On Power and Interdependence in the Information Age

The ‘information revolution’ continues to evolve and adapt with every passing year. For some, our period is still within vestiges of an ‘Information Revolution’ that can be plugged back into the broader technological developments of modernity in order to pinpoint its historicity.[1] On the other hand, others argue that we have pushed through the information revolution that emerged out of and aided by the inception of globalisation, being one part of a broader schema of techno-revolutionary waves, into a new kind of technological milieu of some kind; one intertwined with ‘control’.[2] Equally, perhaps our era has led to a distinct kind of information technology, a revolution of its own. We see this in the fusion of distinct technologies, blurring the lines between the biological, the digital, the machine, the physical and the virtual.[3] Nonetheless, however we understand the historical positionality of information technology, it always holds some modality of effect on global politics broadly, be that from the manner in which states communicate to the efficacy of those protests coordinated on social media, and more.[4]

The purpose of this short exploration will be to undertake a textualist analysis of a somewhat influential article on the intersection between information technology and global politics. The article in question is by the international relations theorists Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, entitled ‘Power and Interdependence in the Information Age’. [5] I have chosen to explore this article for a two-fold reason: (a) because of its influence on how to grasp the role of information technology within the global political sphere, and (b) as it attempts to illuminate the role of information technology to ‘Complex Interdependence’ – a key concept of contemporary (neo-) liberal international relations discourse. Being written at the cusp of the unipolar new millennium, this article was published as the nascent information revolution of the early twenty-first century lied dormant, as yet untouched by what we would know to become the full extent of the internet’s effect on the political and social spheres.  Thus, for these reasons, this article is important to explore so to isolate what has changed since its publication, or simply never came to pass. In order to engage in such an exploration, prominent sections of text will be laid out and explored page by page, allowing a certain textual specificity and particularity of critique.

P. 82

“The state has been more resilient than modernists anticipated. States continue to command the loyalties of the vast majority of the world’s people, and their control over material resources in most wealthy countries has stayed at a third to a half of GDP.”

“Twenty years ago, in our book Power and Interdependence (1977), we analysed the politics of such transnational issues as trade, monetary relations, and oceans policy, writing that ‘modernists point correctly to the fundamental changes now taking place but they often assume without sufficient analysis that advances in technology and increases in social and economic transactions will lead to a new world in which states, and their control of force will no longer be important. Traditionalists are adept at showing flaws in the modernist vision by pointing our how military interdependence continues, but find it very difficult accurately to interpret today’s multidimensional economic, social and ecological interdependence.”

“Prophets of a new cyberworld, like modernists before them, often overlook how much the new world overlaps and rests on the traditional world in which power depends on geographically based institutions.”

P. 83

“That [information] revolution has dramatically changed one feature of what we described in Power and Interdependence as ‘complex interdependence’ – a world in which security and force matter less and countries are connected by multiple social and political relationships.”

“Now anyone with a computer can be a desktop publisher, and anyone with a modem can communicate with distant parts of the glove at a trivial cost. Earlier transnational flows were heavily controlled by large bureaucracies like multinational corporations or the Catholic Church. Such organizations remain important but the dramatic cheapening of information transmission has opened the field to loosely structured network organizations and even individuals. These NGOs and networks are particularly effective in penetrating states without regard to borders and using domestic constituencies to force political leaders to focus on their preferred agendas”

In the opening pages of Keohane and Nye’s piece, there is an assumption that this shift in the status-quo is (a) liberal in scope, and consequently (b) intrinsically good. What we have seen is the spread of information as forecast, but with that has, in some cases, arisen the obligation of political leaders to focus on an agenda that is not necessarily liberal. Equally, the networks Keohane and Nye speak of have been two-fold in character. On the one hand, NGOs continue to operate in such a transnational manner. Conversely, however, we also have The Occupy Movement, Anonymous, ANTIFA, The Proud Boys, QAnon Conspiracies and so on; actors not encompassed in this characterisation of contemporary networked agency, and so excluded. The assumption is that a decentralisation is always a liberalisation, and this is not true. Finally, yes, anybody can become a desktop publisher or communicator, but that means a hacker, activist, propagandist, soldier and ‘disruptor’ alongside this also.[6]

P. 84

“One reason that the information revolution has not transformed world politics to a new politics of complete complex interdependence is that information does not flow in a vacuum but in political space that is already occupied.”

