In order to address the Huawei controversy, we should leave Westphalian logic behind

Why is the United States concerned about Huawei?

The United States is concerned that Chinese telecommunications equipment producer Huawei is under the direct control of the Chinese government, and moreover that Huawei has created ‘back doors’ in its code that would provide Chinese Intelligence access to user information. As a result, all Huawei equipment has been barred from all US networks, and from New Zealand and Australia, which are following the American lead.

This controversy is being framed in American political discourse using the outdated logic of Westphalian sovereignty. From this view, nation-states are the most powerful actors on the world stage and national borders are the defining factor driving international interactions.

You can hear this logic in the voice of American cabinet officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who views the Chinese state and Huawei as more or less the same entity:

“If a country adopts this [Huawei-built technology] and puts it in some of their critical information systems, we won’t be able to share information with them.”

In late February, a bipartisan group of US Senators called for a ban on Huawei elements used in solar energy equipment, on the same national security grounds.

Westphalian logic is an outdated paradigm

Westphalian logic isn’t helpful here and we are long overdue in shifting the dominant lens through which we understand international competition, and the challenges that confront a world heavily dependant on technology. It is time to take seriously the logic of networks as the basic paradigm underpinning our understanding of international relations.

The Westphalian paradigm has been in manifest disintegration for nearly 75 years now and there is significant scholarship on how and why. It seems a cliche to note that flows, not borders, define our world; that commerce, disease, pollution, political ideologies and dance styles are just a few of the things that do not obey political boundaries, nor heed the assumptions of national sovereignty. Our physical world is increasingly  defined by flows. Information traveling through underwater cables, via radio waves or the qubits of future quantum-based communications does not stop to have a visa stamped at every national border it crosses.

To note: States, diplomacy, and national boundaries do not disappear in the world of networks. But they do not assume the same primacy in our assumptions about the way the world works. Here are a few of the ways in which it would be useful to loosen national security claims and see the world in a more modern light.

Global companies are political actors in their own right

The premise that Huawei is under the direct control of Chinese intelligence not only remains unproven, it also misses a point that is worth making about all global companies: they are independent actors with agendas, resources and motives of their own. This is true regardless of the political system from which their founders come.

The sole focus on Huawei as a function of a great power struggle between the United States and China prevents an equally important conversation that should be had about global companies in general — to include American firms like Apple and JP Morgan, as well as other Chinese companies, such as Tencent. These companies are political actors in their own right, and it may be fruitful to see them in this light and consider what diplomacy with corporations should look like.

Countries make choices for many reasons, not only for protection of their sovereignty

Second, the argument coming from the United States that countries should and will make choices on the basis of Westphalian logic is unlikely to hold up for long. According to Westphalian logic, national sovereignty and international alliances are the basis for making decisions. Yet, the United Kingdom, perhaps the closest ally the US historically, has declared that it may be able to ‘handle’ having Huawei equipment in its 5G networks.

Other countries may not see national security arguments as the primary driver of their decision-making either, when it comes to choosing manufacturers to build their next generation telecommunications infrastructure. Countries may not care if China has access to some information, or each country may have other motives and desires for allowing China to access their citizen’s data. The more flexibly US officials can view the motives of others, the more flexibly they can mold their commercial diplomacy. But that flexibility emerges from relinquishing a rigid view of the international system in the Westphalian mold.

There are many maps of the world

Finally, viewing the world from a Westphalian lens obscures other ways of mapping the world. One of the key world maps is the one of interconnected flows, which requires its own kind of diplomacy. As James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has pointed out, the United States inevitably must prepare “for a world where the United States unavoidably connects to Huawei-supplied networks and determines how to securely connect and communicate over telecom networks in countries using Chinese network equipment.”

Isn’t this the key to the future? The inevitability of interconnection, in a sensible world, would be a more compelling driver of diplomatic creativity than the fading possibility of persuading countries that want 5G networks to hark back to an earlier era. Tomorrow’s world is one of interconnected flows that require a new kind of diplomacy.

A second map that matters has less to do with flows than with nodes.  Access to the world’s telecommunication networks is not equally distributed now and threatens to grow more imbalanced in the future without intervention.

Implementing 5G network infrastructure is very expensive because of the need for a high density of base stations and antenna. Because of exorbitant costs, sparsely populated rural areas may never have 5G infrastructures, in areas all over the world.

Consider the long term implications of this imbalanced state of affairs: Ultimately, economies and people will be left behind, unable to participate in the economic life of their country.

The countries and companies that think now about how to make 5G systems (or interoperable equivalents) available equally across the population stand to benefit and possibly to save themselves the political costs that appear in the forms of ill health, disorder and social disruption when people do not have access to the fruits of their national economies.

National security isn’t irrelevant, but connectivity, rather than sovereignty, is the true coin of the realm now.  The logic of connectivity drives the behavior of states, firms and people. It should also ground approaches to diplomacy.