The False Promise of Connectivity in International Relations

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable became operational in 1858, utopians hoped that nationalism would soon perish. And just two years ago Facebook was talking about how it aimed to create one global community.

But we now know that nationalism has proved to be an adversary deserving far more respect and reflection than what the technologists believed it to be. For an excellent discussion on this topic, I recommend this episode of The Secret History of the Future podcast.

What caught my attention were the parallels between the false promises of information connectivity in inter-personal relations and infrastructure connectivity in international relations.

It is almost an axiom in foreign policy circles today that powerful nation-states should envision and deliver on infrastructure projects in regions where they seek higher influence. China’s BRI has only strengthened this narrative — alternatives to BRI are often just modified variants of infrastructure connectivity projects. This narrative has its own dodgy economic reasoning as well: connectivity projects are thought of as ‘global public goods’ providing initiatives.

Even if we leave the misapplication of economic theory aside, the utility of many connectivity projects is not immediately clear to me. One, these projects will also run up against the force of nationalism. Familiarity will breed contempt regardless of the benefits of these projects. The BRI has started encountering this force in Palau and Sierra Leone. It’s not long before CPEC will face this challenge as well. Two, even from an economic standpoint, assuming the financial risk of connectivity projects in under-governed regions makes no sense for the investing countries. Just like pipeline projects, it is not difficult to sabotage such road projects — warlords and terrorists can easily block them in areas where the writ of the state runs weak.

Maybe converting infrastructure debt to equity control (in the form of transfer of land rights etc) is the primary consideration that makes countries project connectivity as the lynchpin of their foreign policy.


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