Christian Harbulot, director and founder of the Paris School of Economic Warfare, has devoted much of his work to the study of economic warfare and the role it has played in the conflict dynamic of this century. But alongside the economic war, an instrument of similar importance that has allowed the achievement of American hegemony in the so-called multipolar world is certainly soft power.
Posing as the flagship country of free competition, the United States has achieved the best influence operation of the twentieth century. They were able to disguise their economic aggression by calling attention to the denunciation of European colonial empires. This rhetorical trick worked well. The stigmatization of the major ruling powers allowed them to disguise their own conquest initiatives as happened with the colonization of Hawaii. It is in the same spirit that they were able to trivialize their multiple external military interventions for operations to protect their citizens during the crucial period between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
America’s economic soft power was built around this misconception. The United States supported the emancipation of people from colonial oppression and, at the same time, supported the “open door” and free trade. One of their main criticisms of European colonial empires was the privileged exchanges between those empires and their metropolises. The Commonwealth was particularly targeted during the GATT negotiations (1947) and Washington refused to sign the Charter of Havana (1948) which it had desired but which maintained the principle of “imperial preferences” between European countries and their colonies.
By presenting itself as the guarantor of the discourse on free competition and open markets, the United States has built an image of itself as a “justice of the peace” in international trade. This cognitive advantage allowed them to mask their conquest initiatives. The US grip on oil fields in the Middle East and Iran has been the most visible illustration of the US economic war machine. The State Department, intelligence agencies and oil companies have worked together to impose their will on interested countries and potential competitors. The means of action used were often based on the use of force (indirect and then direct participation in armed conflicts in the Middle East, coups d’etat such as the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, destabilization of regimes that supported Arab nationalism.).
The economic soft power of the United States took shape in the aftermath of World War II. Armed with its decisive military superiority, the United States seeks to establish a process of domination in some vital markets. The Marshall Plan planners encouraged European agriculture to buy American soybeans for animal feed. This desire to establish a relationship of dependence on the United States will later spread to other key sectors such as the computer industry and then information technology. Data storage (Big Data) is one of the areas in which the American system is most determined to maintain its primacy and dominance. To “mask” these logic of domination and dependence, the American elites have resorted to two types of action.
1) The formatting of knowledge. Major American universities have gradually imposed their views on how world trade works, taking great care not to talk about geo-economic power struggles. This omission was fraught with consequences as it deprived European elites of a critical view of the nature of American corporate aggression in foreign markets. Academic disciplines such as management sciences or economics have banned any analysis of the phenomenon of economic warfare from their field of vision, which the United States nonetheless practiced with discretion.
2) The capture of knowledge. To avoid being overwhelmed by competing innovation dynamics, the United States has over time developed a very sophisticated monitoring system to identify the sources of innovation in the world in order to contact foreign researchers and engineers as soon as possible and offer them expatriation or financing solutions. through private funds. If this type of knowledge acquisition fails, the use of espionage is not excluded.
3) Misinformation and manipulation
The rise to power of the European and Asian economies since the 1970s has forced defenders of American economic interests to adapt their economic warfare techniques to the post-Cold War context. The allies of the main opponents faced before the decisive phase of the emergence of the Chinese economy.
In the 1990s, the United States opened several fronts. The most visible was the economic security policy implemented by Bill Clinton under the pretext that overseas companies were victims of “unfair competition”. Europeans were the first targets. Exposing corruption has become a favorite weapon of US economic diplomacy. But behind this principle there were much more offensive operations. In 1998 the Alcatel group suffered a series of information attacks carried out on the Internet, through media rumors regarding the lack of financial transparency of the general management. This campaign led to the historic fall of a share on the Paris Stock Exchange. To address this question, American industrialists financially supported the creation of NGOs such as Transparency International. These advocates of business moralization stigmatized countries that did not abide by global rules. On the other hand, no subject of this movement was interested in the opacity of the payment methods of the main players of the large auditing firms heavily involved in the signing of large international contracts. The exploitation of a moralizing discourse is now experiencing its operational peak with the extra-territoriality of law.
But the main transformation of American soft power in the last twenty years is the total exploitation of the information society. Everyone remembers the importance of the Echelon system or Snowden’s statements about the size of American espionage through the Internet and social media. By contrast, information warfare techniques applied in economics are still unfamiliar to the general public. The United States is now at war over how to use civil society actors to destabilize or weaken their adversaries.