At this stage it is important to recall how Keohane and Nye understand ‘complex interdependence’ and how this is distinguishable from ‘interdependence’, which is arguably the central conceptual pillar, or rather the ‘main support pole’, of their thought. In Power and Interdependence, Keohane and Nye state that ‘interdependence’ broadly denotes situations characterised by reciprocal effects amongst actors and between political units. Contrawise, ‘complex interdependence’ is an ideal type of international system that refers to: “a situation among a number of countries in which multiple channels of contact connect societies (that is states do not monopolize these contacts); there is no hierarchy of issues; and military force is not used by governments toward one another.”[7] This conceptual distinction is instructive for the remainder of this short piece as we return to the article at hand.

As a rather salient side-note, it is important to state that the rationale behind Keohane and Nye’s survey of ‘complex interdependence’ is not to provide description nor analysis of the international system, despite this being perhaps misunderstood as so, but rather as part of a wider critique of the ideal type that Keohane and Nye pen as ‘Realism’. This may not seem as if it is a significant point, but it should be front and centre of our concerns, as critique must take account of this, otherwise critical analysis would take the form of critiquing a knife negatively because it is not scissors, or a pencil as it is not a pen, when the two in fact hold different functions, despite their close proximity to one another.

This is important because it is a frequent response by Keohane and Nye themselves to such a critique that Complex Interdependence does not describe reality. The description of reality was not the purpose of the discussion from which ‘Complex Interdependence’ arises. In the second edition of Power and Interdependence they indeed address this in the appendix, stating that: “[Complex Interdependence] is an ideal type of international system, deliberately constructed to contrast with a ‘realist’ ideal type that we outlined on the basis of realist assumptions about international politics.”[8] This can then be supplanted by their statement at the beginning of chapter two that: “We do not argue, however, that complex interdependence faithfully reflects world political reality. Quite the contrary: both it and the realist portrait are ideal types. Most situations will fall somewhere between these two extremes.”[9] Hence, when critiquing complex interdependence, it is imperative that it undergoes critique for what it is, against the background of its purpose, as opposed to what it is often misconceived as being – a comprehensive theoretical description of the global political system.

“Another is that outside of the democratic zone of peace, the world of states is not a world of complex interdependence.”

The notional undertones of these statements, taken together, are: (a) presumptuous in the assertion that there cannot be a mode of complex interdependence undertaken by revisionist powers; and (b) reductively idealist, forgetting the very fact that China, Russia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, etc., are deeply engrained in the nexus of global interdependence (economically most clearly through their presence in the G20) and yet lack or hold limited democratic status; not to mention (c) Westernocentric in conception, implying that true interdependence is engaged with only by democratic states of a certain kind. These claims certainly can be thought of as contemporaneously problematic, but even in 1998 could have been considered too presumptive a universalist generalisation.

“The resulting international institutions [after the Second World War], formed on the basis of multilateral principles, put a premium on markets and information and deemphasized military rivalry. It has become increasingly costly for states to turn away from these patterns of interdependence.”

First and foremost, the final statement of this extract is instrumental to a greater understanding of Keohane and Nye’s system of thought. At the core of their thinking is the empirically verifiable claim that as post-war economics became increasingly intergovernmental, supra-national and global in scope, the network of interconnectivity defining globalised markets grew to the point at which to not engage with this network became tantamount to conscious limitations on potential growth and capital accumulation. This in itself, both engagement with and neglect of such a network, can cause economic frictions, as interconnectivity and interdependence open also opportunities for policy conflicts between politics units.[10] Ultimately, however, it is the framework of cooperation and mutual interest that defines the contemporary international economic milieu, allowing for a rational overcoming of preference and policy struggles between units in the international arena. Subsequently, such a network of economic connectivity is a necessary condition of contemporary global interdependence, but not a lone sufficient condition to overcome policy conflicts that arise consequently.

