A crucible of ideological aspirations, internationalism is above all part of the relations of power on the international scene, in other words, in the confrontation between States, the main strategic entities on the world chessboard, but also of the relations between the peoples whose influence has increased tenfold over the last three decades thanks to the levers of the economy and the information society.
The take-off of globalization in the 1990s was also that of new internationalist currents (alter-globalization, neoliberalism, multilateralism, human rights, environmentalism). While the global order remains on the same bases since after 1945, the awakening of borders and the hardening of international relations have raised blind spots or contradictions in these movements. Obstacles have indeed arisen to the progress of globalization, less linked to its own functioning than to the nature of the clashes between the entities that make up its base.
In 2022, thirty years later, the world has clearly “rearmed” itself, though no intellectual aggiornamento has been able to truly innervate the ramifications of international solidarity and certain political spaces. As in other times, the risk is to lose grip on the issues and see the vacant spaces being occupied by reactionary or anachronistic movements. In this respect, two structural locks seem important to us to point out.
1. The Structural Shock of Economic Nationalisms
The prevalent thinking, rooted in liberalism, has persistently concealed the nature of the conflicts instigated by the States in the name of their economic expansionism. One of the consequences is that many actors were locked in a polarized debate between, on the one hand, liberal economy and balanced exchange – going hand in hand with the democratic ideal, and on the other, the countercurrents that were opposed to them (communists, Marxists, anti-capitalists, etc.). The classic reading of conflicts from a military and geopolitical angle has also contributed to marginalizing the weight of economic clashes.
1.1 The Historical Concealment of Economic Violence
A brief retrospective helps to support this observation. In the 18th century, the statement of the bases of liberalism by Adam Smith established a first foil that managed to cleverly mask the intention of the United Kingdom to dominate the continental European market at the start of the first Industrial Revolution. The German Friedrich List is one of the first, at the end of the nineteenth century, to deconstruct this ideological base by opposing to it the idea of an “educational protectionism”1 which attempts to shift the reflection to the field of political economy. The economist Shirine Saberan2 will be one of the few–much later–to have specified how the notions of general interest and wealth of nations, formalized by the Scottish philosopher, created an optical illusion concealing the search for the accumulation of national power by the English economy.
With the turning point of the Enlightenment, Adam Smith’s theses triumphed in turn over the church and the monarchy. The liberal current then takes it out on the State. The realist school, which from Thucydides to Aron via Dante, Rousseau, Hobbes and Machiavelli, is committed to the Leviathan, rightly postulates that interstate relations are at the center of conflict. But like Montesquieu and his notion of “doux commerce”, economic violence is not seen as structural violence, because it is not directly connected to the action of the State.
A thick veil is thus drawn over economic confrontations, even if certain currents more anchored in a transnational vision are less inclined to this idea. The Americans Joseph Nye and Robert Kehoane, for example, are against the idea that interdependencies automatically increase the chances of peace and proportionally decrease those of war. At the end of the Second World War, the liberal international embodied in the Oxford Manifesto3 also opposed certain liberal positions referring to the State as the enemy of exchange. On the opposite side, the ultraliberals will harden their positions by pressing on the bloody wound that the totalitarian States will have created during the last two world conflicts. This current will eventually impose itself and pave the way for an even more radical school, neo-liberalism.
As we know, the fall of the Soviet Union is the geopolitical turning point that will galvanize the liberal current. Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and Alvin Toffler carry the ideology to its peak. The irony of history will have wanted that the collapse took place precisely in the camp which had predicted the elimination of the other under the effect of its own contradictions. Nevertheless, as Ali Laïdi points out in his very original Histoire mondiale de la guerre économique, it is the Marxists, in particular Nikolai Bukharin, who take a closer look at the use of economic violence in international relations. While Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber condense the monopoly of violence around the State, the Russian Nikolai Bukharin associates capitalism with imperialist behavior and also questions the principle of the solidarity that would emanate spontaneously from the development of exchanges.
