The Opportunity Cost of the Global Dragnet

Back in 2006-7, I wrote a series of posts in which I considered the opportunity cost of the Iraq War at a time when our hegemonic position was already clearly in decline. In the years leading up to the Iraq War, I believe Dick Cheney assessed the current energy regime on which our global power was based, and chose to reinvest in that already-crumbling basis of power: oil, reserve currency, global policeman by invading Iraq. What could have happened if we invested the trillion dollars we spent on losing a war in Iraq and instead invested in alternative energy? (An earlier, lost to history version of the post also considered fostering new leadership to deal with climate change.)

As the elites slowly realize we failed on a similarly catastrophic scale in our 5-year bailout of banks, we might expand the earlier question and ask what could have happened if we had invested those trillions, too, rather than propping up the banks that cement our global financial hegemony.

The debate over international privacy rights still ignores domestic privacy rights

It’s from that perspective that I read with interest the debate between David Cole, Orin Kerr, Kenneth Roth, and Ben Wittes over whether we ought to extend the privacy protections Americans enjoy to the rest of the world (or, at least, to citizens of allied countries). (See Cole, Kerr, Cole, Kerr, Roth, Wittes)

As a threshold matter, I think all are missing a key point. I believe the dragnet surveillance we conduct overseas right now clearly violates the Constitution. The NSA is knowingly collecting vast amounts of US person data (that it refuses to count even the domestically acquired dragnet collection hints at how much it’s collecting). And once they collect that vast, uncounted quantity of US person data, the NSA and FBI do not even require RAS before accessing the content of Americans’ communications.

In short, because the government didn’t make the same adjustments for increasingly globalized technology internationally they made in 2008 for domestic collection (the FISA Amendments Act permitted foreign collection domestically, but didn’t deal with the increasing amounts of domestic collection internationally it was doing), the NSA has basically eliminated all privacy protections for any of the significant amounts of US person communications that transit outside of the country.

So their debate should not just consider whether we ought to extend privacy protections to the French in France, but whether Americans retain their constitutional protections as their communications transit France.

The squandered opportunity of American Internet hegemony

But I also think the terms of debate International law (Cole and Roth) versus domestic sovereignty (Kerr) miss an equally important point. What obligations and best practices should the US have adopted as the world’s Internet hegemon?

Kerr sums up the International/domestic split this way:

I suspect that our differences reflect our priors, which in turn are based on two different conceptions of government. I tend to see governments as having legitimacy because of the consent of the governed, which triggers rights and obligations to and from its citizens and those in its territorial borders. As I understand David, he has more of a global view of government, by which governments are accountable to all humans worldwide. I suspect that difference leads us to talk past each other a bit. Consider David’s question: “Would we be satisfied to give the French authority to pick up all of our communications simply on a showing that we were not French and not living in France?” Under my conception of government, the question doesn’t make sense. Because we don’t have any rights vis-a-vis the French government, we can’t “give the French authority” to do anything or have any valid claim to satisfy.

While I’m sympathetic to both perspectives, to a point, I actually think they miss something. The US is not just any country. It has been, for the last 20 years, the world’s sole hegemon. And being the hegemon — as opposed to the coercive world empire, which is a much more expensive proposition — requires a similar kind of consent as that of your garden variety nation-state.

This is the point laid out in Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore’s brilliant essay on American hypocrisy.

Of course, the United States is far from the only hypocrite in international politics. But the United States’ hypocrisy matters more than that of other countries. That’s because most of the world today lives within an order that the United States built, one that is both underwritten by U.S. power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and later the World Trade Organization. Despite recent challenges to U.S. preeminence, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.

This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, U.S. officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone. But as the recent leaks have shown, Washington is also unable to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets. This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.

While there may be no explicit legal basis for it (as there is for Kerr’s model of consent) the world has tolerated us as global hegemon because it maintained the illusion that it had consensual legitimacy. But now that American hypocrisy has been exposed — in part, but only in part, with disclosures that we’ve been conducting mass spying around the world — countries are opportunistically using the moment to try to demand more from us in exchange for that position.

