutch and the British. The Japanese combined the model of the Company of India with the one of the American railroads to create the Railroad Company of Manchuria. This latter was in charge of the administration of Manchukuo and of the management of the Japanese occupation troops; it possessed its own police forces, a central bank and even a merchant fleet. The State of Manchukuo was test site for the new approach to increase state power through the economy.
The case of Germany is quite different. Over the course of its history, Germany constantly sought to acquire new territories to guarantee food supplies for its population, as German lands were covered with forests and difficult for farming. By the end of the Middle Ages, German settlers started colonizing the lands of East Bavaria. While acquiring new territories was not always a peaceful process because of the resistance of the local population, the expansion via sea was far easier. The creation of the Hanseatic League allowed Germany to peacefully establish its dominion on the Polish shores between 16th and 17th centuries. The battles conducted by the Hohenzollern family completed the creation of a sphere of influence at the eastern borders of Germany. The debate around the strategic advantages of territorial versus trade expansion was very popular in the politics of the Second Reich. The unification of Germany pursued by Otto von Bismarck allowed the country to acquire more influence on the world stage. However, the increasing in its power at the end of 19th century was not only boosted by the changes brought by the industrial era, but also by the geostrategic competition with the British and French Empire: the German strategic core consisted in the “Konzern” (associations of both vertically and horizontally integrated enterprises), in banks and insurance companies that challenged their European competitors.
The debate on how to handle a hypothetical geo-economic success gained momentum at the end of WWI. As a result, in 1915 Samuel Herzog published in Germany “German economic warfare plan”, which could be considered as a draft handbook of economic warfare.
In his book, Herzog listed the economic tools that States could oppose to the Reich’s enemies. Some of them are helpful to influence or control the exports during the economic warfare; some others could ensure Germany’s success against the passive resistance of defeated countries. According to the author, in order to preserve Germany’s economic assets, it is necessary for the state to exercise its control over industries that have kept the upper hand against foreign countries. In addition, the state should protect private initiative in a way that it does not conflict with national economic interests.
Harbulot focuses then on the dissimulation of economic warfare: firstly, the economic dimension acquired a great prominence in the balance of power among individuals, groups and states; secondly, he underlined the high interdependence between the economic strength and the political and military power. Nevertheless, the historic phenomenon of economic warfare has always been denied, because the political justifications for economic expansions have always been perceived as aggressive and illegal.
The negative perception of the economic war as a consequence of cupidity is grounded on Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas’ just war theory. According to this theory, States are pushed to hide their war plans for economic purposes and to proclaim their intention to spread religions, to stimulate growth of developing countries and, more recently, to promote democracy. This dissimulation attitude causes the distortion of the balance of power.
It is worth noticing that international military organisations, such as NATO, have not developed a proper economic warfare doctrine yet, because of conflicting interests among member states.
Some examples of the dissimulation of economic warfare are the domination strategies implemented by colonial empires, as well as recovery strategies of countries aiming at avoiding colonisation or at increasing their power.
Firstly, domination was dissimulated by the pretext to conquer and impose one’s religion to colonised people. Secondly, the doctrine of liberalism and the idea of increasing power through trade expansion stimulated free trade and the opening of new markets. All these factors became the justification to the foundation of new empires.
Any commercial achievement could lead into an economic warfare, which could represent a coercive instrument to use against countries that try to close their market. As to some examples, the United Kingdom implemented its “gunboat diplomacy”, in order to export its products in the Middle East and East Asia markets and in 1840-41 the Royal Navy closed the Alexandrian harbour. Moreover, during the Opium Wars, the Western countries forced an “independent country” to participate in the drug trade.
With the Opium Wars, the strategy of “economic aggression” became evident. As a result, countries such as Japan were forced to modify their plan and to implement a significant economic penetration policy (represented by the above-mentioned slogan “enrich the country, strengthen the military”) with the aim of reducing disparities with Western countries. When, a century later, at the end of ‘80s, Japan became the world’s second largest economy, the USA and Europe denounced its expansionism, as well as its economic trade’s strategy. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) even published a report on the “Japanese propaganda” aiming at hiding the protectionist measures taken by the US against other market economies, in violation of the principles of economic liberalism.
As for the recovery strategies, they focus on basic objectives and are strongly linked to geographic and cultural background. Due to its geographical morphology, Japan developed a solid maritime infrastructure, along with an industrial economy and became a model for South Korea, India, Brazil and China. In particular, South Korea opted for shipbuilding and for the creation of large private industrial conglomerates.
On the contrary, India chose to become a world leader in IT sector and pursued an education reform in order to improve science teaching. Moreover, the city of Bangalore, thanks to its favourable weather conditions, was transformed into a high-tech capital.
Brazil instead based its recovery strategy on the energetic sector, with the aim of becoming the regional leader in this field. Besides, Brazil used its soft power to claim the role of world’s sustainable development power due to its wide-scale production of electric power.
Finally, the Chinese recovery strategy was grounded on market opening, with the creation of special economic zones and the implementation of measures to attract foreign investments.
However China, as Japan did, developed an aggressive plan of foreign markets’ penetration, with the strong opposition of the United States. This triggered a debate around economic warfare in the Western world. In particular, China was deemed to become member of “normative” international organisation only in order to impose its own rules. As a matter of fact, reactions caused to a sceptic attitude against China could be considered as economic conflicts. This is true for protectionist measures on photovoltaic technologies taken by the Obama administration, as well as for the decision of the Australian government to refuse the participation of the Chinese company Minmetal in the Australian firm Oz Metal.