Ultimately, the duel between liberalism and Marxism maintained for nearly two centuries confirms a dismissal of the complex nature of economic confrontations. In the 20th century, Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein respectively highlighted the role of territories in the successive stages of the world economy, and the interactions between national systems. Samir Amin, among other thinkers of economic colonialism (Prebisch, Quijano, Arrighi, etc.), will update a certain number of contradictions within the liberal model and also draw a parallel between imperialism and the logics of economic domination.
While these authors have the merit of having identified some of the economic and war violence emanating from the capitalist model, they did not venture into the opaque terrain of economic power relations. In the end, both liberal and Marxist matrices were very discreet in deciphering the thickness of economic confrontations. By extension, the same difficulty is encountered when it comes to understanding the apprehension of the catch-up by East Asian countries and other emerging countries from the 1980s.
1.2 The Rise of China and other Emerging Countries can be Explained by a New Art of Economic Combat
Indeed, how to explain that China has risen to second place in the world economy in barely fifty years, and this without resorting to military and imperialist actions, understood in the classic sense of interventionism and territorial control as was the case throughout European expansion? Along the same lines, how can we understand the rise of the conquering economies of Japan and Korea and what we can now call, since 2010, the end of the “great divergence” between West and East4? Other combative economy models have also emerged in India, Turkey, Russia, Germany, or even Israel and Brazil.
Admittedly, it could be argued that these countries have benefited from the favorable size of their domestic markets, from particularly buoyant modernization conditions or from leverage effects on international markets. But these arguments, taken from free trade textbooks, resist only too little to the singularity of the trajectories mentioned. To locate the root of these developments, it is necessary to reintroduce three notions that have remained until now in the collective unthinking: the national question, the reconstruction of power in the geoeconomic field, and the art of economic combat in globalization.
Asian economies, like other advanced or emerging economies, have implemented strategies of conquest and economic combat, capable on the one hand of taking advantage of the leeway offered by the geopolitical chessboard, and on the other part of seizing the driving forces of globalization by putting them at the service of a return to power and then of expansionism. The implementation of these strategies, from the dawn of capitalism, is thus inseparable from the national question, i.e., from the existence of a sufficiently homogeneous elite bearing a national patriotism capable of mobilizing its economic forces within a model that goes beyond the artificially drawn separation between the State and the market.
The consolidation of the different forms of State capitalism, the enrichment of the Nation, and around them a coordinated bundle of actions to conquer economic markets, technologies and knowledge are the framework of these contemporary combat strategies. The modus operandi underpinning these strategies sweeps across all areas: legal, illegal, secret, open, political, civil, financial, economic, etc. In pure realistic logic, all (or almost all) moves are allowed in an interstate arena that gives free rein to these phenomena, given the current conditions of regulation. However, this mode of confrontation is not a “featherweight” in the relations of power. This economic war has become a form of conflict whose impact can be as decisive as conventional warfare in terms of transforming a strategic situation.
China’s envelopment strategy is a masterpiece in this regard. Just before it, that of Japan was also a model of its kind before being stopped dead by an alliance between the United States and Europe at the end of the 1990s. By appearing above all as a new student converted to the opening of markets, China has managed to become the factory of the world, always ensuring tight control over foreign investment arriving on its soil. Once it had concentrated most of the means of manufacturing production on its territory, it monopolized knowledge on an unprecedented scale. The capture of intellectual property carried out by the Chinese has thus been evaluated at nearly 600 billion dollars per year, a volume corresponding, according to certain estimates, to the largest transfer of wealth carried out in history5. Some in the developed economies did not see this maneuver as an enterprise of conquest or an “imperialist” threat.
To paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, the paradox is that this art of economic combat has remained in the dead weight of history. To which we must add that it was subtly concealed in the intensity of the light projected by neoliberal triumphalism, as well as (paradoxically as we have seen) in currents that were opposed to it. In practice, at the very moment when the WTO was created in 1995, the previously allied nations were already giving signs of their entry into competition and saw the deterioration of the solidarity they had woven within the Western bloc.
We have to read authors like Edward Luttwak, Gérard Chaliand or Christian Harbulot to see the notion of economic warfare or reconstruction of power through economy rehabilitated. On the philosophical level, Kant, Nietzsche or Foucault touched on the question through the analysis of competition and social relations. Other thinkers, such as Anton Zichka and Bernard Esambert, have also cleared this marginalized field of knowledge in economics and political science.
