The “Weaponization of Finance” is more than Sanctions – It’s Data

I am always happy when I see people address the links between finance and security because it is so rare.

Last month, Daniel Drezner, of Tufts University and the Brookings Institute, wrote about the “hard limits of economic statecraft” regarding the use of sanctions against Russia’s actions in the Ukraine (interview here too).  This week, Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan, of the Eurasia Group listed “The Weaponization of Finance” as a “Top Risk of 2015.”

Bremmer and Kupchan correctly assert that the US’s global financial position affords American policymakers powerful means to influence behaviors beyond its borders.  Specifically, they note access to capital markets and sanctions as “tools of coercive diplomacy.”  They cite the US influence on norms in international organizations, the dollar’s role as the premier reserve and investment currency, and the vulnerability of the private banking sector to cyber-attack as further evidence of its power resources.

Sanctions deserve a place in the statecraft toolbox, but as Business Insider’s @elenaholodny summarized, it is difficult to employ successfully (See also David Baldwin’s classic Economic Statecraft, Meghan O’Sullivan Shrewd Sanctions, Cortright and Lopez Smart Sanctions, and Drezner’s own Sanctions Paradox).

Restricting the use of finance to sanctions limits its value to foreign affairs. The technological revolution in banking, which has ditigialized the industry, finance’s multinational presence, and the increase in recordkeeping and reporting requirements after 9/11 and the 2008 crisis, has provided policymakers with an opportunity to harness financial data to map behaviors, networks of violence, and illicit economies across borders.

The Eurasia Group hints to this, “The United States is expanding its ability to track the financial transactions [my emphasis] of government leaders of concern, as well as their state and private sector allies, in order to close their access to capital and property.”

But governments use financial data for more than sanctions. They do it to detect weaknesses in the system and to track networks of illicit crime and political violence.

Thus, financial data’s ability to help map networks of behavior when combined with other types of information mean that finance’s role in foreign policy extends well beyond economics.

That is, of course, if government agencies can acquire that data – legally or otherwise.

I argue (briefly explained here and here) that financial data intelligence is one example of a new type of statecraft suited to the digital age; Information Statecraft – the attempt to influence through the acquisition, control, or presentation of data, information, or knowledge.

However, financial data isn’t solely held by governments; it’s held by private financial institutions, which presents numerous challenges to using financial data for sanctions or other policies.  Bremmer and Kupchan also allude to this point – “the weaponization of finance is a tool that can be use with minimal cooperation from other governments.”  While it oversimplifies the relationships involved, it does highlight the importance of private sector compliance.

Financial institutions have always treasured data for their own purposes, but now states are demanding they record, maintain, and report more of it to authorities (e.g. FATF recommendations for Politically Exposed Persons, Beneficial Ownership, Know Your Customer rules, Suspicious Action/Activity Reports, among others). For decades, and more so after 9/11, governments expect bankers to be AML/CTF sentinels, which is very far from their primary business, to make money.

The weaponization of finance is real, and has been evolving for a while.  We need to expand our views of statecraft to accommodate the new realities of the digital world, and this is especially true of the relationship between finance and foreign policy.