The paradigm of economic warfare changed after the Second World War, when the USA became the world geo-political, military and trade leader. Along with coercive methods of colonial empires, the USA expressed their economic power by pursuing a new strategy. In particular, in order to prevail over an allied country in the economic and cultural field, the United States established themselves as a superpower and managed to hold a stronger position in the hierarchy of the values, rules and arbitrages of market economy. As a result, the US imposed in peacetime to Western countries a “silent practice” of economic warfare.
Nevertheless, the availability of new markets after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the aggressive recovery strategies implemented by emerging economies modified the current stability of international economic relations. Furthermore, a growing competition, stemming from the two above-mentioned factors, pushed the USA to take into account the need of a “real” economic war. Asia’s increasing power and the EU internal market, actually undermined the supremacy that the USA had acquired by the end of WWII.
These changes in the balance of power highlight the new paradigm of the economic warfare: the relationship between ally and enemy is replaced by a direct or indirect conflict between two enemies.
Despite the fact that economic warfare was usually characterised by direct conflicts, globalisation has modified the world economic framework, both for emerging economies and developed countries.
States’ strategic interests diverge and become more and more complex. Therefore, a military or geo-political concern could be in contrast with an economic one, and vice versa. As a result, two countries could conclude a military alliance and fight for economic reasons at the same time.
Therefore, these new balances of power among States, where competition and cooperation co-exist, show that the current economic relationships are weaker than in the past. However, these changes do not reduce conflicts among states. During the ‘90s, the USA, as world leader, implemented a policy of economic security, started in the ‘70s with the introduction of Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act (that enabled the country to oppose trade barriers penalizing its exports) and Section 301 of the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act (that enabled the country to denounce unfair practices and protect American companies from intellectual property violations).
With the aim of fighting unfair competition, the USA decided to tighten their position on trade. Despite the objections of several states, these unilateral measures are still in force and are used as leverage against the Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organisation. Torricelli’s (1992), Helms-Burton’s (1996) and D’Amato’s (2001) laws implemented these measures and forbade thee WTO membership to the countries that were hostile to the United States. Among the countries affected by these provisions (with the exception of Cuba, covered by a US embargo since 1962), Iraq, Libya, Iran and Nigeria were rich in oil reserves. Moreover, the appointment by the Clinton administration of the National Economic Council in 1993, working jointly with the National Security Council, proved the paramount importance of the national economic security.
The USA represented a model for several countries: France, for instance, appointed a Committee for Competitive Economic Security chaired by the Prime Minister in 1995; over the course of his first mandate. President Putin strengthened the role of some State bodies on the protection of the economic resources in Russia. The economic weakness of Western countries and the increasing power of the emerging ones will probably reinvigorate tensions between developing and industrialized countries, which dominate the world economy. While developing countries are eager to increase their power through massively expanding their trades to foreign markets, Western countries tend to separate power strategies based on military and diplomatic means, from those based on economic warfare.
Moreover, the Western policy of deregulation emphasises this paradox. While European advantages decrease, in fact, emerging countries increase their competitiveness with the financial support from bank authorities, which are directly or indirectly controlled by the state.
Therefore, a competitive imbalance – that is usually strengthened by the substantial role the financial sector plays in the functioning of market economies – weakens industrialized economies. Chinese managers, instead, successfully adapted the Communist dictatorship to the rules of market economy and pursued more ambitious targets than purely making profits.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union – caused by the arms race – China elaborated the idea of “war with no limits”, by combining military and economic instruments. The crisis of colonialism and the growing power of emerging countries undermined the Western notion of ethnocentrism, which the foundation of the theory of Western superiority.
Therefore, in the new global contest, Western countries are weakened by a number of contradictions:
Liberalism and Protectionism
In the United Kingdom and in the United States economic doctrine, liberalism justified the dismantling of protectionist systems in the countries that were their top export destinations. The goal was to an increase their exports and to minimize the impact of the destination countries on international financial markets.
Delocalization vs. National Interest
In the United States there are two conflicting economic trends: one aims at opening the markets and benefiting from delocalisation, the other stresses the importance of protecting American people’s interests.
The European Union’s inability to react to the challenges posed by economic warfare.
In the aftermath of WWII, during negotiations on Marshall Plan, there has been a considerable discussion in France on some U.S. economic needs, such as the obligation to feed animals with American soya and the distribution in the French market of films coming from Hollywood. General De Gaulle, Prime Minister since 1958, pursued an independent policy against the U.S. interests: he created the oil company Elf Aquitaine with the aim of reducing dependency from the seven Anglo-American oil companies; he limited the settlement of American multinational companies; he started casting doubts on the role of dollar as reserve currency. Nevertheless, his vision was defeated by the liberal idea of markets’ openness. Furthermore, the creation of the EU single market marginalised the discussion on the role of the economy in state power strategies. As a result, France dramatically changed some of its economic structures that had previously provided the country with a significant economic power.
In particular, the Commission Permanente de l’Electronique, which in the ‘60s rose awareness on the need of developing the electronics industry, was abolished. At the beginning of 21st century, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin re-launched the debate on the “economic patriotism”, fostered by the drawbacks of emerging countries’ recovery policies. Some of them, in fact, evolved in real “fighter economies”, to fill the development gap with the West. Their offensive strategies integrated the range of techniques already implemented by Western countries in the past: collecting information via Internet, stealing patents, dumping measures, counterfeiting, metal smuggling (especially copper, whose world-wide demand is increasing).