1.3 Economic Nationalism Structures Power Relations
Until recently, globalization coincided disproportionately with the projections of the North American imperium. In line with a full-spectrum dominance drawn by neoconservative ideologues, its supremacy was exercised in all areas of interdependence until the 2000s. Since 2001, the world chessboard has tended to feature competing national poles whose modalities of confrontation have extended precisely to all the strata that make up international relations.
After a dramatic withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington strengthens its alliances to contain Beijing and doubles down on its quest for informational and economic supremacy. China aims for world economic leadership and deploys its strategies of conquest on all fronts. Outside of this leading duopoly, the suitors deploy their competing strategies, simultaneously playing on various registers of conflict. Military confrontation is one of them, risky and costly of course, though now with more limited political effects. Hostility or nuisance is another, aimed at eroding and weakening an adversary, while keeping itself below the threshold of open conflict. Finally, competition and influence refer to the effort of domination by an actor, rival or ally, through cognitive or economic actions. The economic combat that we have described acts on all these conflicting registers.
The intensification of the world is largely linked to this structural clash of nationalisms and the extension of conflict, driven by the most aggressive actors. In practice, all emerging countries are waging battles from the weak to the strong in the field of the economy, with the aim of rebuilding their power on the geopolitical chessboard. However, such a clash of nationalisms modifies the grammar of conflicts. The geopolitical order still rests on the surprisingly stable post-1945 foundations. But the strategic climate has changed. The incessant flows of interests that cross the transnational space superimpose in a contradictory way cooperation, hostilities or confrontations. The security ally of a nation does not prevent it from also being an economic rival. A political partner can be a cultural target to weaken. Beyond the perimeter of States and companies, citizens and peoples are also the targets of cognitive, informational and economic offensives. Moreover, such a scenario provides conflicting margins that favor both the domination of the weak by the strong and the subversion of the strong by the weak, which in turn fuels the intensity of the confrontations.
This Hobbesian picture gives a first idea of the rearrangement that should occur in the frameworks of interpretation. Struggles are reversed, while the binary delimitation between a state of war and a state of peace proves to be reductive. Neoliberal globalization is no longer exactly synonymous with American imperium. Commodification and neoliberalism, cardinal notions for anti-globalization movements, have been rightly pointed out to question the invisible hand of powers. However, the penchant for their deconstruction can no longer disregard the relations of power on which the dignity of peoples and nations depends. Admittedly, the contradictions of the international system continue to be found in modes of domination, endemic injustices or predatory forms of productivism. But a significant part of the deleterious effects that many movements denounce are to be linked to the conflicting use of the economy which takes place in the concert of nationalist ambitions. To put it more concretely: deindustrialization, unemployment, currency devaluation or loss of market share are, always depending on the context, more the consequences of the economic combat subordinated to a geopolitical aim than to the endogenous principles of capitalism.
The locking of the frameworks of interpretation also explains the significant confusion of genres that characterized the reading of certain world-scale events, and gradually the establishment of international solidarities. The Russian-Ukrainian, Syrian, Congolese, Sahelian, Bolivian and Venezuelan conflicts, among others, have all been marked by a significant blurring of analyses. Campism, like other positions that privilege a frozen view to the detriment of a much more dynamic reality, has cast a veil of anachronism over these situations.
Nevertheless, these mutations are a real breath of fresh air for the internationalist movements. Extending the framework of interpretation of the forms of violence, exploring a defensive art of economic combat with the aim of pacifying the transnational space, designing institutional mechanisms capable of piloting this multipolar pre-system a little, are all promising horizons. One of the difficulties lies in the fact of no longer being limited to previous approaches and definitions. Another is to bear in mind that, in the current context, internationalist movements are at the heart of a new multipolar battlefield which makes them the target of maneuvers of influence.
2. Hyperpower Falls in, Soft Power Rises
The second question that resurfaces in internationalism and which closely echoes the previous point, is that of power, and more precisely that of increasing power in a multipolar world.
