The longstanding myth of neutral commerce was killed off this weekend
Perhaps the defining feature of our post-liberal era is the increasingly overt re-politicisation of supposedly ‘neutral’ economic, cultural and political institutions. Among many examples, the most internationally significant instance of this is the abandonment of any pretence that international commerce is apolitical.
Unlike privateering in the Azores in the age of Napoleon, today this happens on a scale that impacts us all. Suspending certification for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and more generally Russian energy exports will hit the cost of living across Europe, as will excluding (some) Russian banks from SWIFT and BP’s exit from a £$14bn stake in Russian energy company Rosneft.
On top of this, US corporations are now being invited to join in the pressure on Russia of their own accord. Some are taking up the invitation: Elon Musk recently confirmed his Starlink satellite network would provide internet over Ukraine in response to Russian attempts to cut off online access. Ukraine’s vice-Prime Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, has called on payment providers such as PayPal, Mastercard and Visa, as well as social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to take Ukraine’s side in the conflict too.
Harassing a state’s economic interests has been part of warfare since King Henry III first began issuing what became later known as privateering commissions or ‘letters of marque’ in 1243. But globalised commerce thrived in the long post-war peace created by (among other things) the nuclear curtailment of overt great power conflict. In this context, especially since the end of the Cold War, it served the interests of everyone (except for Western workers) to pretend that commercial relations were a force of nature without nation-state ties, and that capital should be freed from state interests to flow globally and benefit us all.
As such, ‘hot’ war mostly was confined proxy struggles while official consensus on commercial neutrality was maintained to safeguard international business interests. Thus, the involvement of civilian corporations in conflict has tended to be (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) official defence contractors, and even then treated as morally dubious.
Yet with a great power conflict upon us, economic warfare has become ever more overt: effectively a return to privateering that enlists once purportedly-neutral international commercial institutions wherever possible.
And while economic warfare between Russia and the West is clearly weighted in the West’s favour, this doesn’t mean no retaliation can be expected. It may or may not be a coincidence that US freight forwarding giant Expeditors was hit recently by a cyberattack, followed a few days later by Nvidia, the biggest US microchip company.
We can only pray the current crisis eases soon. But even if it does, the effects of this now comprehensive re-politicisation of global commerce will be with us permanently — and not just in the economic aftershocks. For you can only break the fourth wall once.
Big Tech and energy markets have now been explicitly conscripted as tools of great power conflict. Privateers on the scale of an Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg are actors with an unnerving reach. This development arguably just moves the West to where China has been for some time, but one thing is certain: free-trade Tories can forget “Global Britain”. There’s no road back to naïve commercial internationalism now, even if we wanted one. We would be wise to calculate our food, manufacturing and commercial dependencies accordingly.