Paradoxically, a crucial flaw in such a schema was exposed in 2022. Given the sanctions regime following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it could be thought of as having been costly to have thoroughly entrenched ones’ state within this nexus of economic interdependence. With the sanctions regime on Russian companies, specifically that of its hard commodity, energy and financial industries, such complex interdependence has thoroughly contributed to a period of economic stagflation. Russia has been deeply interwoven into the fabric of economic interdependence for a number of decades now, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent turmoil during the Yeltsin administration. Indeed, direct investment from a number of foreign and domestic economic agents in the Russian economy, at a range of levels, has led to several firms becoming corporate titans of Multi-national commerce; Gazprom, Lukoil, Rosneft, Sberbank, VTB Bank, and Rostec, to name but a few.[11] These commercial agents, until February 2022, had been key players of the global economy, being part of the very fabric of global industry and finance as any other large multi-national corporation.

As became abundantly clear with the 2008 financial crisis, whereas a ‘boom’ for one may not be a boom for all, ‘busts’ are certainly global in scope with ripples that reach far and wide. Given the state of Russian commercial embeddedness in the global economy, sanctions in early 2022 following the invasion of Ukraine had a reflexively negative effect on the global economy, through the web of interdependence and interconnectivity that Keohane and Nye detail. Financially, for instance, with  the prospect of lower profitability and higher expected losses following the international sanctions regime against Russia, equity prices declined by over 20% for European Banks (compared to 8% for US banks) and the cost of equity increased from 11% to 16.5%.[12] Hence, the relationship of cause and effect of financial sanctions becomes not only wide reaching, but hard-hitting on the very units that issue sanctions, not just the ‘spoiler’ state the sanctions are directed against. Another illustration of this is in the compounding of the already present ‘cost of living crisis’ following the COVID-19 pandemic in commodities such as Oil and Gas. With the embargo on Russian hard commodities: (1) the world market price exceeded $100 of a barrel of oil; (2) Gas prices increased by over 85% in Europe, 10% in the US and 20% in the rest of the world; (3) world metals prices increased by 11% as a weighted average of price shifts for copper, gold, zinc, iron ore, aluminium, nickel, palladium and platinum.[13] One of the effects of this has been to usher in a new era of global high-inflation, raising the price of both goods and services across every economy. The potentiality of Complex Interdependence is thus not limited to a positive potential of growth, but is just as equally vulnerable to hijacking and mutually constructed decline.

This tells us three things. Firstly, the webbed nexus of Complex Interdependence can be ‘weaponised’ against the network itself reflexively. Secondly, in response to this, that network should, rationally, expect to engage itself with a cooperative ‘securitisation’ discourse, more than likely led by state policy to pull the network back into its controlling orbit to prevent future weaponization by any one ‘spoiler’ or renegade actor. And thirdly, that Complex Interdependence should be considered a refuted ideal type because of such neglected negative potentiality embodied in these two previous conditions.

P. 85

“The explosion in the quantity of free information is perhaps the most dramatic effect of the information revolution.”

In relation to the information boom, Keohane and Nye discuss the free dissemination of scientific information that has come from said boom as ‘a public good’ in itself, going hand in hand with a liberal grasp of knowledge distribution and the progress of society. What they could not have known is how much the growth in quantity of free information added to the dissolution of both normative and epistemological fixedness that characterises much of the ‘disenchantment’ and nihilism underpinning our hyper-modern ‘post-truth’ era.[14] Thus, this revolution opened the site to recontest what is knowledge and what is not, i.e., in this case, the rise of the echo chamber, so-called ‘fake news’ and misinformation campaigns, for example. This has had rather dramatic effects on the international arena, especially as far as the Russo-Ukrainian war is concerned.[15]

“The information revolution alters patterns of complex interdependence by exponentially increasing the number of channels of communication in world politics – between individuals in networks, not just individuals within bureaucracies. But it exists in the context of an existing political structure and its effects on the flows of different types of information vary vastly. Free information will flow faster without regulation.”

This point concerns the above discussion, i.e., the fact that the spread of free information equates to thinner regulation, which can change the attitude we hold to social and political knowledge itself, not least the manner and practices by which we receive such knowledge.