While these unfair measures, which undermine the Western economic leadership, represent an issue for concern in the United States, in the EU they are considered as “exception that proves the rule”. Accordingly, the US adopted coercive instruments against these measures, in order to single hostile countries out. On the contrary, the European Union rarely followed this example. In 1984 the EU adopted a retaliatory measure in accordance with Section 301 of The US Trade Act, even though it was only applied six times in ten years.
In the centralized EU system, since the only competences left for Member States are national defence and public order, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany integrated the economic war paradigm in their modus operandi. France, instead, lobbied for amending the EU Treaties with the aim of improve its room for manoeuvre, but its attempts were not successful. More generally, the EU Member States proved not to be able to set up a shared strategy on this issue. As a result, the EU did not react to Putin’s measures protecting and promoting Russian industries – through state aids, customs duties benefits, and debt cancellation – and not even to the Russian threat of cutting gas supplies to Europe.
In the current international framework, the pacification process favoured by the leadership of the Western countries is weakened by multipolar geo-economic relationships and growing conflicts with emerging countries. As a result, the European Union – that does not consider economic warfare – cannot do much other than following the lead of the United States. Despite its image of cohesion, the EU is fragmented: Germany leads Northern Europe and is engaged both in increasing its power and promoting itself as a peaceful country in open contrast with its past; Southern Europe tries to solve its infrastructural problems, while post-Soviet countries are still under American, German and Russian influence.
To conclude, the economic warfare paradigm shall be taken into account in current international relations. Harbulot imagines a new political economy based on a consistent combination between state power strategies, trade expansion and territorial development. Nevertheless, these dimensions deal with three divergent interests. Therefore, the definition of short, medium and long-term priorities relies in the hands of the political power.
Economic Warfare and Cognitive Warfare
Until not long ago, the Western world lived in the conviction that Liberalism was an end in itself, however, the new context of globalization suggests that political economics once again makes more sense, given that power relations in the economic sphere can no longer be ignored and the idea that world trade is structured on supply and demand appears obsolete.
The world is changing. Situations change, and events and the ways of understanding politics change with them. Instruments change as well: if the aphorism of Clausewitz that war is politics conducted by other means once seemed valid, today we might say that politics (and economics) is war conducted by the means of information.
The threat is no longer limited to what we once thought and conceived in the geographical terms of one superpower attacking another. The threat today is asymmetrical, different, and changes continuously. It travels through the Internet, it is immediate, and above all, it threatens the entire system. It is not aimed at military or political targets but commercial, industrial, scientific, technological, and financial interests instead. This requires intelligence to structure itself around new duties: protect not only the entire system but also the weakest links in the chain of production.
All this requires changes in mentality and in operational processes, as well as continuous updating, especially at a business culture level. Most of all, it requires close interaction between intelligence and the private sector, despite the difficulties this entails.
The crisis we are currently undergoing, together with the industrial and commercial physiognomy characteristic of our era, requires us to consider the idea of “economic warfare” very closely.
It is essentially since the end of the Cold War that the balance of powers has been developed around economic issues: most governments today are no longer interested in occupying territory or dominating other peoples but rather building up technological, industrial and commercial power capable of bringing money and jobs to their own land.
Globalization has transformed competition from “gentle” and “limited” into authentic “economic warfare”.
Although this economic challenge reduces the areas available for military warfare, its ultimate goal of accumulating power and well-being is the same.
The national economic intelligence strategies recently adopted by numerous governments assign their private operatives central roles in maintaining security by providing them with information technology infrastructure and the primary asset in the digital age: data.
The step between protecting private economic activities and protecting national economic interests is a short one indeed.
Economic intelligence consists in coordinating a series of activities: collecting and processing information, monitoring competitors, keeping strategic information secret, and capitalizing knowledge for the purpose of controlling and influencing world economic environment. All this makes it a powerful weapon at the nation’s disposal.
The main players in economic warfare are:
First and foremost, the world’s nations, which remain the most influential regulators on the economic chessboard despite their relative decline in the life of nations and the various restrictions placed over them, such as those imposed by international organizations like the European Union. One important recent change is that now nations must take numerous stakeholders (NGO, international bodies, companies, mass media) into account. At any rate, they uphold the role of arbiter that all the other players only continue to emphasize by regularly imploring their intervention.
The world’s companies, which address the new hyper-competitive geo-economic scenario by using strategic information control as a weapon of competitiveness and economic security.
Civil society: the expansion of discussions on social issues regarding company activities (nutrition and well-being, technological progress and risks to public health industry, and the environment, transport and passenger safety, information technology and individual freedom), the mass use and democratization of Internet, and the growing involvement of the legal system in monitoring business operations, all increase the risks of hacking attacks against companies by hackers from civil society. Including in the public discussion topics such as risks to the environment, sustainable development, socially responsible investment, and corporate social responsibility brings greater importance to the legitimacy of social questions.
