My Time in the Torment Nexus
Hurray! We have created the Weaponized Interdependence from classic IR article, Please Don’t Create the Weaponized Interdependence
When I started this newsletter, I thought I’d mostly be writing about the topics that Abe Newman and I discuss in our book, Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy. More bluntly put: I thought I’d be writing to plug the book, and drive home its argument. There was supposed to be lots and lots on chip wars, economic sanctions, Internet politics and the like.
As it turned out, I’m spending more time writing about AI and related issues, which is fine - that’s the topic of my new research! <Plug>But do buy the book! There’s independent testimony that it is FAR MORE FUN than a book about the global economy ought to be.“Captivating. . . . A gripping account” says the Financial Times; while the Washington Post opines that “Farrell and Newman write fluidly and grippingly. . . . it’s not hard to detect the influence of techno-thriller writers such as Neal Stephenson”. You can get it at Amazon or Bookshop.org for yourself, or friends and family over the holiday season</Plug>
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Still, there’s one story about the book that I’ve been meaning to tell. Many of you will be familiar with an infamous Internet meme about Silicon Valley: the Torment Nexus.
My story is about how Abe and I possibly ended up as the Sci-Fi Author in the meme. We wrote the international politics remix of “Don’t Create the Torment Nexus.” And you know what? They went ahead and created it.
This begins with the research that led up to the book. Once upon a time, back in 2019, we published an academic article in a journal, International Security on what we called “weaponized interdependence.” We’d spotted that something interesting and weird was happening in the world economy, which people weren’t paying nearly enough attention to. The really boring underpinnings of international exchange - the infrastructure that allows everything to work - was being turned into tools of coercion.
Globalization runs on networks - financial networks like dollar clearing, information networks like the Internet, and complex technological supply chains. Most of the time, nobody pays attention to the internals of these networks except the specialists who operate them, and for good reason. They are the plumbing of international markets, more or less purpose-designed for dullness.
But we noticed that the plumbing was becoming political. Specifically, the United States had figured out how to exert control over key chokepoints in these networks. The US started by gathering information on its allies and enemies. Over time, it discovered that it could use these chokepoints to effectively cut individuals, businesses or entire countries out of the global financial system (that’s what happened to Iran during the Obama administration). If you’re an international bank, you need access to dollar clearing. The US regulates the institutions that make dollar clearing work, and was perfectly willing to use this to press foreign banks into service on behalf of US foreign policy goals.
The people who think about the global economy - academics, experts, journalists - could see the bits and pieces of this system, but they didn’t really have a framework to put it together. Our notion of “weaponized interdependence” was intended to provide that framework. It was a sexy (by academic standards) buzzword that described how the infrastructure that held the global economy was being put to some very surprising and potentially problematic uses. The US was using this power in ways that could very easily go terribly wrong.
The article came together quickly - it felt almost as if it wrote itself. I’ve never had that experience before or since with an academic publication. And when it came out, it really took off in public debate, again in a way that has never happened to me or Abe before.
Partly this was because the article was damn good (if I say so on our joint behalf). Partly it was because we were well positioned to promote it, as we did relentlessly (we had Twitter followings, back when Twitter was Twitter). And partly it was down to an accident of timing. The article came out just around the time that US-China relations started getting very messy, in ways that seemed to fit with our argument. We started to see politicians’ speeches, G7 communiques, and official policy documents referring to “weaponized interdependence,” the “weaponization of interdependences” and other variants on our catchphrase. So then, as you do, we turned weaponized interdependence into a book.
As we were finishing writing up our manuscript, a different book came out. Chris Miller’s Chip War looked at some of the same issues that we did, in the context of semiconductors. I bought Miller’s book on the day it came out and started reading it in a cafe, a little worried that he’d say something that revealed we had gotten something terribly wrong. We hadn’t (or if we had, it wasn’t in the book), but several hundred pages in*, I saw something that made me goggle in disbelief. To my complete surprise, Abe and I, and our ideas about weaponized interdependence, were part of Miller’s story of how the U.S. had turned semiconductor production into a tool of economic warfare.
Miller described how we had come up with the notion of weaponized interdependence, and accurately summarized our worries about how the US was applying it. Then he got to the punchline: an interview with a senior Trump administration official who suggested that the notion of weaponized interdependence had given them ideas for how to go after China.