This also relates to a point made in Power and Interdependence about information sharing and the prospect for cooperation. Throughout their work, Keohane and Nye develop a coupled understanding of cooperation and information sharing, arguing that one is facilitated by the other through the very activity of reciprocity. Where mutual interest rests, the mutual dissemination of information by states to facilitate this interest breeds cooperation. This is the case, be that on issues concerning “controlling the spread of communicable diseases, allocating telecommunications frequencies, and limiting pollution in the atmosphere and oceans…Information encourages cooperation on issues by governments that might otherwise act unilaterally. And where information reveals substantial shared interests, important agreements may result.”[16] An interesting point here would thus be the extent to which intellectual property rights sit in tension with this, i.e. do nationalised or quasi-nationalised industries fall on the same normative requirement to share information for the sake of state-based cooperation, especially where intellectual property owned by a firm or company is concerned.

P. 86

As a side point, after discussing the effect on knowledge by the information revolution, Keohane and Nye develop a distinction between what would go on to become a key part of their schema, especially that of Nye’s, that of ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ power:[17]

“Hard power is the ability to get others to do what they otherwise would not do through threats or rewards…Soft Power, on the other hand, is the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion. It works by convincing others to follow or getting them to agree to norms and institutions that produce the desired behaviour.”

They maintain that escaping the constraints of interdependency itself is a key mechanism of smaller states to uphold their position as a source of power potential.

“As we pointed out two decades ago, the ability of the less vulnerable to manipulate or escape the constraints of an interdependent relationship at low cost is an important source of power. For example, in 1971 the United States halted the convertibility of dollars into gold and increased its influence over the international monetary system. In 1973, Arab states temporarily gained power from an oil embargo.”

Similarly, leading on from that, what is distinct and peculiar to the contemporary era is that states are able to demonstrate an ability to manipulate their structural position through the weaponization of the web of complex interdependence itself, deploying it through the position within its network and thus making the complex nature of complex interdependence even more so. For instance, as discussed above in relation to the Russo-Ukrainian war. To sanction is Russia is to equally sanction oneself. This is how a state can utilise its position within the network of complex interdependence to not only maintain its power, but to mechanise and employ the nexus in its favour.

P. 89

“The key, however, will not be the possession of fancy hardware or advanced systems but the ability to integrate a system of systems. In this dimension, the United States is likely to keep its lead. In information warfare, a small edge makes all the difference.”

This ‘edge’ in military capability no longer simply concerns who has the best technology and information discretely, but how they can be intersected, interlaced and merged. It is not good enough to simply have up-to-date hardware, but the ability to integrate such means with contemporary information technology. During the Russo-Ukraine war, for instance, we have seen the necessity for Ukraine to sure up its cyber capabilities, so it would be able to compete against Russia on this plane or site of confrontation. This was achieved with the use of Elon Musk’s commercial ‘Starlink’, and the assistance of Microsoft computing systems, both having being directed by the Ukrainian state in defensive cyberwarfare against Russian malware, such as the now well-known ‘FoxBlade’ virus.[18] Perhaps it is the successful systemic integration of this technology with conventional weaponry, as opposed to mere conventional arms alone, that has pushed Russia back closer to its own borders over the course of the war. This is a speculative claim nonetheless.

“Contrary to the expectations of some theorists, the information revolution has not greatly decentralized or equalized power among states. If anything, it has had the opposite effect.”

Is this a perennial claim or temporally limited in scope? Can a revisionist or counter-hegemonic pattern emerge against the current of this?

“Attention becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable signals from white noise gain power. Editors, filters, interpreters, and cue-givers become more in demand, and this is a source of power.”

This makes me think of the work of techno-ethicist James Williams. Williams explores the role that technology and social media have in the wider ‘attention economy’, alongside the role that such an economy has in adapting certain qualities of the human condition, i.e., the achievement of personal goals.[19] Indeed, this quote by Keohane and Nye could be a reduction of the overall argument Williams makes, although distinction lies not only in disciplinary method – Williams being a philosophical ethicist – but the clarion call of personal and state-level resistance to such power that Williams purports. Such a piquing is absent in the work of Nye and Keohane, illustrating their overriding (de-)scriptivism and lack of normative (pre-)scriptivism.

“Unlike asymmetrical interdependence in trade, where power goes to those who can afford to hold back or break trade ties, information power flows to those who can edit and credibly validate information to sort our what is both correct and important.”