The infosphere, which is not a category of physical persons or legal entities but instead a dynamic, that is the aggregate of interventions and messages spread through media and the worldwide web. The infosphere is a particularly insidious instrument similar to an amplifier that continuously jumbles and blends ideas, emotions, and impulses emitted by an infinite number of people without any real dominant subject and exerts a determinant influence – positive or negative as occurs – on individuals and organizations. When launched in the infosphere, a simple statement has the power to trigger ferocious argument, harsh political reaction, media crises, and damage to company reputations. The infosphere can become a particularly effective weapon of destabilization. We must never forget that a brand’s image and reputation are strategic components of the capital of a company that can affect its commercial and financial activities.
Which forms does economic warfare take?
Economic warfare is often confused with economic espionage, which despite being used as one of economic warfare’s weapons is hard to define both because the companies victimized are reluctant to publicize its incursion and because it is hard to circumscribe in juridical terms and therefore difficult to report.
A more commonly practiced form of economic warfare is the purchasing of companies. This may lead to authentic forms of surrounding the industries in any given territory through operations that reflect motivations of financial, economic and technological nature all at the same time.
Yet another form of economic warfare, which is both particularly widespread and insidious, is lobbying; in other words, an influencing strategy aimed directly at public decision-makers assigned to the drafting of regulations. Our nations are particularly plagued by the proliferation of regulations and one strategically important aspect of lobbying is attending and altering the process of creating, interpreting and/or applying regulations and legislative measures and directly or indirectly influencing public powers in every intervention or decision. International trade is largely based on influence, and therefore gaining closer access to decision-making centers has become an obligatory part of commercial competition.
All the practices above are included in influence strategy: influential communication is also the hardest to identify and oppose because it is perfectly legal. “Information war” is based on the following few simple principles that can wreck havoc when marshaled together:
- moral argument, that is the possibility to induce a crisis on the basis of an ethical reasoning;
- offending political correctness by disrupting the day’s cultural and psychological patterns;
- choosing targets, in the sense that the weaker the legitimacy of the adversary’s capital, the more the information attack will provoke escalation in the media;
- the degree of celebrity of the players;
- the criterion of appropriateness or resonance of the environment.
The upheaval of the Western economies’ competitive system is not just a passing thing. A growing number of powers (China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, Russia) is conditioning the rapid shift in international competition. More often than not, the choice of winning dominance in foreign markets prevails over restructuring the nation’s own domestic markets. This demonstrates the extent to which a power strategy can make a decisive difference in the context of economic competition. These new players in international competition hold a different view of the dialectic between power and market, the latter being seen as the primary means to the increment of power. This vision revives the basic principles of political economics, according to which the market is the only path to power and not the other way around that has been demonstrated in numerous cases (such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s use of energy resources for coercive bargaining and blackmail in 2009) and illustrates the limits of the interpretative models of liberal economists whose analyses were focused on the effects of deregulation, mergers, or financial speculation involving gas prices, but fell short of the possible use of gas trade as a weapon.
The process of globalization is irreversible and fairly independent of what governments do. Globalization is one thing, but the ideology of a global free market that may produce a higher growth rate than any other system but gives no importance to how such growth is distributed is another. The argument that the highest capitalistic growth distributes resources in the best possible way, in fact, was never very convincing. Even Adam Smith thought that there were certain things the market could not do and should not do.
Historically speaking, the balanced evolution of world industry was created not by liberalism but by its opposite. The United States and Germany both became industrial powers in the 19th century because they protected their industries until they were able to compete against the dominant economy of the day: Great Britain. Neo-classical economic theories are now in disfavor because the system has come to be disrupted by scarce control over international financial flows and investment procedures.
Now more than ever, we are witnessing a struggle between the forces of capitalism, which tend to overcome every obstacle, and political forces that operate through nation states and are obliged to regulate these procedures. The laws of capitalist development are simple: maximize expansion, profit, and increase in capital. Governments by nature have different priorities instead, and this generates conflict. Furthermore, the dynamic of the global economy is one that does not ensure the stability of its protagonists.
The nation-state system and the economy system coexist in constant tension and must adapt, but if there were no relative stability among states, the instability of a world organized along the lines of transnational economy would only increase. The real problem is not whether governments can control the international corporations operating inside their borders, but whether they are able to exert global control: when companies and governments clash, the latter must negotiate as if there were another nation seated before them.
Like religions and cultures, globalization is only a simplified answer to today’s conflicts and the challenges to security. Globalization has most certainly reduced the importance of military power since the end of the 20th century, whereas security – internal security in particular – has become a global public asset. In the age of information technology, interdependence, and ”smart goods over heavy goods”, the military force offers less and costs more. Economic, technological, and especially communicative competition is more important and determinant than military strength.
The globalization of information has contributed to changing the nature of warfare by making public opinion decisive. In the short term, geo-information has become more important than geo-economy because its effects are immediate and not always governable. This is also a post-Cold War phenomenon.
In this context, the economy is no longer the mechanism of security as it was during Cold War, but on the contrary, security now serves the economy in creating better conditions for the expansion and protection of globalization. The nature of security depends on the situation prevailing in each nation and varies from one region to another, according to the respective level of globalization.
Consequently, it is the process of globalization that has restored political economics to importance and re-sparked a discussion formerly considered closed, according to which the market is the path to power and not the other way around, as it becomes an instrument of power politics in the globalization of exchange. The accumulation of power through economic expansion is the driving force behind the new emerging nations.
Yet today’s economic context must come to terms with new offensive strategies that undermine the industrial basis of the market economy and draw attention to the predatory policies of what may be defined as authentic economic warfare.
