Internet-based foundations of U.S. hegemony  27.10.13

Empire or revolution. In the early Naughties, Iraq had just been liberated and occupied, debates in international relations were dominated by contemplations about what already was or would soon become the American Empire. At long last, the colonnades of mighty columns that hold the architraves, friezes, and pediments of official buildings in D.C. would not just symbolize the perpetuation of a cultural heritage that roots in the Greek cradle of Western culture. They would from now on reflect that Washington had become Rome 2.0. At the same time, geeks and techno-optimists were hailing the endless possibilities of information technology, the Internet, and the changes it would bring to the world and its societies. There was something mutually exclusive about theses two discourses. How would an alleged empire respond to something that allegedly had the capacity to turn the word upside down? Ignore it? Crush it? Embrace and extend it? Those were the questions I tried to address some ten years ago.

Hegemony by technology. At that time, existing international relations literature had little to contribute to the question how a country could embrace and utilize information technology and the Internet for its international standing. So I looked into existing theories, models and conceptualisations of hegemony, empire, suzerainty, power, technology, innovation and what else to develop a model of how a country could instrumentalise information technology and the Internet as a power resource on the chessboard of global politics. Following established theories of power and hegemony, I developed a hegemony-by-information-technology model that identified military, economic, idealistic, and institutional power resources and the role that information technology plays for them.

Power and hegemony. In more traditional international relations theories, national power in the International game is seen as the sum of several sources of power, including military capabilities, economic potency, political influence, or informational resources. Other theories of power stress the importance of institutions in the wider sense (i.e. not defined as organisations) and values. Without doubt, information technology has a significant role for the dissemination of values (the alleged Twitter revolution as poster child example thereof) and the shaping of institutions in various societal domains. Such institutional effects refer to, e.g., altered relations between companies and their workers, between customers, producers and intermediaries, the shaping of public discourses, and a myriads of other aspects that have an impact on international political power of a nation.

Think tank papers. In the empirical part, I studied discussions and papers by US think tanks and foreign policy pundits for their stance on how information technology and the Internet could be used to enhance the position of the US and its foreign policy interests. Think tank papers certainly do not equal actual governmental policies, but they give a good impression about which options are on the table at a given time, especially if authors of such papers previously had influential positions in D.C. or, in hindsight, would soon take over an office. To which extent such ideas in influential circles were actually used as a template for actual policies has been the unknown variable. With the leak of Snowden’s documents, we now probably know for sure.

Instrumentalising information technology. The results of this content analysis tour were unambiguous: Washington’s foreign policy circles were aware of the international politics dimension of information technology and the Internet, its potential effects on absolute and relative international power. They contemplated about how to seize the moment, reduce vulnerabilities, and use information technology for its foreign policy goals. In the military domain, “America’s technology must continue to outperform that of potential rivals.” Leadership and dominance of US companies in ICT markets were seen as pivotal to maintain strategic information dominance. After 9/11, investments into security-enhancing information technologies were regarded as a means to overcome the dotcom-crash malaise. Information was regarded as “the new coin of the international realm”. The different aspects of national power were at times merged to sketches of integrated strategies. Military power should be ensured by an “offset strategy” that would guarantee civil-technological superiority and their integration into military technology and business practices. In a strategic approach coined “cooperative competition”, the US would help to establish a global competitive network of technology providers with itself as the “strategic broker” that ensures that “peer competitors” are “cooperative”, while enemies are deprived of their technological capabilities.

Information umbrella. Among the most visionary pieces was the 1996 Foreign Affairs article by Nye and Owens. (See my previous text.) His co-author back then was William Owen, a retired US Navy Admiral and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined the ranks of SAIC in 1996 and served, according to Wikipedia, as its president, chief operating officer and vice chairman. SAIC was about to make a terrific windfall with the emerging registry business, before it would make rake in even larger amounts in the emerging private intelligence field. They have been somewhat vague about the idea of the information umbrella they proposed back then. The Markle Foundation reports and the list of persons involved made a thorough case for the assumption that the US was doubling down on using the Internet for its foreign policy goals and as a major power resource. (Cf. previous link) Much might have been driven by post-9/11 fears, but it is wrong to assume that this all has been thought about and implemented in a mere defensive motion. 

A decade later. Until reports about tapped head of governments worldwide broke in the last few weeks, it looked like as if the US had played this game of information power politics very well. The pressing question now is whether the long-term fallout of the Snowden leaks can be controlled. In the short-run damage is substantial. The information sharing and surveillance systems can be seen as the actual implementation of ideas developed between the mid-nineties and the years immediately after 9/11. The revelations about the existing shape of the information umbrella hurts US soft power in Europe unlike anything since the results of the photo sessions at Abu Ghraib came to light in the Arab world. But will it matter in the long run? Information hegemony is not necessarily and primarily targeted against the followers. It is more likely—just like any hegemony—based on a set of mutual interests shared by hegemon and followers against outside actors. European policy makers now face a complex calculation. Looking back at Europe’s performance in the past ten or fifteen years of information politics, I’m doubtful it will manage to pull off a coherent and convincing stance. But European politicians could have known for at least ten years where the puck was going in the information sphere. Now they have been pwned. 

For more details and sources of qoutes, see my 2004 master thesis. It’s translated title is “Hegemony by technology – Strategies for Exploiting Information Technologies in Global Politics – Considerations by U.S. Think Tanks”, the original title is: “Hegemonie durch Technologie — Strategien zur Instrumentalisierung von Informationstechnologien in globaler Politik – Überlegungen amerikanischer Think Tanks.” (pdf)

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