On a more specified note, the contemporary discourse concerning Information Power has ultimately led to the emergence of ‘Disinformation Power’. What Keohane and Nye here discuss as  ‘Information Power’ is at the fore of a discourse concerning the legitimacy and bias of what the Forty-fifth President of the United States penned as ‘Fake News’. Indeed, not only is it at the fore of this discourse, but it really is at its centre – and it would be foolish to overlook this.

Trump’s narrative discourse concerning the main-stream media (MSM) goes hand in hand with a mass-feeling amongst many in the US of discount, whereby the perspective of Clinton’s so-called ‘Basket of Deplorables’ has been neglected or disregarded Thus, an instrument of Trump (and populists historically) has been to use such a feeling of neglect or discount for electoral interest, demanding not the broadening of published journalistic perspective, but rather calling into the question the legitimacy of the media’s information power broadly.[20] The purpose of this is to undermine the asymmetric credibility that defines the legitimacy of MSM outlets, and has thus opened the gates to ‘Disinformation Power’ – the kind practiced by ‘Before Its News’, ‘Breitbart’, ‘American News’ or ‘Info Wars’. It is important to highlight that neither Trump nor contemporary populist movements are the initiators of such a practice of instrumentalised de-legitimation of ‘the media’ for electoral or political gain, as a phenomenon. To charge contemporary national populists with this would be to only confuse partisan-motivated wishful thinking and political history. Nonetheless, it is highly salient to recall that a ‘disinformation disorder’ is always connected to crises of legitimacy and with the loss of institutional authority, both structurally and normatively, such crises manifest.[21]

P. 90

“Three types of state action illustrate the value of credibility. [1)] Much of the traditional conduct of foreign policy occurs through the exchange of promises, which can be valuable only insofar as they are credible…[2)] Second, to borrow from capital markets at competitive interest rates requires credible information about one’s financial situation. [3)] Finally, the exercise of soft power requires credibility in order to be persuasive.”

In the final pages of their piece, Keohane and Nye discuss how promises within the international arena rest on a mantle of credibility, which they explore through the example of the relationship between the US and Western Europe during the Cold War. As a democracy, “the United States could more credibly promise not to seek to exploit or dominate its allies”, distinguishing it from the Soviet Union. In the last of these types, illustrations of the attempted exercise of soft power without credibility are listed, such as the attempt by the US to advocate universal human rights whilst upholding racial segregation in the last century.

A critique of this, conceivably, is that Keohane and Nye have shifted their focus by unit of analysis without conceptual care for nuance. Before this discussion of credibility and state action, the discourse concerned credibility and Information Power by independent media outfits – not states. It seems that the ‘level of analysis’ has shifted without mention, which could lead to some conflating the phenomena of state credibility with that of information, source or media credibility.[22] These three types of state action feel out of place, referencing normative credibility of institutions in their pursuits of national interest, as opposed to the epistemological credibility of media outlets in their declarations and claims. This is also supported in that the following paragraph returns to the role of free information sources – distinct from the level of state interaction. Subsequently, one can suggest that Keohane and Nye freely slide between units of analysis, limiting their application of scope severely.

“One implication of the abundance of free information sources and the role of credibility is that soft power is likely to become less a function of material resources.”

Pp. 90-91

“The power of broadcasting persists but will be increasingly supplemented by the Internet, with its multiple channels of communications controlled by multiple actors who cannot control one another by force.”

This is almost prophetical of the saturated nature of the internet, at least in relation to the wide spread of information that is seen in the contemporary epoch. The total dissemination of access to locate and forge ‘information’ broadly has dulled the capable use of force precisely as the number of potential outlets continues to grow exponentially in an almost Fibonaccian style. This implies that the use of force to coerce a media outlet, or the population broadly, for the sake of soft power, is becoming less plausible and possible. In this manner, information outlets on the internet are almost like the mythical Hydra in contemporary form – whereby the removal of one node leads to the creation of two more; the network expands irrespective of attempts to force its contraction and to a greater concentration. In such a case, the only definitive manner to avert this castration of the state’s ability to use force for coercion of information outlets for soft power, which Keohane and Nye fail to discuss in fact, is to follow in the footsteps of Heracles and cauterise the wound – surveilling, restricting, or wholly recasting access to the internet and internet-based information (as China has done with social media), for instance.[23]

