The Day-to-Day Handshake of Empire

May 14, 2014, 12:55 am

Imperial powers gain much of their strength from their global networks. The British – by owning the oceans in the 19th century – controlled how much of the world’s commerce moved. In that same century, much of the world’s information moved over British telegraph networks. They gave Britain power. The Zimmerman Telegram, which had much to do with bringing the United States into World War I against Germany, went through a telegraph clearing house in London, where the British intercepted it, decoded it, and passed it on to the United States, much to Germany’s dismay.

So, too, with what the United States is doing now. The National Security Agency could not gather much of the information it did if global networks of communication were not dominated by American companies. Thus, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, could quickly get secret information on her opponents’ negotiating stances because that information was moving over AT&T’s networks.

The problem, of course, is that using the power, or using it unsubtly, risks its destruction. Countries aware of their vulnerability will set up alternative communication methods, thus reducing American coverage. The GPS system used to be American-only, but Russia, China, and (now) the European Union created or are creating their own versions.

The military may be the rough fist of empire, but networks are the day-to-day handshake; not dominance but power nonetheless.

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