It is in this context that all companies, regardless of size, can be said to suffer damage from the absence of an economic security culture that only the use of intelligence, as a tool in analyzing predatory completion, can provide.
Interpreting the notion of national security including also the safeguarding of national interests requires information and security services to be ready to protect big companies or those of strategic significance, which the French refer to as “companies of national strategic importance” or “national champions”. These companies often – but not always – have their own information or security organizations that help them survive fiercer and fiercer competition.
In any case, in the field of economic intelligence the rules between the services of the various nations are more flexible, and it is easier to refer to others merely as competitors, neither friend nor enemy. This field is currently in the process of development, and European economic intelligence is still in embryonic phase.
The evolution of the information society has profoundly modified the frame of conflict. In the opinion of American analysts like John Arquilla and David Runfeldt, experts in netwar at Rand Corporation, the nation that wins tomorrow’s conflicts will not be the one with the biggest bomb, but the one that tells the best story.
In this sense, Americans have been referring to the key concept of information dominance since 1997. Defined as the control of anything that may be deemed information, this doctrine aspires at the moulding of the world by standardizing international practices and regulations to the American model, with the objective of placing decision-making bodies under control.
These experts note that it is sufficient to observe how American public opinion was mobilized during the invasion of Kuwait by a disinformation process planned at military level, or more precisely, at the level of psychological warfare. Information manipulation processes allow certain facts to be marginalized, and for this reason the domination of information has become a top priority in defining American strategy.
We may consider how the war in Iraq demonstrated the importance that manipulating information has assumed in international relations. The accusations made by G. W. Bush against Saddam Hussein regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction represent a textbook case in the history of disinformation.
On the other hand, we must be careful of jumping to conclusions about how cognitive warfare is waged: disinformation, or even worse, the manipulation and authentic distortion of information for the purpose of deceiving your adversary or ally is often mistakenly confused with the production of knowledge conceived to orient the rules of conduct.
In this regard, Harbulot emphasized the profoundly innovative role of information war in terms of strategy and its implications for companies.
It was naturally Harbulot’s intention to use cognitive warfare to protect the economic interests of French companies against their American competitors. If, in fact, conflicts ranging from the Gulf War to the War in Kosovo have demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of American military intelligence overseas, what room for maneuver remains open today for the managers of the intelligence service in Western Europe, who are responsible for defending the geo-economic interests of their nations against American interests? Harbulot’s answer is clear: this room for maneuver is constantly eroding, and a situation of near total paralysis has been reached in certain cases.
Closing this gap means modernizing the thought of Sun-Tzu, the Comintern, and Mao Zedong, and especially that of Winston Churchill, the first Western statesman to have orchestrated a plan for information warfare against Nazi Germany (Plan Jaël). In terms of disinformation, he represents British genius in deceiving the enemy on the dates and locations of invasion landings.
Naturally, the lack of legal provisions regarding the manipulation of knowledge raises serious concern for the economic security of European companies, which must consequently arm themselves with techniques capable of strategically managing economic information.
It is precisely in light of American political-military choices that French strategy discerned the need to define just what information war really is in the strictest terms. The expression used in French strategic context is “cognitive warfare”, which is defined as the capacity to utilize knowledge in circumstances of conflict.
In particular, the French School of Economic Warfare acknowledges in cognitive warfare the conflict between different capacities of obtaining, producing, and/or obstructing determined types of knowledge implicit in power relations that can be defined “weak against weak” or inversely, “weak against strong”.
Numerous examples that come from the world of industry testify that innovation in this field is not always necessarily made by the strongest. Naturally, the United States is the primary artifice of “strong against weak” cognitive thinking, such as, for example, in defense of its position as superpower at both military and informational level. This nation’s way of orienting its own and the other nation’s conduct implies its complete acquisition of the importance of cognitive warfare as the ability to have the images of single powers perceived by the world public opinion, a strong argument in the search for legitimacy that every democracy must acquire in national and international context. The United States has always – but especially after September 11 – stoked the legitimacy of its policies by emphasizing the defense of democracy and the need for global security as reasons to combat anti-democratic forces.
In today’s context of intense competition, destabilization plays a fundamental role. Harbulot suggests considering the example, that has become common practice in economic warfare, of a multinational company that decides to stop a competitor from developing a project in an emerging nation.
A cognitive warfare operation might take the following form:
Identification of the competitor’s weak points in the area in question (weaknesses may vary in nature: bribes paid to authorities, environmental pollution, failures to respect human rights). All the information collected must be verifiable and not give rise to fallacious interpretation.
The choice of the information attack procedure: if the cognitive aspect is considered, the following scenario may be imagined. The director assigned orders funds to be paid into a private foundation supported by the company. A trusted person at such foundation then channels this money to a NGO that has posed itself the objective of protecting the environment. The maneuver consists in then making the NGO aware of this dossier by indirectly providing it with verifiable (and therefore non-manipulated) information on the misdeeds of the competitor multinational. Through its Internet site, the NGO then sends negative messages against the competitor’s project. This is how the chain of knowledge is created. The next step required is knowing how to consciously activate it for the purpose of destabilizing the target.
The chief strength of the information attack lies not in deceiving or misinforming but instead in fomenting a pertinent dispute that has been demonstrated by objective facts. The level of conspiracy is limited to setting up and activating the information chain. The more “grounded” the diatribe is, the harder it will be for the adversary to demonstrate conspiracy, even if only in theory.