P. 91

Keohane and Nye make the claim that “In the case of worldwide television, wealth can also lead to soft power”, going on to use the illustration of CNN during the First Gulf War. They claim that: “The fact that CNN was an American company helped to frame the issue [Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait], worldwide, as aggression. Had an Arab company been the world’s dominant TV channel, perhaps the issue would have been fames as a justified attempt to reverse colonial humiliation”. This is a claim detached not only from the context of the early 1990s, with America entering the period of its hegemony in global unipolarity, but makes the spurious assumption that ‘the world’s dominant TV channel’ could be from inside the cultural or linguistic milieu of any other state than that of the hegemon. To claim as such would be to make the assumption that any power is willing to afford another political unit cultural and normative capability to forge a narrative distinct from its own.

Indeed, the power of broadcasting to ‘agenda set’ is no small matter in its faculty as potentia to sway not ‘what we think’, but ‘what we think about’. Interestingly, a point Keohane and Nye indeed touch on, but only skirt, is that such potentia can adapt into a mode of bio- or necro- political power over life and death, when for instance broadcast media holds the capability to decide which crises deserve our attention, sympathy and action. As such, through such potentia, by its structure as a legitimated authority, broadcast media can influence decisions concerning how we live and who should die.[24] This was seen no more obviously so than in the discourse surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein daily decisions entailed a process of ‘immunisation’; sifting out which subject-encased bodies were worthy of a protected life, which had such life negated, and how dissenting bodies were to be punished in such a mire.[25]

“The shift from broadcasting to narrow-casting has major political implications. Cable television and the Internet enable senders to segment and target audiences. Even more important politically, the Internet not only focuses attention but helps coordinate action across borders. Interactivity at low cost allows for the development of new virtual communities: People who imagine themselves as part of a single group regardless of how far they are physically from one another.”

This certainly the case, and we can see this more now than ever. This piece was written in 1998, over a decade prior to when this sentiment came to its apotheosis with the emergence of mass protests during The Arab Spring, The Occupy Wall Street Movement, The Anonymous Movement, or even the online Alt-Right movements of the right-wing.

P. 91-92

Given Keohane and Nye’s typical focus on (a) states, (b) institutions and (c) international organisations as the chief political units of international politics, they overlook the agency of both global civic society movements and individuals. Nonetheless, they do go on to discuss how the brokers of technological advancement are significant in this. This is so especially in relation to NGOs, naturally, as in almost all neoliberal discourse of NGOs, affording a significant agency to Multinational Corporations that have a role in such an advancement. Thus, an NGO or Multinational Corporation holds agency in this framework, but the global civil society group or citizen-individual is castrated of such agency by simple neglect.

“These technologies create new opportunities for NGOs. Advocacy networks’ potential impact is vastly expanded by the information revolution, since the fax machine and the Internet enable them to send messages from the rain forests of Brazil or the sweatshops of Southeast Asia.”

P. 92

“There are substantial opportunities for a flowering of issue advocacy networks and virtual communities, but the credibility of these networks is fragile.”

I think this is an intrinsically significant point that has become more central in political discourse as time has trundled on. Against the milieu of ‘Culture Wars’ and the return of competing political narratives, the credibility of issue advocacy networks has never been more fragile. A brilliant example of this in the UK, currently, is that of the advocacy groups ‘Extinction Rebellion’ or ‘Just Stop Oil’. In this case, support may reside over the issue they wish to shine a light on – climate crisis – but the widespread disruption of their demonstrations seems to have begun to erode the credibility of their position and protected rights of protest.[26]

“The IPCC is an example of an information-legitimating institution whose major function is to give coherence and credibility to masses of scientific information about climate change.”

“As the IPCC example shows, the significance of credibility is giving increasing importance to transnational networks of like-minded experts.”

P. 93

“Not all democracies are leaders in the information revolution, but many are. This is no accident. Their societies are familiar with the free exchange of information, and their institutions of governance are not threatened by it. They can shape information because they can also take it. Authoritarian states, typically among the laggards, have more trouble.”

