Despite Fukuyama’s theses, the traditional war is not over: especially in Europe, from the former Yugoslavia to Ukraine. As for economic relations between states, these – with all due respect to the Austrian school – do not amount to “soft trade”. Indeed, as early as 1990, Edward Luttwak heralded the age of geoeconomics when Bernard Esambert published The World Economic War. German surpluses against French deficits, weak dollar against strong euro, difficult negotiations between the United States and the European Union on the subject of the transatlantic treaty, the world yesterday as today is an arena. Economic warfare is so pervasive that expression is a victim of its success. It is therefore necessary to precisely define this new theoretical and practical object, to evaluate its real scope and its mode of action.
It should be clear, looking carefully at the contemporary dynamics, to affirm that economic war is the daughter of globalization
Although economic warfare in the broadest sense of the term is not new, its contemporary form has relatively recent roots. We can consider that after the Second World War, with the revival of an international monetary system and the signing of the GATT agreements in 1947, the rules for commercial competition between largely national economies were established within the Western bloc. Thus, the economic struggles that have taken place in recent years have been confined to an arena of limited size.
Furthermore, when Bernard Esambert published Le Troisième Conflit mondial in 1968, he traced the contours of an economic war with positive virtues: not only did this “soft” war replace the real war in the West, but it was also a stimulus for industrialized countries, engaged in a profitable competition for all. Furthermore, the Cold War forced the nations of the Western bloc into a de facto solidarity that further limited the effects of their economic rivalries.
It was precisely this balance that was upset in 1991 with the fall of the USSR and the end of communism. From that moment on, nothing stood in the way of the capitalist and free trade model which, until then, represented only one of the two economic systems at work on the planet. Now the arena is global and hardly anyone challenges the rules of the game, but at the same time the end of the war does not bring down the politics of power; it moves them from the military and geopolitical terrain (clash of blocs, peripheral conflicts, etc.) to the economic and commercial terrain (rivalry between powers over resources, the struggle for market share, etc.). According to Luttwak, “in the future, fear of economic consequences could settle trade disputes, and certainly more political interventions motivated by powerful strategic reasons.” If Luttwak probably underestimated the importance that geopolitical issues would maintain, he underlined the new dimension of our globalization: that of economic competition between nations Far from thinking like the men of the Enlightenment that trade softens morals, it believes that trade is only one of the modes of war when its armed side weakens.
Winners of the Cold War, the United States was in fact the first to take stock of the change that the world was going through. Basically, the Cold War gave them the opportunity to subsidize entire segments of their economy.
But if at the beginning of the 90s, the geopolitical argument collapsed, the economic discourse remains in all its purity. In the same year, Secretary of State Warren Christopher officially declared that “economic security” was to be elevated to the top foreign policy priority of the United States of America.
In other words, the winners of the Cold War have officially declared economic war on the rest of the world. The perspective is certainly largely liberal; everyone has their chances and can win this game, but the discourse is ambiguous because it is tinged with the defense of national interests. In the end, it mixes both liberal and mercantilist rhetoric, principles hardly compatible in the eyes of economists but perfectly legitimate for politicians.
In order for a country to be fit to fight in economic warfare, it needs a state, that is – Esambert would say – a resolute warlord, who knows the profession of arms and who reduces the morale and spirit of conquest to the economy.
Yet in the 1980s and 1990s, in the era of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus, the state had been mistreated; it was seen as an obstacle to economic development and therefore President Reagan was not afraid to say that “the problem is the state”. Financial globalization, the transnationalization of companies, the intensification of international trade have rung the death knell for this relic of the past. Not only has the state resisted the neoliberal potion, it is now making a comeback. The state continued to play its role of overseeing the private space by creating a favorable legal, fiscal and infrastructural environment for the economy. In our current context, states have also taken on the role of military leaders, to conquer markets and resources, both to secure their power and to enrich their businesses and their fellow citizens.
In fact, the state has a certain number of prerogatives or capabilities that companies are naturally lacking. The state can think long-term, finance long-term when companies prefer the short or medium term. Furthermore, it can implement expensive tools at the service of its companies to distinguish the sectors of the future, the fields in which they have an interest in investing; in short, the state has a far better view of the battlefield than any of its troops. The Japanese example of the MITI has a paradigmatic value, as demonstrated by the pioneering studies of the Paris school of economic warfare directed by Christian Harbulot.
