The turn to managed interdependence: a glimpse into the future of international economic law?

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Beyond the unpredictability injected into the international order in the wake of policies adopted by the current US administration, a trend seems to be taking shape: the management of interdependence. The belief whereby increased global integration and connectivity would bring peace, stability and prosperity has never been as challenged as presently, when links between states are occasionally “weaponized” in the pursuit of goals that increasingly blur the economic, political and strategic divides.

This scenario pre-dates the Trump period. It was described in an influential 2016 publication by the European Council on Foreign Relations as one where interdependence “has turned into a currency of power, as countries try to exploit the asymmetries in their relations”. In reaction, states are reassessing their exposure to an interdependent global order, seeking to mitigate perceived vulnerabilities that might stem from connectivity and openness.

International law is likely to be transformed if this trend gains traction. A number of international rules and institutions were premised on – and, in fact, harnessed – the interdependence that marked the post-Cold War environment. This article offers insights into possible implications of managed interdependence for international economic law, an area where states are increasingly resorting to “economic statecraft” in order to advance strategic interests. As explored below in the example of investment screening regulations, some of these interests — as national security – are pursued by the management of interdependence.

The emergence of managed interdependence

The intensification of the US-China rivalry has made salient the drivers of managed interdependence. In what possibly amounts to one of the most consequential shifts in global politics, the US has decided to change its approach to China. According to the 2017 National Security Strategy, the US needs to “rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.“

In the context of the change in policy, calls are emerging for the US to manage its economic interdependence with China. In the defense establishment there seems to be a growing sentiment that it is necessary to untangle the economic links between the two countries in order to safeguard US national security. Leading China experts in the US are advocating “ways to protect ourselves against (…) Chinese activity that’s intended to exploit our openness.” And think tanks are suggesting to build “diversity and redundancy in critical supply chains” to limit China´s leverage over the global economy.

The US case with respect to China offers a compelling manifestation of the push to manage interdependence, but it is not an isolated instance. China, for its part, is rolling out its own network of interdependence, partially as a result of the lesson “that overdependence on the West in trade and economy is dangerous”, as argued by a Chinese scholar. Likewise, friends and allies of the US are taking due note of the cost President Trump is seeking to extract from interdependence in the form of trade concessions under the guise of alleged national security. While these states often have little wiggle room to counteract at present, they might be looking for options in the future, as analysts recognize. The private sector too is adjusting to managed interdependence by means of a redesign of global supply chains. Finally, it could also be argued that domestic anti-globalization pressure can induce governments to limit their economies’ exposure to interdependence.

International economic law in times of managed interdependence

Underlying these developments is the perception that, in a context of great power competition, economic policies might be enlisted in a larger set of tools aimed at advancing strategic interests. The 2017 US National Security Strategy acknowledges that this dynamic is currently at play when it states that “American prosperity and security are challenged by an economic competition playing out in a broader strategic context.“ The combination of strategic goals and economic policies is the essence of the notion of “economic statecraft”.

In many instances, economic statecraft in all its expressions is enabled by economic interdependence. Economic statecraft is often associated with the imposition of (formal or informal) economic sanctions, and with the leveraging of state clout to advance national economic interests, as the opening of foreign markets. What became more frequent at present, though, is another brand of economic statecraft, namely the deployment of economic tools to push forward strategic state interests such as access to raw materials and the acquisition of relevant technologies. The fact that the strategic rationale behind some state measures might be debatable does not take away their nature as economic statecraft. When the US decides to manage its interdependence with a NATO ally such as Turkey by crippling bilateral economic ties, this is no less an example of economic statecraft – although some could be left wondering what the strategic logic for this decision is.

The “international law of economic statecraft” differs from international economic law in critical ways. First, states often possess more discretion to act, as a number of economic statecraft measures fall under exceptions to international rules, as national security carve-outs. Second, economic statecraft decisions are inspired by a strategic rationale, which not necessarily privileges the efficient allocation of resources. Indeed, these decisions might confound the market, as when the US government vetoed the takeover of the American chip manufacturer Qualcomm by Singaporean company Broadcom.

As exceptions to rules are more frequently invoked, legal uncertainty is introduced into global economic regimes, and the rule of law is impaired. As a reaction, states are likely to opt for some sort of managed interdependence in order to ensure a degree of predictability.

One area of economic regulation where increased managed interdependence can be identified are the disciplines for investment screening. These rules allow states to scrutinize – and occasionally discourage or veto – transactions taking place in their jurisdictions.

The dissemination of foreign investment screening as management of interdependence

Developments in the investment field offer interesting insights on what international economic law might look like in a context of managed interdependence.

Increased interdependence brought about by rules that liberalized investment flows expanded the global outward stock sixfold between 1997 and 2017, from US$ 5.5 trillion to US$ 30.8 trillion, according to UNCTAD.

More recently, though, that same agency noted that, as a consequence of “concerns about national security and foreign ownership of land and natural resources (…) investment screening procedures are becoming more common”. Whereas investments tended to be by and large welcomed in the past, they are now viewed with slightly more caution.

Tellingly, national security is a concept in expansion. This affords state authorities more leeway to review investment transactions. As the OECD documented in a 2016 report, “the reference to strategically important industries and critical infrastructure is nowadays much more frequent than some six years ago when national security was defined in a much narrower sense”.

Other developments also point to an increased management of interdependence in this area. Of particular relevance is the fact that new actors are adopting investment screening legislation – most notably the European Union, where a regulation is expected to be in force in the short term. Additionally, states with established mechanisms are reinforcing the powers held by national authorities to scrutinize foreign investments, as evidenced in the reform of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), whose bill should be signed into law soon.

The current stage of investment screening regulation also hints at possible roles for international institutions and cooperation in this area. Accordingly, the US Congress has directed the President “to urge and help allies and partners of the United States to establish processes that parallel the [CFIUS] to screen foreign investments for national security risks (…)”. For their part, trade ministers of the US, EU and Japan have agreed on the need to work on best practices to stop governments from “the systematic investment” aimed at acquiring foreign technologies.

China, in its turn, has advocated that the WTO examine, as a possible measure of investment facilitation, to “[e]ncourage the establishment of clear and consistent criteria and procedures for investment screening, appraisal and approval (…)”.

As these examples suggest, managed interdependence does not necessarily inhibit some level of internationalization. However, they also expose different views of internationalization, one pushing for the dissemination of national rules and the other for an international control over the application of these rules.


To be sure, interdependence has never been complete, as states have always enjoyed varying degrees of flexibility to implement international rules. What stands out today is the risk of unravelling the interdependence that has been achieved, which generated positive results despite the shortcomings that still need fixing.

Managed interdependence is not a given. It is only emerging and its dissemination depends to a certain degree on whether more states will resort to it or not.

A world of more managed interdependence would mean an unfortunate step backwards. It undercuts the rule of law, produces regime duplication and ultimately promotes the rise of competing legal orders.

While the reasons for increased resort to economic statecraft – by all actors – might be understandable in a context of global power shift, managed interdependence testifies to the incapacity to find agreements. Rather than parting ways, efforts should instead be placed on producing commonly acceptable solutions.

*The views expressed above are personal to the author and do not represent the official views of the Government of Brazil.

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