This is, by far, the most pro-western, US-Centric, misguided teleologically assumptive moment in this paper. One would struggle to understand how information, or indeed knowledge itself, even existed prior to Liberalism and US-style Liberal Democracy. This also neglects so much of the US’s internal limitations on information access.

“Singapore has thus far been able to reconcile its political controls with an increasing role for the Internet. But as societies reach higher levels of development where more citizens want fewer restrictions on access to the Internet, Singapore runs the risk of losing the people who are its key resource for competing in the information economy.”

It is a teleological assumption that increased development naturally entails the liberalisation of society – that all development is a one-way current to democratic liberalism.[27] The assumption here is that the more developed a society, the more it will want limited government – and this is just simply not necessarily the case. China has certainly disproved this now, as has Russia, Belarus and Saudi Arabia to name but a few. Or is there a particular kind of ‘development’ that Keohane and Nye have in mind, i.e., a Westernocentric, liberal-democratic capitalist framework of development wherein the closer the economy of the nation-state mirrors that of the US economy, the ‘more developed’ it is? This of course comes with its own problems and becomes selective to a point of thorough reductionism.

“Another reason that closed systems have become more costly is that it is risky for foreigners to invest funds in a country where the key decisions are made in an opaque fashion. Transparency is becoming a key asset for countries seeking investment.”

This seems to completely neglect the pull of investment. The Belt and Road Initiative that has become so integral to both Chinese economic and foreign policy negates this perspective.[28] Indeed, this statement assumes that investment has some normative quality to it.

Naturally, Keohane and Nye conclude the article with the effect of the information revolution on international business, citing the benefits of reduced costs to information transmission, and so on.

“As Adam Smith would have recognized, the value of information increases when the cost of transmitting it decline, just as the value of a good increases when transportation costs fall, increasing demand by giving its makers a larger market.”

Keohane and Nye reveal thus a ‘value-centric’ approach to conceptualising information here, which, quite frankly, teeters on the edge of commodification.

P. 94

“The ability disseminate free information increases the potential for persuasion in world politics. NGOs and states can more readily influence the beliefs of people in other jurisdictions.”

Is this anti-pluralist and interventionism by the back-door? An appraisal of intervention and norms-spreading through an appraisal of information revolution?

“If one actor can persuade others to adopt similar values and policies, whether it possesses hard power and strategic information may become less important. Soft power and free information can, if sufficiently persuasive, change perceptions of self-interest and thereby alter how hard power and strategic information are used.”

“If governments or NGOs are to take advantage of the information revolution, they will have to establish reputations for credibility amid the white noise of the information revolution.”

“The future lies neither exclusively with the state nor with transnational relations: geographically based states will continue to structure politics in an information age, but they will rely less on material resources and more on their ability to remain credible to a public with increasingly diverse sources of information.”

Overall, therefore, the central concept of the piece, which it should be read through, is credibility. Liberalism, and its distrust or scepticism of the state, was the very thing that eroded US government credibility – leading to Trump, conspiracy theory and so on. The spread of information and misinformation, mixed with a preference for Lockean negative-liberty against a backdrop of American ideological culture, all led to the questioning of government credibility prima facie – i.e. the very idea that any government could be credible.


[1] Luciano Floridi (2010) Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Stephen R. Barley (2020) Work and Technological Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Klaus Schwab (2016) The Fourth Industrial Revolution. London: Penguin Books.

[4] For a greater exploration of precisely this notion, of how global politics and information technology are closely intertwined, see: Elizabeth C. Hanson (2008) The Information Revolution and World Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

[5] Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye Jr. (1998) ‘Power and Interdependence in the Information Age’. Foreign Affairs, 7(5): 81-94.

[6] On the term ‘disruptor’ - this is a more recent phenomenon that has transpired out of self-referential quasi-oligarchic terminology by elites and wealth-leaders, making others will to self-brand as such. Its popular use stems from the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’ and the discourse around ‘disruptive technology’. The implication is that radical innovation can be the disruption of the status-quo, especially in terms of market logics and accumulative projections, considering ‘the disruptor’ as on the precipice or edge of human potentiality itself. See: Paul Armstrong (2017) Disruptive Technologies: Understand, Evaluate, Respond. London: Kogan Page; Clayton M. Christensen, et.al. (1997) Disruptive Innovation: The Christenson Collection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

[7] Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye (1989) Power and Interdependence. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. p.249, see also: pp.24-25.