2.1 The Example of Ukraine
This has been illustrated recently by the open war between Russia and Ukraine, in a Europe which has historically gone through a system for managing the excesses of power, namely the Westphalian order, reformulated later in the United Nations collective security system. Let us put forward the following hypothesis for a moment: what would have been the fate of Ukraine in a concert of European democracies which would have less distanced themselves from power and which could have offered a deterrent force between Moscow and Washington in the name of maintaining European security? Would they not have been more inclined to anticipate the risk of dragging Ukraine into a crossover between, on the one hand, the US project aimed at detaching Ukraine from Russia’s orbit in 1991, and the other, Russia’s desire to regain control of one of its founding territories after regaining confidence in its international influence?
This hypothesis, of course debatable, underlines however that the renunciation of Europe to manifest a common will to power on the military level, participated more widely in the strategic vacuum in European security and in Ukraine, taking into account the degree of hostilities expressed by Washington and then by Russia in the continuity of the Cold War. In a scenario that is reminiscent of the episode of the Munich agreements in 1938, it sought somehow to defuse the military escalation by acting essentially on the ground of diplomacy and avoiding the difficult terrain of realpolitik. However, the same kind of dilemma is on the agenda with Turkey, despite being a member of NATO, which does not hesitate to encroach on international law and mobilizes its military force in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. As the geographer Michel Foucher points out, the fait accompli is now paying off both in the Mediterranean and in the China Sea insofar as force gives better results than law and diplomacy.
2.2 Permanence of Power and Disparity of Political Regimes
Beyond these two examples, the fundamental dilemma that is newly posed is that of the relations between power and the disparity of the political regimes that populate the new conflicting chessboard that we have tried to schematize. With the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant postulated that democracy, naturally refractory to war, could augur a horizon of perpetual peace capable of turning the page on the incessant cycles of peace and war. History has given reason for this conceptual reversal within the politically homogeneous space of Europe. But this is not the case in other democracies and internationally, even if open conflicts have tended to decrease quantitatively.
After the disappearance of European imperialism, the United States found themselves faced with the dilemma of placing their power at the service of securing the international space. They took up this Kantian vision in their own way, in particular under the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Their superpower allowed them to promote the model of democracy, but also mold certain recalcitrant political regimes in accordance with their interests, including regimes of a despotic nature totally antithetical to the former. Their unipolar position in the 1990s confronted them with two geopolitical options: projecting themselves into the future by establishing a real system of collective security, or occupy a hegemonic position, by playing on the relations of power that were favorable to them at the risk of provoking an anarchy comparable to that which preceded the Westphalian balance.
After the short hope of a multilateral atmosphere carried by Washington in the post-Cold War period, the attacks of September 2001 plunged the Atlantic power headlong into the second way. The American strategic culture and the neoconservatives ratified an enterprise of geopolitical homogenization, in clear contrast with a fundamentally unbalanced and heterogeneous international chessboard, which is moreover populated by endemic injustices. In addition to the psychic commotion caused by the second “Pearl Harbor” of 2001, the historian Arnaud Blin points out in passing that the neoconservatives cleverly succeeded in wresting the monopoly of production of political ideas from the American left.
2.3 The Results of Hyperpower
Twenty years later, the results of this imperial adventure are unequivocal. On the one hand, they demonstrate the paradox of the power of the United States, suffering a regression of their brute force and their room for maneuver at the international level. On the other hand, it highlights the omnipresence of flows of interests and power, insofar as the failure of American initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan created so many vacant spaces which were rapidly occupied by Turkey, Russia, Iran or China. The confrontation in Ukraine recalled what we had already seen in 2001 and elsewhere, namely that wars can be disastrous for any invader. Certainly, the current phase of confrontation in Ukraine has given Washington a reprieve to close the ranks of its security alliance around NATO, while avoiding the cost of an escalation to extremes. The fact remains that the current geopolitical trend is that of a decline in Western hegemony and the progression of a group of powers shifting the geopolitical epicenter to Asia. In this setting after the imperial reflex of 2001, the West is now more isolated in Africa, while non-alignment with the pax americana is openly practiced in Latin America.
