During the medieval era, the world of commerce, often under the control of entities like the Church, nobility, and sovereigns such as kings, was considered a necessary evil. Merchants, despite being seen as figures of dubious reputation, united in guilds and associations to counter the influence of feudal lords and monarchs, seeking to assert their economic power. Bankers, central figures in money management, were keen on gathering information about their clients and rivals. Characters like the Medici in Italy, known for their banking influence, were typical of this era.
In Italy, during the Middle Ages, there was intense economic and commercial espionage activity, exacerbated by rivalries between maritime powers such as Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Merchants and bankers, like those from the Bardi or Peruzzi families, often had vast networks of informants and personally engaged in espionage activities.
The Italian city-states, following in the footsteps of ancient Rome, were masters in the art of espionage. Texts by authors like Frontinus and Vegetius, discussing military tactics and information gathering, were widely studied and applied. Innovations in treaties on diplomacy were also added, with authors like Machiavelli outlining the principles of this new art. Historical documents from 1436 to 1548, like those produced during the Council of Florence, contributed to forming the foundations of modern European diplomacy.
The Hanseatic League, or Hansa, dominated large parts of Europe with a network of German merchants, united by solidarity and family ties. This collective wielded such power that it influenced sovereigns and competitors, exemplified by figures like Hildebrand Veckinchusen, a prominent merchant of the time.
In the late Middle Ages, kings like Louis XI of France emerged as examples of economic warriors. Louis XI implemented mercantilist policies, seeking to retain gold and silver in the kingdom and damage foreign markets with embargoes. His interventionist approach in finances was evident in the creation of councils like the King’s Council and the Finance Council, which included trusted members like Jacques Coeur and Jean Bourat.
With the great geographical discoveries, figures like Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama opened new commercial routes, beginning an era of fierce economic conflicts between European powers. This era saw nations like Spain and Portugal, led by sovereigns like Ferdinand and Isabella, and Manuel I, respectively, divide the new world, while other powers like England and France, under the leadership of Henry VIII and Francis I, entered the competition for resources in these new territories.
In the 19th century, the desire to control trade routes led to conflicts in places like China, where the British, under figures like Lord Palmerston, forced open Asian markets with actions like the destruction of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the Second Opium War.
In the 20th century, economic warfare became an official tactic in times of war, with French military figures like Frédéric François-Marsal and Jean Tannery defining the concept in terms of blockades, embargoes, and economic espionage.
In the 21st century, economic warfare becomes a daily practice in peacetime. The United States, driven by reports like the 1990 CIA report revealing Japan’s rise thanks to an effective economic intelligence strategy, revolutionized their approach by placing hyper-economic competition at the center of national security doctrine. Key figures in this change include politicians and strategists like George H.W. Bush and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, who recognized the importance of adapting to this new global scenario.
Simultaneously, new powers emerged on the world stage, with China, under leaders like Jiang Zemin and later Hu Jintao, aiming to transform the country into the world’s leading economic power. This is accompanied by the emergence of other rapidly growing nations, like India and Brazil, starting to play increasingly significant roles on the global economic stage.
Europe, with figures like Angela Merkel in Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy in France, faces the new millennium trying to understand and adapt to a rapidly evolving global economic landscape, characterized by rampant competition and increasingly sophisticated economic warfare.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, strategists and politicians in the United States and other Western nations began to realize that economic warfare was no longer just a component of traditional military strategies but a fundamental element of national and international security policies in peacetime. The concept of economic intelligence thus becomes central, with the goal of protecting national and corporate information assets while simultaneously plundering those of competitors.
This new approach to economic warfare reflects a fundamental change in the nature of global competition, shifting from an ideological and military confrontation to a battle for control of economic resources and information. In this scenario, a country or company’s ability to collect, analyze, and use information becomes crucial for success in an increasingly interconnected and competitive world. In the context of the 21st century, economic warfare expands beyond the traditional boundaries of competition between nations, involving large corporations and multinational conglomerates. Companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung, led by visionary figures such as Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, become key players on the global stage, often rivaling state powers in influence and resources.
Globalization and technological advancement intensify this competition, turning data and information into the new currencies of power. Cyberspace becomes a critical battleground, with nations and companies investing significant resources in cyber intelligence and cyberwarfare. The race to control emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, led by pioneers like Elon Musk with his initiatives in SpaceX and Neuralink, underscores the growing importance of technological innovation in economic warfare.
Simultaneously, climate change and environmental challenges emerge as critical factors in global economic warfare. The transition to renewable and sustainable energy sources becomes a field of competition, with countries like Germany and China leading investment in green technologies, while traditional oil companies such as ExxonMobil and BP adapt to these new dynamics.
Meanwhile, the emerging economies of the so-called “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) continue to strengthen, offering new opportunities and challenges for more established economies. Countries like India, led by leaders such as Narendra Modi, and Brazil, with political figures like Jair Bolsonaro, explore new strategies to maximize their global economic impact.
The 21st-century economic warfare is thus characterized by unprecedented complexity, where the lines between politics, economics, and technology increasingly blur. In this landscape, the ability to quickly adapt and anticipate the moves of adversaries is more crucial than ever. States and companies that successfully navigate this constantly evolving environment secure a prominent place in world economic history.
In conclusion, from the strategy of medieval merchants to the diplomacy of the great discoveries, from the mercantilist policies of Louis XI to the global competition of the 21st century, economic warfare has been and remains a fundamental component of international relations. Its evolution reflects changes in the structure of global power and continues to shape the fate of nations and companies in the contemporary global landscape.