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29 September 2021

Are we living in the age of unpeace?

A new book by Mark Leonard argues that globalisation and connectivity is causing conflict rather than preventing it.

By Freddie Hayward

It was once thought the internet would democratise information, communication and, in turn, politics. The prediction held true for a while, but as the Noughties progressed, the internet was repurposed. It became an exploitative form of hyper-capitalism in America, a tool of state surveillance in China, and a weapon to subvert other states in Russia.

The misplaced faith in the benign effects of the internet was mirrored in the broader story of  globalisation. The belief that a single liberal world order would corral belligerent states into a democratic peace was widespread. Likewise, international trade was championed as a guarantor of interdependence and thus an antidote to war.

One of the strengths of Mark Leonard’s The Age of Unpeace is a willingness to upend this faith in the infallibility of globalisation. Leonard, the director and co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, argues that the surge in connectivity over the past few decades (international trade and travel, the internet, mass migration, intergovernmental institutions) is causing conflict rather than preventing it. These ever-growing connections have been weaponised by states looking to inflict harm while avoiding the carnage of traditional warfare.

The internet, for instance, is used for cyber attacks as well as a tool to subvert democratic systems. (From autumn 2016 until spring 2019 there were attempts to interfere with national elections in 20 democracies representing 1.2 billion people.)

Elsewhere, Turkey has used the threat of sending millions of refugees and migrants into the EU to extract billions of euros in aid. The US uses the supremacy of the dollar to harm its adversaries through the global financial system. Iran is avoiding conventional war with Saudi Arabia and instead using regional proxies, cyber attacks and drones directed at oil facilities. Borrowing from academics such as Oxford University’s Lucas Kello, Leonard describes the present as the “age of unpeace” – an apt phrase for an era in which wars between states are uncommon but conflict is endemic.

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[See also: Steven Pinker and the problem with rationality]

Leonard adroitly captures the evolving  trends in geopolitics over the past decade. He argues that the three main powers – the US, China and  Europe – are all reacting to the dangers that connectivity poses. The US is pursuing “decoupling” from China, which in turn is trying to insulate itself through a “dual circulation” economy (expanding domestic demand while remaining open to the outside world), while the EU searches for “strategic autonomy”. The best strategy to prevent a descent into perpetual conflict, Leonard contends, is by “disarming connectivity” through, among other things, establishing new international rules on potential areas of conflict, such as technology, and seeking greater democratic consent.

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Leonard does not blame globalisation only for conflict between states; he believes it is behind the growing division within our societies too. “Happily ensconced within my own bubble,” the veteran internationalist writes, “I was not confronted with the growing inequality, envy and sense of loss of control that connectivity was fuelling in parallel bubbles.” In one intriguing chapter, he explores the paradox that connectivity both brings us together and drives us apart. While social media, for instance, can enable empathy, it can also atomise users into ever-smaller communities.

Leonard’s argument is all the more compelling because of the way his own beliefs have evolved. Brought up in Brussels with a strong sense of his European identity, Leonard intended to write a “defence of the open world” but instead wrote about globalisation’s betrayal of its original promise. “The more I’ve tried to understand our politics,” he writes, “the more I’ve become uneasy with the idea that we can ever resume progress towards ‘one world’.”

Although the transition from memoir to geopolitical analysis can at times feel jarring, Leonard’s anecdotes – from conversations with Turkey’s President Erdogan to visiting Facebook’s headquarters – add an immediacy to his theory that is sometimes absent from the academic sources Leonard channels so well. The Age of Unpeace is valuable in its analysis of the reality of international politics, but also as an example of the changing mindset of those whose faith in globalisation is beginning to weaken.

The Age of Unpeace
Mark Leonard
Bantam Press, 240pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age