This geopolitical reconfiguration paints a picture that increasingly resembles an 18th century Europe, that is to say, a relatively heterogeneous system, without a main conductor, dominated by a few major world and regional powers. The United States and China are the two key pieces, playing the role of arbiter in a pseudo-balance in which the few disturbing elements (North Korea, Russia, Iran and Pakistan) do not have the real capacities, despite the nuclear threat, to challenge the status quo. In the short and medium term, it is hard to imagine how this lackluster geopolitical situation would be able to respond to crises affecting entire regions and above all to the major challenges linked to globalization. Certainly, the United Nations and international law will have a role to play, but they will not be able to influence the course of events enough to reverse the rules of international politics.
Withdrawal of triumphalism and machtpolitik trapped by hyperpower, rise of a new realpolitik and soft power. This is the equation that seems to structure the multipolar pre-system for the moment, which is ultimately similar to the one that pre-existed the Westphalian system. Anarchic and for the moment without established rules (unlike the Westphalian order which has a certain number of rules), this order is fundamentally conducive to the relations of power and the logic of increasing power. We glimpsed in the first part of this text how it was being rebuilt in the field of geoeconomics and how it became a main field of confrontation from the 1990s.
2.4 Mental Rearming for Internationalism
However, this picture is still a shock wave for the internationalist movement which was built largely on the idea of going beyond realpolitik. For part of the global intelligentsia, the setbacks of raw power have directly fueled the feeling of the lapse of force and above all the withdrawal into a position of refusal of power. In Europe, but not only there, but the renunciation of power also went hand in hand with a humanist attempt to overcome the relations of power. This is what the American neoconservative analyst Robert Kagan did not fail to underline, not without certain arrogance: “Europe is in the process of giving up power or, to put it another way, it diverts it to the benefit of a closed world made up of laws and rules, negotiation and transnational cooperation6”.
However, the fact is, particularly since 1990, that States, small, medium or large, have developed strategies for the reconstruction of power that widen the modalities of conquest, domination and influence. The new division of the world is inseparable from an art of conquest applied in a combative manner by the powerful rising powers. These strategies were deployed on interlocking terrains, in logics of domination (from the strong to the weak) and of subversion (from the weak to the strong), by seizing the breaches opened by the withdrawal of classical imperialism and the old powers. Military confrontation has not disappeared, but we have seen that the political goals it claims to achieve are more circumscribed. While the interdependencies have not ceased to be involved in a conflicting aim, the relations of power have acquired a more systemic character. Ambiguous, seemingly contradictory alliances are now commonplace. The intelligence of power relations, coordinated action on different chessboards and strategic coherence have become determining variables.
In this shifting landscape, everything leads us to believe that overly moralistic and idealistic interpretations will die hard. The harsh and conflicting world that has taken shape before our eyes calls for realistic regards, capable of bringing the intelligence of power relations into dialogue with humanist ethics. It is also about the sustainability of democracy since the inhibition of the media or the political sphere vis-à-vis these issues leads to mental caesuras which contribute to paving the way of extremist movements in Europe and elsewhere. This global rearming implies to the internationalist movements a profound challenge of perception and renewal. A feeling of disillusionment may emerge from this cold and abrupt planetary environment. But it carries the seeds of a formidable wave of repoliticization of the world, which is an opportunity to be seized.
- Friedrich List, Système national d’économie politique, Capelle, 1857. Available at https://archive.org/details/systmenational00list
- Shirine Saberan. La notion d’intérêt général chez Adam Smith: de la richesse des nations à la puissance des nations. Revue Géoéconomie, no.45, 2008. https://www.cairn.info/revue-geoeconomie-2008-2-page-55.htm
- After the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the 2000-2010 decade saw the share of industrial countries in global industrial production fall to less than 60 %, with annual growth in industrial production of around 6 % per year for emerging countries, compared to 2 % or less in developed countries.
- Raphaël Chauvancy, Les nouvelles guerres systémiques non militaires. https://geopoweb.fr/?LES-NOUVELLES-GUERRES-SYSTEMIQUES-NON-MILITAIRES-Par-Raphael-CHAUVANCY