It is clear that the spread of new information technologies has brought competition exasperated levels and facilitated cognitive warfare, in such way triggering an unprecedented conflict that, in the opinion of the French analysts, exceeds even that of the Cold War.
Information has become another weapon in the art of war capable of making the difference between winning and losing, regardless of whether the conflict is military or economic.
Changes of such degree impose cultural revolution.
Then there is psychological warfare, one of the principal forms of information war. It is the most sophisticated because it relies essentially on human intelligence, in its capacity to understand possible actions for success by controlling the means of communication.
Little known and scarcely practiced in France, psychological warfare has never received much attention from the military establishment, which has often succumbed to the pressure of events or adversaries, as happened in Indochina and Algeria.
Psychological warfare employs every means available, from disinformation to deceit, from propaganda to interdiction, in clashes of various nature (from the battle against terrorism to conventional warfare and the subsidization of peace) and is moreover directed to public opinion for the purpose of conditioning or manipulating it.
The use of psychological weapons cannot be improvised and is based on an organized operative structure and conducted by specialized personnel and organizations.
Civil communication systems have by now reached levels of performance previously attained only by armed forces and governments. This has led to the accumulation of a critical mass such to enable a lowering of costs. For this reason, even if the conservation of certain autonomous military capacities is foreseen, the development of information systems for defense and intervention depends more and more on civil systems. This creates a vulnerability that might be underestimated in times of crisis or conflict.
The infosphere’s framework has become highly conflictual; information war has become inevitable and is waged with the function of appropriation (intelligence), interdiction (limitation of access to information) and manipulation (intoxication).
Economic intelligence provides a necessary response to a world with no more borders of time or space, where information is immediate and reaction time is zero. A re-organization of structures around the new dimension assumed by the relationship between information and intelligence leads to changes in both the decision-making system and the management of human resources. First and foremost of all, the revolution must be cultural in nature: perceiving information as a weapon to be incorporated into national defense strategy.
“Made-in-Russia”: Securing Russia’s economic interests
Squeezed between the United States and European Union sanctions, Russia has been exploring effective ways to increase exports of its industrial products under “Made-in-Russia” program to traditional markets in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The primary strategic goal is to secure Russia’s economic interests abroad while at the same time support Russian industries in raising revenue to modernize Soviet-era industries. But increasing exports especially to African markets, Russia has to confront market competition from western players and Asian countries such as China, India and the Gulf states.
In a recent interview, Peter Fradkov, general director of the Russian Export Center (REC), has explained that Russia has been making every effort to avoid the “raw-materials” export model and focus on developing export-oriented industries and the launch of the Russian Export Center was a key step towards the development of a full-fledged national export support system.
The Soviet Union made a significant contribution to the social and economic development of African countries by building large industrial and infrastructure facilities and helping to establish national education and health care systems. However, in the 1990s the Russian-African relations came virtually to a standstill. At present, Russia’s foreign trade turnover with Africa is about 12 billion US dollars, which is a rather modest achievement. Nevertheless, the African continent remains a rather promising market for Russian industrial goods.
Admittedly, the Government authorities, and both Inter-Governmental Commissions and the REC, are primarily concerned with removing barriers for Russian exporters and opening up foreign markets for them in Africa. Reinforcement of positions of Russian exporters in Africa requires creation of certain conditions and the key task is penetration into the global market. For this purpose, the Russian Export Center has launched a program to promote Russian goods and services under a single country brand “Made in Russia” and in this context, Africa is a very important partner for us, though not an easy one.
He underscored the fact that “Russian manufacturers have a number of specific competitive advantages. Let’s take, for example, agricultural machinery. The main advantage of Russian products as compared to the counterparts by major foreign manufacturers is a lower price and almost the same level of capacity, quality and useful life.”
On the other hand, there are some difficulties still inherent in the Russia-African business partnership. According to Fradkov there are still insufficient awareness of the real economic opportunities, market conditions and specific counterparts in African markets by Russian businesses and poor awareness of capabilities of Russian partners for Africans.
“We are often faced with discriminatory barriers, which are there not because we are from Russia, but because we have just not thought about how to remove these barriers. Our primary task is to gradually change the thinking of Russian entrepreneurs, who are often skceptical about entering foreign markets, including Africa. Secondly, we strive to promote the image of Russia as a producer of diverse and high-quality products,” he underlined in the interview.
With new trends and directions in global business, African countries have to look to the Eurasian region as a huge market for exports as well as make efforts to consolidate and strengthen economic cooperation, says Tatiana Cheremnaya, the president of ANO “Center for Effective Development of Territories” and head of the working group on public-private partnership “Business Union of Eurasia” based in Moscow.
Cheremnaya discussed here three main points and are as follows: The problems of effective cooperation between Russia and Africa are political in nature. Thus, the strengthening of Russia’s position leads to the strengthening of its influence in the world, including in Africa and vice versa, sectional policy has significantly reduced Russian exports.
The second problem for the development of Russian-African business is the lack of competitiveness of Russia which allows working only in the low-budget segment. This is due to structural problems in the Russian economy, the need for modernization, the bulk of the products produced during the Soviet Union.
The third problem is competition from the United States, China and India as more developed countries with more advanced technological solutions, and from the European countries as the former “patrons” of African countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, taking part in a congress during the 11th Russian Business Week organized by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RUIE) early February, discussed how innovative technology is reshaping the global business landscape. He, however, encouraged Russian industrialists and businesses participating in the forum to improve their business approaches in order have competitive advantages in the global market.