The Trump administration wanted to neutralize the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei, which it saw as a major strategic threat to US power and influence. The Obama administration had felt much the same way. Our notion of weaponized interdependence helped inspire this anonymous official and their colleagues to look for a chokepoint they could use to strangle Huawei. What they found was an obscure bureaucratic regulation, “the foreign direct product rule” that they could use to prevent foreign semiconductor manufacturers from supplying advanced chips to Huawei. Miller’s interviewee rejoiced that weaponized interdependence was a “beautiful thing.” That - obviously - was not how Abe and I interpreted it.
This story didn’t end when Trump left office. That obscure bureaucratic precedent allowed the Biden administration to block Russian access to the technology it needed for its war drive. Biden’s officials then used it as the cornerstone of a much broader plan to limit China’s technological ambitions. It is now illegal under US law for US or non-US companies to export certain highly advanced semiconductors to anyone in China, because the US fears that China will use these semiconductors to develop military AI. National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has described these new export controls as “a new strategic asset in the U.S. and allied toolkit to impose costs on adversaries, and even over time degrade their battlefield capabilities.”
And more keeps happening.Just last week, the House’s bipartisan China Committee Report called for this precedent to be applied much more widely, blocking China’s access to a much wider array of technologies. Predictably, the Report repeatedly talked about the weaponization of interdependence. Just as predictably, it was all complaints about how China weaponizing US dependencies, with no discussion of how the US was doing the same thing to China and other countries.
An obscure rule, which appeared in an eight-point font footnote in an incomprehensible regulatory document, has become a linchpin of US economic security policy. And our notion of weaponized interdependence reportedly played some role in making this happen.
You could plausibly interpret this as a textbook case of the Torment Nexus Effect.
IR Authors: In our article, we described Weaponized Interdependence as a cautionary tale. Anonymous Senior Trump Official: At long last, we have created the Weaponized Interdependence from classic IR article, Please Don’t Create the Weaponized Interdependence.
But idea-mongers tend, for obvious reasons, to overvalue the power of ideas. When even a great poet like W.B. Yeats asks: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” the answer is “probably not.” And we are not W.B. Yeats.
Thus, you could just as plausibly point out that Miller’s official was surely just one of the people involved in this decision. Other officials might have different stories about the origins of these export controls. Furthermore, in a counterfactual world where Abe and I had never written our article, it is perfectly possible that officials would have done more or less exactly what they did in our time-space continuum. Perhaps exploiting semiconductor supply chains was an obvious move.
Equally, countering the countercase, one of the things that Abe and I discovered when we did our research is how contingent policy making is. Theorists often assume that decisions of state are driven by some grand rational logic, when in fact they are usually made by harried officials, desperately trying to solve an urgent crisis with whatever tools and approaches come readily to hand. The result is that ideas and catchphrases sometimes have consequences, if the right official comes across them at the right time. But only sometimes.
So in short, who knows? It is plausible that our story is as close to a Torment Nexus as real life policy making gets. It is also plausible that it is not. Perhaps we’ll find out more in future decades, when the records open up. Myself right now: I veer back and forth between the one or the other interpretation, depending on the day that’s in it.
There is a general lesson to be learned nonetheless. Many people think that international relations scholars like Abe and myself should aspire to “policy relevance.” Since some of those people are deans, university presidents and the like, their opinion counts. And they are, broadly speaking, right! I am all in favor of spending large amounts of money on non-immediately useful science, such as efforts to discover the origins of the universe, which provide an ineffable sense of awe. But I, and my colleagues, don’t do the kind of work that provokes ineffable awe. We justify our salaries, not by inspiring cosmological wonder, but by trying to be useful. Policy relevance is one very obvious way to be useful.
Abe’s and my work on weaponized interdependence is as plausibly relevant to policy as international relations theory gets. But policy relevance is a coverall term for what happens when someone, somewhere, finds your ideas useful for their own purposes. Those may, or may not, be the same purposes as you have. Sometimes, those purposes may be startling. Other times, terms or words that you have invented or helped invent acquire meanings and connotations that only faintly resemble your original conception.
William Gibson famously said, “the street finds its own uses for things.” Abe and I have discovered that the elite finds its own uses for things too. Some have seen our work as we intended, as a warning. Others read it as an open invitation. Every time an international relations professor wishes that their work was ‘policy relevant,’ another stubby, desiccated digit uncurls on the monkey’s paw.
* I read really quickly. It is my super-power.
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