Farrell and Finnemore suggest the US faces a choice between embracing our true actions openly or actually living up to our promises.

The easiest course for the U.S. government to take would be to forgo hypocritical rhetoric altogether and acknowledge the narrowly self-interested goals of many of its actions. Leaks would be much less embarrassing — and less damaging — if they only confirmed what Washington had already stated its policies to be. Indeed, the United States could take a page out of China’s and Russia’s playbooks: instead of framing their behavior in terms of the common good, those countries decry anything that they see as infringing on their national sovereignty and assert their prerogative to pursue their interests at will. Washington could do the same, while continuing to punish leakers with harsh prison sentences and threatening countries that might give them refuge.

The problem with this course, however, is that U.S. national interests are inextricably bound up with a global system of multilateral ties and relative openness. Washington has already undermined its commitment to liberalism by suggesting that it will retaliate economically against countries that offer safe haven to leakers. If the United States abandoned the rhetoric of mutual good, it would signal to the world that it was no longer committed to the order it leads. As other countries followed its example and retreated to the defense of naked self-interest, the bonds of trade and cooperation that Washington has spent decades building could unravel. The United States would not prosper in a world where everyone thought about international cooperation in the way that Putin does.

A better alternative would be for Washington to pivot in the opposite direction, acting in ways more compatible with its rhetoric. This approach would also be costly and imperfect, for in international politics, ideals and interests will often clash. But the U.S. government can certainly afford to roll back some of its hypocritical behavior without compromising national security.

I would suggest we don’t actually have this choice.

US hegemony rests on a lot of things: the dollar exchange, our superlative military, our ideological lip service to democracy and human rights.

But for the moment, it also rests on the globalized communication system in which we have a huge competitive advantage. That is, one reason we are the world’s hegemon is because the rest of the world communicates through us — literally, in terms of telecommunications infrastructure, linguistically, in English, and in terms of telecommunications governance.

Aggressively hacking the rest of the world endangers that, both because of what it does to our ideological claims, but just as importantly, because it provides rivals with the concrete incentive to dismantle that global infrastructure.

The liberal project has always been, for better and worse, about a managed claim to free exchange. In goods (though we wrote the rules to limit the terms of exchange, which until recently guaranteed that the US got the most benefit of it). And in information (again, we wrote the rules and laid the wires, protecting our advantage).

But we won’t have any advantage if the vehicle of exchange, the Internet, gets balkanized in response to our abuse of our own power on it. And that’s the risk we face now. That’s the reality that is already happening. That’s the price we may pay for hacking the rest of the world because we could.

US hegemonic control is likely irretrievable. And if we tried to retrieve it, the things we would have to do would hasten the melting of the earth. Given that reality, perhaps it’s time to use our diminishing power to seed something better, both on the Internet and in real life.

16 replies
  1. geoschmidt says:

    Well I have DeToqueville’s Democracy in America right within my reach, and still haven’t finished it, but the thing, as I hear), is that he said: that America would eventually fail … when the crooks among the population figured out that they could use the system to feather their own nests with the wealth of the nation.

    So as to the question of what better things could have been done with the (Iraq War monies,) much less the wholesale, crass looting of the treasure for the (Bank Bailouts… ), I wonder if the question shouldn’t be: ( playing Cambells soup jingle music,)…”What do give to a hungry… Vampire?”

    A humoungous parasite gets a death grip on the Big Kahuna, who is the boss of the planet. The creature has lots of clever feedback systems to ensure it isn’t sloughed off too easy, like a tin ear, for one. that detects any kind of antibody to it.

  2. Ian Welsh says:

    As you point out, kind of an artificial distinction: the protections Americans get are pretty trivial and honored in the breach.

    As for hegemony, inclined to agree. Also having a brutal effect on American tech companies, people overseas are just stopping buying from them. IBM’s sales in China dropped of a cliff.