“This is the most important thing. And fundamentally fresh markets for goods and services will become available, and new leaders will appear as well. Naturally, competition will exacerbate. Clearly, in a situation like that, no one will be playing fair with their competitors, including in the global business environment,” Putin said.
Russia has trade centers established in Africa. But these Russian trade centers must necessarily embark on a “Doing Business in Africa” campaign to encourage Russian businesses to take advantage of growing trade and investment opportunities, to promote trade fairs and business-to-business matchmaking in key spheres in Africa.
Maxim Matusevich, an associate professor and director, Russian and East European Studies Program, at the Seton Hall University, told me in an interview that “in the past decade there was some revival of economic ties between Africa and Russia – mostly limited to arms trade and oil/gas exploration and extraction. Russia’s presence in Africa and within African markets continues to be marginal and I think that Russia has often failed to capitalize on the historical connection between Moscow and those African elites who had been educated in the Soviet Union.”
“It is possible that the ongoing crisis in the relations between Russia and the West will stimulate Russia’s leadership to look for new markets for new sources of agricultural produce. Many African nations possess abundant natural resources and have little interest in Russia’s gas and oil. As it was during the Soviet times, Russia can only offer few manufactured goods that would successfully compete with Western-made products. African nations will probably continue to acquire Russian-made arms, but otherwise, I see only few prospects for a diversification of cooperation in the near future,” added Maxim Matusevich.
Former Ethiopian ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the Russian Federation, professor Teketel Forssido has also explained that Russian businessmen think that business can be done from government to government levels (at the state levels) but in many countries business at the state levels has been complimented by private participation. Using government as an umbrella could be alright, countries such as India, China and others run businesses without government in Africa. The government, of course, has to clear the way for smooth business transactions.
“Russians are counting on the authorities to do business, but if they always rely on the state, business can be ineffective. That’s why Russians businessmen are slow as we have seen it,” he said.
According to Forssido Russia has to open its market for Africa and there are various ways to this. One surest way is to use the existing rules and regulations. The preferential treatments for agricultural products exist but Africans don’t use them. Then, individual countries have to negotiate with Russian government for their products to enter the market.
Further, the African regional economic blocs can be useful instruments because these blocs are very important and can work with their counterparts to facilitate trade between Africa and Russia. For instance, in COMESA and SADC zones in Africa, goods and services move freely, and now I think these blocs should look into the line of working as regional economic blocs with Russia.
“At the moment, China has done a lot in Africa despite worldwide criticisms. China is not the only player on the continent, but also India, Turkey and other serious players. But, when we talk about Russia, I think it’s not comparable. China has largely involved in Africa, practically in all sectors as we can see. We expect that Russia can do more if they want to, looking at their huge potential capability. They still have their own priorities, anyway,” he pointed out assertively.
As already known, Moscow’s long term goals include developing investment cooperation with African countries, widening the presence of Russian companies in the African markets through increased deliveries of industrial and food products, and enhancing Russian participation in driving the economic development of Africa. At the same time, Russia needs to look at simplifying access to its market for African countries.
In one of his speeches posted to the official website, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov noted frankly in remarks: “it is evident that the significant potential of our economic cooperation is far from being exhausted and much remains to be done so that Russian and African partners know more about each other’s capacities and needs. The creation of a mechanism for the provision of public support to business interaction between Russian companies and the African continent is on the agenda.”
Information as an offensive tool of economic warfare
In his “Warfare and counter-warfare of economic information” initially published by Revue Echanges in 1994, P.J. Gustave wrote about the information warfare, or info-war, maintaining that at this stage it is more important to find solutions not to lose the economic war, rather than discussing whether or not to engage in it. Increasing competition and geostrategic balance contribute to develop the offensive use of economic practices. On the one hand the most competitive economic powers managed to use information as a strategic tool; on the other hand, economic warfare intelligence operations replaced the Cold War methods and accompanied the transition from geopolitics to geo-economics.
In this new warfare framework, the role of information is twofold. Firstly, it is a fundamental resource for the enterprise, as it allows access to all kinds of goods and services; secondly, information is the main tool for economic warfare, since it works both as offensive and defensive weapon at the same time. The radicalization of economic competition triggers a radicalization of information, disinformation and counter-information mechanisms, in which the importance of intelligence techniques is growing significantly.
Disinformation is one of the most ancient combat techniques and dates back to primitive times, when it was used for hunting. It was particularly for primitive men to make their opponent fall right into the trap without risking self-exposure. There is a trace of the use of disinformation tools even in Chinese warfare writings (2000 B.C.) and in the Bible. In contrast to what is commonly believed, these techniques were not born in the former Soviet Bloc. At the beginning of 20th century, disinformation was already used even by the British to gain advantages on the battle field and to perform important financial hits. At the present moment, there are a number of different forms of deception techniques. Technological disinformation, for example, provides wrong information on plausible projects – that are consistent with a global strategy – through filing unusable patents.
Disinformation can be extremely helpful to protect the secrecy of sensitive information while playing with space and time. Since the rising of physical barriers is a clear indicator of the presence of hidden sensitive material, more and more enterprises are adopting a different approach that consists in giving contradictory signals. This practice allows shadowing the company’s strategy while presenting a false but clear and transparent image to the opponent; this increases security since it consists in the combination of defense-offense techniques. Nonetheless, every company is vulnerable to information attacks that are difficult to neutralize, especially when the victims are not familiar with the offensive methods used and with the necessary countermeasures. Information attacks are even more dangerous when conducted while trade negotiations are taking place.
