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Chevalier’s Dream Goes Global

Per Högselius


I find it fascinating to follow the news these days about large-scale infrastructure projects being initiated in various parts of the world. Many of them are highly controversial, and especially so when they involve more than one country. Many of them are highly controversial, and especially so when they involve more than one country.

Take the ongoing attempts to create an interconnected East African power grid. It is widely criticized by actors and observers who view it as a much too large-scale model for improving the region’s energy supply, seeing small-scale, decentralized solutions as the more preferable way forward. Or take the idea of building a natural-gas pipeline from the Russian Far East to the Korean peninsula, which would enable both North and South Korea to be supplied by Russian gas. Most political observers seem to look at it as totally unrealistic – and dangerous! – given the geopolitical tensions in the region. 

Making Europe: Europe’s Infrastructure Transition 

Looking at projects like these through the lens of our Making Europe book called Europe’s Infrastructure Transition, I’m surprised to see how history seems to repeat itself. Transnational system-building, through which new infrastructures are created – be it transport, communications or energy projects – have always tended to be contentious. People advocate and oppose new projects, try to make them happen or prevent them from materializing and shape and influence them in various ways. One of the most astounding visions that reappear over and over again in transnational infrastructure projects is what we in our book refer to as “Chevalier’s dream”. It basically describes the idea that cross-border infrastructure can help foster international understanding, promoting peace and cooperation while preventing wars and other conflicts. Michel Chevalier wrote about this in the 1830s. At the time he identified railways, in particular, as the tool at hand in bringing his vision about. Today his vision is still very much alive, and obviously not only – and not primarily – in Europe. Railways are still part of the dream, while other infrastructures also play prominent roles – from subsea Internet cables to cross-continental electricity systems. 

Infrastructure Projects as Tools for Relationship Building 

From a Chevalierian perspective, ongoing attempts to integrate East Africa in electricity or East Asia in natural gas are about much more than simply building material networks and ensuring energy supplies where demand is soaring. Rather, it is about building trust across borders, using infrastructure projects as tools of entente and friendship – often between countries that are not usually regarded as mutual friends – like North and South Korea. Hence, or so the optimists argue, transnational infrastructure projects could become key stepping stones that pave the way for relaxation in other fields as well, such as in the economy more generally and in foreign policy. Or, to quote a report from the United Nations, the Chevalierian actor par excellence since 1945, on the true meaning of cross-border energy infrastructures: 

“The planning, design, construction, and operation of a grid interconnection between two (or more) nations requires cooperation of many different types. High-level political cooperation between countries is certainly necessary, but a potential benefit of grid interconnection is also that the project can serve as a spur to cooperation at the societal level as well. If the grid interconnection serves to provide (or enhance) a political bridge between nations, the bridge can be used to foster social exchanges in sports, education, and culture, for example, promoting understanding between societies. Similarly, enhanced trade in other commodities between countries could follow from the experience in trading electricity, bringing citizens from the interconnected societies into additional contact in the process. In addition, grid interconnection activities, such as power line construction and maintenance, or construction of new power stations, may, depending on how the contracting crews are selected, bring workers from the interconnected countries together. Working together on projects of clear mutual benefit, and working in ways that provide person-to-person contact between people of different nationalities, is an excellent method of building trust and understanding between peoples from different societies.”

A Dream Full of Tensions and Contradictions

Unfortunately, there is also the obvious risk that Chevalier’s idealistic dream gets hijacked by actors who actually have other, more sinister agendas. At least this is what many observers intuitively think when they come across Chevalierian arguments for transnational infrastructure integration. Many are highly suspicious, for example, about China’s One Belt, One Road project, which is promoted very much by Chinese state actors in Chevalierian terms, but which has obvious connections to Chinese military ambitions across the Eurasian continent and beyond, as well as to Chinese natural resource exploitation in Central Asia and elsewhere. 

So, Chevalier’s dream, old as it may be, is definitely still alive and kicking. But just as in Europe’s Infrastructure Transition, where we trace the surprising twists and turns in actors’ attempts to make reality of this dream, it remains, in our own time, a dream full of tensions and contradictions.

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