It is also the state that guides the dynamics of tomorrow by setting goals: thus, the Lisbon strategy that the EU member countries adopted in 2000 intends to make the Union “the first knowledge economy” by 2010 by explicitly linking this goal to that of full employment. Only a state can tackle these kinds of tasks, the scope of which far exceeds the financing capabilities and motivations of a business.
States don’t wage wars without troops. These are businesses, large and small.
But what does all this mean specifically?
First of all, it concerns a simple but at the same time extremely delicate question in an era of globalization: the nationality of companies. Isn’t it an illusion to say that more and more multinational companies, owned by foreign capital, are American?
Indeed, economists have shown that, despite the logic of transnationalization, the idea of “corporate nationality” is not obsolete. First, because a number of strategic companies are protected by states: directly when they are shareholders indirectly when they are guarantors their independence from foreign companies. We recall, for example, that in 2006 the Bush administration forced the Dubai Port World company to sell to AIG International the management of the six large American ports carried out by the P&O company that DPW had purchased. Likewise, advertising firm China National Offshore Corporation was prevented in 2005 from acquiring the US company Unocal. What does this mean if not that states easily recognize national companies, even if their capitalization is now international?
In short, even in the era of the “Global Players”, we can speak of nationality of companies.
Secondly, we can assimilate the present large companies, even more so the multinationals, to the legions of the late Roman Empire; mixed, variegated, composed of Roman cadres and barbarian troops, they are nevertheless the army of the Empire. Today’s companies, despite their global character, still maintain a national foothold. Furthermore, the recent Peugeot bailout around an alliance between the family, the French state and the Chinese manufacturer Dongfeng illustrates well that the idea of a national company did not die with globalization, it is only more complex than in the past. .
Returning to contemporary economic warfare this can be read as a traditional conflict, with its war objectives. The first is to defensive carette: saving industrial jobs. This challenge has become an obsession as relocations or subcontracting to low-wage countries are draining our industrialized countries.
Why this obsession with industrial jobs in our outsourced world? It is because our post-industrial societies, in the sense that most of the GDP no longer comes from the secondary sector, are no less industrialized than they have ever been. Not only do industrial jobs generate tertiary employment, but there are also many that require a qualification. Bernard Esambert speaks of an “industry-service symbiosis” to designate this pair formed by the high-tech industry and the service sector that accompanies it. Losing the former to the advantage of the new industrial powers means losing the latter and risking regress, not to mention the risk of unemployment or underemployment, which no democracy can bear in the long run. Advocates of economic warfare therefore believe that industrial employment must be defended and even maintained . Beyond the economic debates about their cost-benefits, the destruction of jobs is difficult to accept in the eyes of voters and, therefore, decision makers.
The other objective of the war, decisive for the states, is no longer defense but the conquest of markets and scarce resources. Economic warfare scholars have clearly demonstrated the intensification of the war for the control of natural resources, mainly for the control of hydrocarbons.
Perhaps nothing better than this example illustrates in the eyes of its proponents the obviousness of economic warfare: oil is a scarce and limited resource. Every drop gained by one is lost by the other. Therefore, as it is the basis of development, it is necessary for each state to ensure a secure and continuous supply. The inexorable struggle that the United States and China are waging for African oil but also for the other resources of the subsoil of this continent is an example of this. Absent in Africa 25 years ago, China is now the third largest trading partner after the United States and France; for two thirds it imports oil, but also metals, cotton and precious stones.
This war for natural resources is the scene of a reversal of the balance of power between Western countries on the one hand and emerging and / or developing countries on the other. The rise of China, of the BRICS, the rise of sovereign wealth funds in the Arab oil exporting countries would demonstrate this. In economic warfare, resources are powerful ammunition. And everything suggests that this conflict will escalate.