  3. ess emm says:

    As ZBiggy has said, hegemonic power should have been used in the window after 1989 to further the institution of a cooperative international system with overlapping and shared security interests. That hasnt happened. Instead hegemony is specifically identified with US interests, and no other larger purpose. Maintenance of Hegemony for its own sake has been US policy.

    So i disagree with you here, Marcy. the US has had its chance, missed it’s window. The political goal now should be a letting go of hegemony. Hegemony and empire cannot function with democracy, as the threat is that the TPTB will be tempted to apply their method of international governance to the home population.

    Hegemony does not equal American interests and is not synonymous with legitimate US national security.

  4. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    ” perhaps it’s time to use our diminishing power to seed something better, both on the Internet and in real life.”

    One can only hope, though in won’t happen without full and frank disclosure and acceptance of guilt, and I just don’t see that happening, as much as I wish it might.

    The message of Dostoyevsky’s, Crime and Punishment, that one should accept responsibility, it will be good for one’s soul, is a universal and timeless truth. Too bad the courage to admit fault seems in such short supply today.

  5. orionATL says:

    we did not become the world’s current “most powerful nation” by intent and design;

    we stumbled into that geopolitical space when the soviet union collapsed and neither the resulting russia, nor the existing europe, nor china wanted (or felt the need) to contest with us.

    cheney invaded iraq because he knew with certainty the u.s. would meet no opposition.

    the u.s. nsa has invaded the world’s communications network for the same reason – it could and it would not be opposed.

    the u.s. government’s dept of justice and fbi have invaded (and evaded) american constitutional government for the same reason – there was no opposition about to counter or threaten the doj/fbi.

    with the demise of the soviet union and russia’s turn inward, the u.s. was in the position of an eigth grader who has suddenly found himself a foot taller and a lot stronger than the other kids.

    one is not fated to become a bully in those circumstances, but it speaks ill – very ill- of america’s leaders since2001, that they had the predisposition and political experience to become egregious bullies shielding their rapaciousness, cruelty, and domestic political opportunism behind pious slogans (“operation enduring freedom”!!).

    and so we began a decade and a half of squandering the good will america had banked while managing at the same time to squander trillions in public money and economic output, on bullying other nations as well as our own citizenry.

    the best that can be hoped for the near future is that the fact that we fell into a position of world dominance and that our leadership in that situation proved itself egregiously incompetent to meet the real challenges presented, those of building a global human society integrated with prosperity, will be clearly recognized within the u.s.

    from thence forward, one can hope, competent, creative american political leadership will be loudly demanded from within the u.s. and from without.

  6. ess emm says:


    we did not become the world’s current “most powerful nation” by intent and design

    I’m sorry, Orion but disagree with you about that. The US could have emerged from WW1 as the preeminent power, but it’s refusal to do so (not forgiving Allied debt, trade barriers, abandoning the League of Nations) set the stage for WW2. As WW2 was winding down, it was believed that global stability required US leadership. Leadership had to be uni-lateral because everybody else was knocked flat. US planners developed the global structure (Bretton Woods, IMF, World Bank, NATO, etc) for US leadership and hegemony.This leadership was planned for and embraced by the elites. Moreover, the US has never been as powerful financially, economically, or militarily than it was in 1945 at the conclusion of WW2. Nothing fell into the US’s lap.
    have found Michael Hudson’s Super-Imperialism very enlightening about this period.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @ess emm: Oh, I agree with all that.

    Even back in that 2004-07 range I was noting we could not longer have exceptionalism and hegemony (not that we really ever could).

    My idea then is we should have gone gracefully and set the world on a sustainable path. But instead we’ve been trying to cling to our old power.

    And truth be told, we are increasingly coercing power, not winning it through persuasion. We’re increasingly rarely exercising hegemony but instead wielding raw power.

