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America's Underground Grand Strategy
A meditation on the anniversary of 9/11 and the publication of Undergroud Empire
Yesterday was the 22nd anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. For most international relations observers, the retrospective look at the U.S. foreign policy response to those terrorists attacks is that it was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. In response to 9/11, the Bush administration launched not one but two wars in the Greater Middle East — one lasting more than a decade and one lasting nearly two decades. At best, those ways yielded marginal gains for U.S. interests. At worst, they were costly debacles in both blood and treasure.
International relations scholars — most of whom opposed the war in Iraq — have been particularly harsh in their strategic assessments. It is often posited that the United States, by focusing its resources on the Global War on Terror, failed to prioritize the rise of China as a strategic challenge.
This framing of the response to 9/11 was in my mind as I was reading Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman’s excellent book, Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy, which comes out today. Farrell and Newman are the authors of the “Weaponized Interdependence” paper in International Security that has had such a profound intellectual impact inside and outside the Beltway. It would be easy to presume that Underground Empire is just the book-length treatment of the IS paper, but that would be wrong. Farrell and Newman tell a richer and longer story in the book, explaining both the origins and responses to weaponized interdependence in far greater detail.
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The origins are what interest me. What Farrell and Newman make clear in the book is that many of the tools U.S. policymakers developed in response to 9/11 are the tools that Washington is now deploying against other great powers
The global economy relied on a preconstructed system of tunnels and conduits that the United States could move into and adapt, nearly as easily as if they had been custom-designed by a military engineer for that purpose. By seizing control of key intersections, the U.S. government could secretly listen to what adversaries were saying to each other or freeze them out of the global financial system.
At the beginning, the U.S. government did this opportunistically and sporadically. U.S. officials saw themselves as responding to an immediate, urgent threat rather than self-consciously building the foundations of a new kind of power. When the United States deployed this power, it targeted terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and belligerent states with few friends, like North Korea. Some of what the United States did was controversial, but the disagreements mostly centered on the sweep- ing interpretations of presidential power behind the imposition of new surveillance techniques and collateral damage to the civil rights of U.S. citizens.
Yet governments, too, can follow paths without anticipating where they lead. As departments and agencies developed new tools, they kept on finding new uses for them. Whenever a new use was discovered, it created a possible precedent for others. When bureaucrats got a taste of power, they liked it….
Within a couple of weeks of the September 11 attack, the U.S. Department of the Treasury had started to aggressively investigate its options for gathering data from the world, so that it could detect future attacks. It quickly identified the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) messaging system—which plays a core role in global financial transfers—as a crucial source of information, and demanded access to SWIFT’s information under pain of criminal subpoenas. Treasury also began to develop a new kind of sanction, which used its control of “dollar clearing” to force international banks to implement U.S. policy outside its borders. Control of SWIFT and dollar clearing were combined to cut Iran out of the world’s financial system, forcing it to the negotiating table to discuss its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. officials who planned these steps often thought of them as once-off emer- gency measures. Instead, they became the precedent for a more general transformation of U.S. financial power.
Slowly, and without ever really thinking through what it was doing, the United States transformed the subterranean networks that tied the world’s economy together into an underground empire, where it could listen in on the world’s conversations and isolate its enemies from the world economy. Once-radical proposals became commonplace tools of policy. The United States was no longer just the world’s remaining superpower. It was a state with superpowers.1
The most obvious dimensions of the U.S. response to 9/11 were of dubious long-term utility. It turns out, however, that in some lesser-known dimensions the U.S. was crafting the playbook it would run today in dealing with Iran, Russia, and China. Which means that 9/11 actually accelerated U.S. policymaker learning in the art of coercive statecraft.
That passage also highlights another theme of Farrell and Newman’s book: the quasi-accidental origins of the U.S. coercive apparatus. Policymakers were at times unaware of the effects of their coercive measures. There is a trial-and-error aspect to this story, as bureaucrats and policy principals learned what worked and what did not.
The immediate memories of September 11 have faded; the anniversary prompts talk of legacies and historical effects. Farrell and Newman’s book provides a reminder that some of the most important U.S. foreign policy tools today had their origins in the response to that awful, horrible day.
Farrell and Newman, Underground Empire, pp. 10-11.