[8] Ibid, p.249.

[9] Ibid, p. 24. Another note of interest here is the ‘Carrian’ dialectic going on here between ‘realism’ and its antipode. Whereas E.H. Carr pens this as a dialogue between ‘Realism’ and ‘Utopianism’, arguing in favour of the dialogue itself – contrary to popular misconception of his work – Keohane and Nye do so as ‘Realism’ and ‘Complex Interdependence’, arguing that reality reflects an interplay of both. What the two understand as ‘Realism’ and its antithesis are clearly distinct, not least as a result of epistemological differences. However, perhaps by virtue of their commonly misunderstood or neglected nuances, the two bodies of thought may be closer to one another than International Relations as a discourse would have, for the sake of ease and clear-cut distinction.

[10] Robert O. Keohane. (1984). After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in The World Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 5-6.

[11] See: Alexei V. Kuznetsov. (2011). ‘The Development of Russian Multinational Corporations’. International Studies of Management & Organization, 41(4): 34–50; Kari Liuhto, Sergei Sutyrin, and Jean-Marc Blanchard (Eds.). (2016). The Russian Economy and Foreign Direct Investment. London and New York: Routledge.

[12] Claudia Girardone. (2022). ‘Russian Sanctions and the Banking Sector’. British Journal of Management, 33(4): 1683-1688, p. 1687.

[13] Paul J. J. Welfens. (2023). Russia's Invasion of Ukraine: Economic Challenges, Embargo Issues and a New Global Economic Order. Switzerland: Springer Nature. pp. 116, 301.

[14] See: Wendy Brown. (2023). Nihilistic Times: Thinking With Max Weber. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Lee McIntyre. (2019). Post-Truth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Ch. 5.

[15] Elina Treyger, Joe Cheravitch, Raphael S. Cohen. (2022). Russian Disinformation Efforts on Social Media. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp.

[16] Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye (1989) Power and Interdependence. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. p. 272.

[17] See: Joseph Nye. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.

[18] Kristan Stoddart. (2002). Cyberwarfare: Threats to Critical Infrastructure. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 192.

[19] James Williams. (2018). Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[20] See: Robyn Kaplan and Danah Boyd. (2018). “Who’s Playing Who? Media Manipulation in an Era of Trump”. In Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papachariss (Ed.), Trump and The Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 49-59.

[21] W. Lance Bennett and Stephen Livingstone. (2021). “A Brief History of The Disinformation Age: Information Wars and The Decline of Institutional Authority”. In W. Lance Bennett and Stephen Livingstone (Ed.)., The Disinformation Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.3-42.

[22] For a great discussion of this for both International Relations and security studies, see the opening chapter in:  Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde. (1998). Security: A New Framework For Analysis. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[23] See: Ying Jiang. (2017). Social Media and E-Diplomacy in China: Scrutinizing the Power of Weibo. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[24] For a greater discussion of this, of the bio- and necro- political, see:  Michel Foucault. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 194; (2008). The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at The Collège de France, 1978-1979. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; Roberto Esposito. (2008). Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press; Achille Mbembe. (2019). Necropolitics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[25] Roberto Esposito. (2023). Common Immunity: Biopolitics in the Age of the Pandemic. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[26] YouGov. (18th April 2023). ‘Do you have a favourable or unfavourable opinion of the campaign group Just Stop Oil?’. YouGov.co.uk. Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/science/survey-results/daily/2023/04/18/25178/1 (Accessed 25/06/ 2023); (19th June 2023). ‘How the government is handling the issue of the environment in the UK’. YouGov.co.uk. Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/science/trackers/how-the-govern ment-is-handling-the-issue-of-the-environment-in-the-uk (Accessed 25/06/2023).

[27] For a pertinent, although older, critique of such liberal historicism, see: Herbert Butterfield. (1931). The Whig Interpretation of History. London: G. Bell and Sons.

[28] Bruno Maçães. (2018). Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Especially Chapters Three and Four.