  8. emptywheel says:

    @ess emm: Adding, too, that when this formula started to fail, we moved off the gold standard and started shifting increasingly away from the UNSC and to the WTO, using debt and trade to achieve power where ideals used to serve as the primary means.

    One VERY intentional thing we did in the 1980s was fight to privatize telecoms all over the world, amid a global fight over information sovereignty. I believe that was done, in part, to facilitate the spying we’re now seeing.

  9. geoschmidt says:

    Well that’s all so rational! So tie in the Bank Bailouts in with that… Grand stalesmanship… sense of purpose for the nation, posterity.

    Wars make money for a few, and maybe even quite a bit of “trickle down” too.

    If you buy into the BS Propaganda, it was all for a great high minded fantasy, it feels good to believe that these wars are for making the world better!

    Some day the host country will be bled white, and you will have thought it was just a trend of misjudgment of allocation of recourse or shortsighted planning?

    On the other hand, what a sure fire way to raid the cookie jar, just cry… national emergency, we must go to war. The Constitution is put on hold, and away they go. But it can all be done with no fanfare, sort of in a slow incremental fashion, while the folks go on belaboring whether it is better to bail out or out bail.

  10. jay ackroyd says:


    It’s hard to estimate just how much harm has been done by the US imposition of private telecommunications systems. Or rather hard to imagine how much richer, both economically and culturally if the rentiers hadn’t done this.

  11. orionATL says:

    @ess emm:

    so long as there was an antagonistic soviet-american relationship, american power was constrained to its sphere of influence. once the soviet union collapsed, there were no constraints on america’s use of its power. it took a while and the election of a pathological leader, dick cheney, for the opportunities for abuse of military power to be realized. but beginning with the 2000 election they were.

    the u.s. reaction to wwi was precisely what one would expect of a nation with no interest in world power. individually, americans would always prefer just to get rich.

    the actions taken after wwii to rebuild europe and establish some measure of economic order and prosperity in the world were the work of rather foresighted american leaders, general marshall among them.

    the u.s. did, indeed, arrive at its pre-eminent world power status by default. as i said, the geopolitical situation allowing that arose when there was no counterveiling military power, i.e., no soviet union.

    one could argue, however, that an important reason why there was no counterveiling power other than the soviet union was that the u.s. had wrapped up another potential adversary, western europe, in military and economic alliances, with additional such alliances in latin america and east and south east asia. but even here those alliances were a reaction to “world communist domination” and not emperial initiatives.

  12. ben_p says:


    Adding, too, that when this formula started to fail, we moved off the gold standard and started shifting increasingly away from the UNSC and to the WTO, using debt and trade to achieve power where ideals used to serve as the primary means.

    Before you posted this I was going to bring up the death of the “American School of Economics”, which Wikipedia pegs at 1860 to 1970. I don’t have a very deep understanding of the history here, how it corresponds to the gold standard/MMT, or why the formula started to fail, but my gloss indicates the neoliberal movement nonetheless began a point of no ideological return. ‘Debt and trade en lieu of ideals’, as you powerfully and succinctly put it. If we can’t even get single payer health care at this late date.. action on climate/environment destruction looks like an idea from another galaxy.

  13. scribe says:

    Speaking of privacy protections, if the US were to extend the privacy protections US citizens get to the citizens of friendly/allied countries, for many of them it would be a large step backward from the protections their countries (try to) give them.

    As to the US hegemon, it’s been over at least since Bush I gave Sadaam a wink, blink and nod to invade Kuwait in the months following the fall of the Wall. In 1989-90, the US military had nothing to do b/c the adversary it had faced since 1945 was suddenly gone. And we had to show the world that, yes, look what we can do to you. All of a sudden all those wonderful ideals went out the window the minute the reason (communism and the chance of rich guys hanging from lampposts) they were there – as windowdressing – was gone.

  14. Bob says:

    IOW, thanks to the malignant surveillance state here in the US, the rest of the world is moving toward the economic containment of the US. Where is Mr. X when we need him?

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