The International Energy Agency estimates that energy needs will increase by 50% by 2030, in part due to Indian and Chinese growth. The search for raw materials will in fact become a crucial issue for the States. As early as 2007, the Committee on Critical Mineral Impacts on the US Economy published a report in which it lists eleven minerals that are particularly crucial to the American economy due to their scarcity, their need in high-tech industries … the more coveted, is rhodium, used in particular in catalytic converters, and found in Russia but also in South Africa, a much better ally than Moscow. Rare metal, today it is the subject of struggles in which states and multinationals fight side by side. As guarantor of the national economy, each State is called upon to draw up, in its own way, a list of the resources that are or will be essential for it.
The “scarce resources” also include companies that today more than ever are falling prey not only to their private counterparts but also to governments. As such, the crisis has facilitated the entry into the capital of very large companies in the countries of the South through powerful sovereign wealth funds. The large investment funds of the United Arab Emirates, in particular Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have invested extensively in favor of the economic crisis in prestigious companies in difficulty: EADS, AMD, Sony, Citigroup … The Chinese sovereign fund holds almost 10% by Morgan Stanley. As for the Singapore fund, it entered the equity of Merril Lynch at the same level. Here we find the idea of revolution in the North / South hierarchy: winning in the economic war is not a legacy. The newcomers are shaking up the old hierarchy. Saudi Arabia is estimated to be responsible for 5% of US GDP thanks to wealth creation made possible by the use of Arab oil. Suffice it to say that Riyadh has a strategic advantage over its powerful economic partner.
Finally, there is a scarce and strategic commodity that constitutes a relatively new objective of the war: information. It is now important that companies and states know their opponents, their exact technological level, their strategy, in order to be able to anticipate them. Sometimes we speak of cognitive warfare to refer to the advanced weapon of economic warfare. In fact, the acquisition of information with high added value is also essential for the development of the tango economic activity as much as the accumulation of financial capital and the coordination of human skills. If states now want to help their companies gain market share, they must equip themselves with economic intelligence programs, otherwise they will lag considerably behind in a form of struggle that appears increasingly crucial as all the immense theoretical and operational work done by Ecole du guerre economique founded by Chrustian Harbulot.
In short, our time is woven of contradictions; on the one hand, the states hold an official speech supporting, sometimes with nuances, a multilateralism supported by the main international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, the IMF. On the other hand, everyone can see that the states are developing quite different reasoning. The imperative of solidarity in the financial field advocated by the G20 t new response to the need not to lose market share in a context of tension. In the midst of the crisis, the logic of competitiveness requires the conquest of foreign markets.
It is up to Christian Harbulot to have clearly shown this shift from Cold War Manichaeism to the multilateral economic war that states are waging today. According to him, the ally / opponent pair replaced the partner / competitor one. This transformation of possible alliances is accompanied, according to Harbulot, by a reorganization of the field of partners and competitors in geographical terms. The two blocks of the Cold War would have succeeded three blocks: the first is the degraded space of the Western world from which we can possibly extract the United States, the second is the expanded room for maneuver of the new powers, the third, finally, is space of survival of other countries. Each of these spaces follows very different power strategies. Furthermore, the members of each block are not necessarily allies as we have just seen.
Therefore, any peremptory statement becomes impossible. The United States and China are waging a relentless war over Africa’s resources. But China, through the purchase of US Treasuries, is the country that allows the United States to live on credit. Another example, China and Taiwan are political enemies but economic partners.
If economic warfare is a struggle, it is based on weapons and countermeasures. In covert warfare, a large number of tools count as weapons. The first of all is undoubtedly training: in our constantly changing societies, initial training helps create a workforce or managers prepared for change.
Likewise, the importance given to research is fundamental. Since 2010, China has more researchers than the United States, although the latter enjoy, thanks to the practice of brain drain, the sharpest minds on the planet. In this context, public-private collaboration is fundamental: in the United States, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 provides that patents financed with public funds – by universities or public research centers – are assigned mainly in the form of exclusive rights to private companies American.
In other words, in the eyes of states in economic warfare, the search for patents is truly a national affair, a guarantee of productivity, a decisive weapon in the perspective of a trade struggle between nations. These tools are at the service of competitiveness, this ability to face competition on external and internal markets. As for the attractiveness – which could be understood as the competitiveness of a territory – it is the object of particular attention by many states that the disputes between the European Commission and Ireland regarding Apple have brought to light.