This disinformation technique is usually adopted in “grey” or “black” operations, whose destructive potential is enhanced only through the mass media diffusion. It basically consists in provoking an event or a harmful accident for the targeted company and spread the news on media outlets. This actually causes more damages than the accident itself. Besides, since there are no geographical boundaries containing the spreading of the news, these attacks can very rapidly achieve a catastrophic scale. Their main characteristic is the invisibility of the attacker and the extraordinary cost-effectiveness.
Most times, disinformation consists in a wanton and purely informative attack aimed at distorting or destroying the competitors’ image: while the news is based on real facts, the consequences are always misrepresented and usually transmitted through media outlets that amplify it. The case of the traces of benzene found in French company Perrier’s bottles of gas water is an interesting example of how a leak in the information security can turn into significant losses for a healthy firm and how an effective communication system can partially neutralize the attack. This episode originated from a human error in sanitary procedures in the Vergèze factory, where the late replacement of the filters caused an increase in the benzene level in the bottles of water to be shipped to the United States. Although this error could have been easily corrected through filter substitution, the presence of a competitor ‘agent’ in the factory increased the echo of what happened.
At the end of 1989 Perrier was a healthy company, whose financial stability was severely threatened by this attack. After the competitor ‘agent’ had informed the United States about the presence of benzene in the bottles of water, the Food and Drug Administration conducted further analyses that confirmed the suspect. In the following days, Perrier was obliged to withdraw thousands of crates of water from the U.S. and Japanese markets and eventually suspend the sales in many other countries with significant incurring losses. Nevertheless, Perrier managed to quickly react to the attack using information tools. Gustave Leven, Perrier’s CeO, adopted a successful counter-information strategy and admitted the human error had taken place. Despite the tests conducted on the sources of water came out clean, Leven announced the worldwide withdrawal of all Perrier bottles and that Perrier took public responsibility of the cost of 160 million bottles. Within a couple of days, the rating of Perrier stocks rose again and all other attacks from Perrier’s competitor were neutralized.
This example shows the power of information attacks and its implementation through the rapidity of the circulation of information and event orchestration. The attack on Perrier costed the company several hundred million Francs and was more effective than a financial speculative attack. This gives room for reflection about the need of protecting information and about the power of counter-information. As scholars like Marc Ehlias and Laurent Nodinot remarked, counter-information is a subversive concept that Renato Curcio and Toni Negri invented in Italy at the beginning of the ‘70s. At that time, the leaders of terrorist organization Brigate Rosse and political movement Autonomia Operaia were trying to find common ground on how to “break the siege of the bourgeois press”. They decided to establish a new magazine called Counter-Information, whose editorial mission was providing fact-checking on the ‘biased information published on the bourgeois press’ through fairly “offensive” articles and investigations.
The subversive balance of Counter-Information is based on the following points: search for information for strategic and tactic goals; systematic attack on the opponent’s contradictions; operative continuity between those who collect the information and those who exploit it; supporting the information through field work; providing evidence for the facts presented; spotting the audience niches that could spontaneously spread and amplify the information. In contrast to manipulative operations, this case is about exploiting the open-access information that has not been adjusted to a given purpose. There are very few companies that have proven able to push the potential of information beyond the commercial and financial purposes.
While Perrier carried out a defensive counter-information, the advertising campaign launched in the spring 1993 by the Union of French Textile Industries (UIT) can be considered as an innovative use of information for offensive purposes. This focus of this campaign was the employment and the slogans used were supported by sensational facts able to engage public opinion; the overall aims were Brussels and the Blair- House pre-agreement. Famous and opinion-leading businessmen contributed to this campaign by delivering harsh speeches on this subject. The subtlety consisted in using French people as testimonials opposing the EU negotiators without attacking the French government, which was the real target of the campaign, given its role in conducting trade negotiations.
The success of the UIT campaign (encouraging the dialogue with Brussels, Longuet’s favorable reaction, reconsideration of the EU positions, and relative success of Marrakech Agreement) was due to the use of the propaganda techniques mentioned above with regard to the Counter-Information subversive approach. In particular, the UIT campaign focused on the main contradictory aspect of the issue concerning the European textile industry: 11 out of 12 representatives opposed the proposal of the EU Commission that was supposed to represent their interests. Counter-information is therefore an indirect strategy that aims at using misinformed and manipulated public opinion to surround the target and influence opinion leaders. In order to launch the information at the right time and place, it is necessary to have a perfect understanding of the media and opinion leaders. In practice, counter-information uses the same channels of disinformation. However, as far as its defensive aspect is concerned, it needs a permanent intelligence of the above-mentioned system in order to be reactive and effective.
The idea of using information in economic competition as a disinformation or counter-information weapon shows that the info-war has now become a real issue that needs to be tackled. Sustainable solutions should consist in observing practices through non-ideological lenses and through integrating knowledge that do not strictly relate to the economic field. In particular, since offensive and defensive economic competition techniques are increasingly looking at military methods, it is necessary to combine economic and military knowledge in a legal framework. While some countries have a traditional approach to economic intelligence that allows a natural integration, some others do not. These latter can no longer postpone a broad reflection on the role of information in the economic warfare, since it is ultimately based on information and knowledge.
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