The ultimate hidden weapon of warfare is economic intelligence. It is similar both to a weapon, which anticipates the enemy’s movement to surprise him and steal his victory, but also to a defense tactic because it anticipates enemy moves, practicing disinformation for example. The United States is the main player in this information war. We now know that the NSA, initially created in a counterintelligence logic during the Cold War, would have used the Echelon network to know the position of the European Union in 1994 during the final negotiations of the Uruguay Round. In 2014, the New York Times revealed that the agency had spied on an American law firm defending a foreign country in a trade dispute with the U.S. Information has become one of the key issues of the economic war.
As states move from covert warfare to open warfare, weapons change. These attacks can take the form of geoeconomic retaliation in response to a geopolitical crisis; this is for example the case in the fruit and vegetable embargo between the European Union and Russia.
Voluntary import restrictions also amount to retaliatory measures. The well-known example of the restrictions imposed by the United States on Japanese cars in the 1980s testifies to the violence of the conflict. Faced with rising Japanese car sales, Washington sought to protect the “Big Three”. Rather than proceed unilaterally, the US government has asked the Japanese to limit their exports. Tokyo preferred to negotiate this perfectly anti-liberal measure rather than run the risk of even more unfavorable restrictions being imposed: this is the voluntary restriction agreement of 1980.
A series of disputes between states led to the adoption of tariff peaks in retaliation; for example, the United States decided in January 2009 to triple tariffs on Roquefort in response to a ban on exports of hormone-containing beef in Europe. In each of these cases, the best offense was the defense.
When worried about avoiding frontal conflicts, states prefer an alternative approach which is to facilitate the assault of their companies on foreign markets. For this reason the political power is an ardent promoter of its companies. This ancient practice has been systematized in the United States in the form of “commercial diplomacy”. This is based on three principles: preparing the ground by liberalizing trade with the destination country; use economic intelligence, industrial and commercial intelligence to provide American companies with all the data on the ground to be conquered; finally, to set up ad hoc structures such as the War room. This offensive public strategy is entirely in the service of the private corporations that are the strength of the United States. It is in the same perspective that Washington has increased the number of bilateral free trade treaties: with most of the countries of Central America in the 2000s, with Morocco in 2006, South Korea in 2010.
Finally, there is one last weapon that, individually, is now almost the prerogative of a few emerging countries: sovereign wealth funds. Although they deny themselves, these funds take hold in sometimes strategic groups and help guide their strategy.
To cope with these dangers, those involved in economic warfare have developed policies that resemble shields or even counterattacks. In a context where customs barriers are historically low, there are other means to preserve its market: export subsidies, standards, favoritism given to national companies in one form or another (think of the Small Business Act which reserves some public procurement for SMEs) In short, all means are good.
So it is with money, which has long been – and continues to be – a defensive weapon in the hands of states, especially in the form of devaluation. The UK gave us a recent example of the geo-economic use that could be made of a currency: at the height of the crisis, London let the pound slip while the euro remained strong. In this way, British exports were stimulated. We could reproduce the analysis for the yuan or even the yen at a time when Shinzo Abe has launched a policy of monetary expansion.
For large Western states, it is primarily about protecting their markets at a time when old-fashioned protectionism is almost outlawed. For emerging countries, the stakes are different: by increasing the number of regulatory sources (state, international, private, public, etc.), they weaken the universal legal system designed by the dominant states. Paradoxically, the desire to unify world trade has led to a legal fragmentation of the latter.
The rules of trade have become a battleground in a few decades. Witness the emergence in France of the notion of “economic patriotism”. Spread out in 2005 by Dominique de Villepin, then Prime Minister, the doctrine of economic patriotism is based on the idea that it would be up to the state to defend companies considered to belong to strategic sectors. In practice, success is mixed: while Suez was married to GDF in 2008 to deal with a potential takeover by Italy’s Enel, Arcelor was absorbed by Mittal.
Looking at the world today, it is tempting to provocatively conclude that war has a bright future; economic warfare of course, but also traditional warfare. But there is also a more dramatic scenario, namely that tomorrow’s economic wars can degenerate into armed conflicts.
In short, yesterday as today, historical reality is an ocean of forces that are opposed to each other, in a dynamic that determines a perpetual flow that now leads to ascent now to decline.