Excerpted from pp. 1; 3-6; 173-183 of The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict, by Mark Leonard, published by Penguin Books. Copyright 2022. All rights reserved.
This article, first published on 21 Sept. 2022, is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address key policy challenges, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. The Forum Network aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
THE CONNECTIVITY CONUNDRUM
We may be on the cusp of a new, silent pandemic. Like Covid-19, it is rampaging across the planet, spreading exponentially, exploiting the cracks in our networked world and constantly mutating to evade our defences. But unlike the virus which pits all of humanity against a disease, this new pandemic is being deliberately transmitted from human to human. It is not a biological force, but a set of toxic behaviours that are multiplying like a virus. The connections between people and countries are becoming weapons. […]
Rather than playing out on the land, air and seas, the new struggles exist on the internet, border controls, technology, supply chains and our financial system.
Unwar and Unpeace
My book The Age of Unpeace is about a simple idea: that the connections that knit the world together are also driving it apart. In a world where war between nuclear powers is too dangerous even to contemplate, countries are waging conflicts by manipulating the very things that link them together. Great power politics has become like a loveless marriage where the couple can’t stand each other’s company but are unable to get divorced. And as with an unhappy couple, it is the things that we shared during the good times that become the means to harm during the bad ones. In a collapsing marriage, vindictive partners will use the children, the dog and the holiday home to hurt each other. In geopolitics, it is trade, finance, the movement of people, pandemics, climate change and above all the internet that are being weaponized. […]
Should we think of these new conflicts as ‘connectivity wars’? Sort of, but not quite. The alternation between war and peace has shaped human history, defining the borders of our countries, and influencing the nature of our social contracts, the structure of our economies and the purpose of our politics. It has captured our imaginations and inspired some of our greatest poems and novels. However, Tolstoy would not be able to write a masterpiece like War and Peace if he were alive today. Nobody could, because the distinction between war and peace has broken down. […]
Rather than playing out on the land, air and seas, the new struggles exist on the internet, border controls, technology, supply chains and our financial system. They have brought conflict back from the periphery of the global economy to its very core; Europe and America are just as affected as Africa or Latin America. The combatants in these struggles have changed too: in the old days only a few great powers could fight across continents but nowadays millions of people can inflict harm on one another through the internet or terrorism. The victims are civilians rather than soldiers, and they number in the millions rather than the thousands.
Because connectivity conflicts do not produce the kind of dramatic shareable video footage beloved by social media, most people think they’re less lethal than conventional military conflicts. But just because we can’t see body bags does not mean that these conflicts are not deadly. In fact, they’ve already blighted the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Over the last two decades fewer than 70,000 people a year on average have been killed in military conflicts – while millions have been harmed by connectivity wars.
Sanctions, population expulsions and trade wars have been around for centuries but until the world became organized around global supply chains, internet politics and a dollarized financial system, it was hard to strangle foreign economies and societies at so little cost to oneself. […] Trade wars have cost tens of millions of jobs while cyber attacks have the potential to disrupt entire countries. The US Department of Homeland Security has identified sixty-five facilities in the US against which a single cyber attack would cause ‘catastrophic harm’ – defined as ‘causing or having the likelihood to cause $50 billion in economic damage, 2,500 fatalities, or a severe degradation of our national security’. […]
If we add all of these up, it’s clear that the body count for connectivity wars dwarfs that of conventional wars in the twenty- first century. Over the last two decades fewer than 70,000 people a year on average have been killed in military conflicts – while millions have been harmed by connectivity wars. And it’s only going to get worse But although connectivity conflicts are more common, more effective and more deadly than conventional wars, we don’t really recognize that they are happening – and don’t even have a term to describe them. As a result the conventional wisdom is that we live in a golden age of peace.
There is a word which starts to capture our liminal condition – suspended somehow between a state of war and one of peace...Welcome to the age of unpeace.
It is true that these new kinds of attack do not match the conventional definition of war. But how can we close our eyes to the tension and violence that is ripping through our world every day? Once we start to count the millions of casualties every year we can hardly describe our era as one of peace.
In fact, there is a word which starts to capture our liminal condition – suspended somehow between a state of war and one of peace. Academics such as Lucas Kello who work on cyber were looking for a term that describes the grey zone that their world was stuck in, where every day they saw millions of attacks which fell short of conventional war. They rehabilitated a beautiful Anglo-Saxon word to describe disorder on the internet: unpeace. And as violence spreads from the internet to trade, finance, migration and beyond, their word provides a perfect encapsulation of our condition. We are having to get used to an unstable, crisis-prone world of perpetual competition and endless attacks between competing powers. Welcome to the age of unpeace. […]
DISARMING CONNECTIVITY: A MANIFESTO
If the connections that are essential to our wellbeing are also being turned into deadly weapons, we need to find ways of making them less dangerous. For all these reasons I have become convinced that rather than ending connectivity, we should try to devise rules and norms that take the sting out of it or disarm it. If the Cold War was eased by arms control, the equivalent for our age is ‘disarming connectivity’. This will be a Sisyphean struggle that resembles the ongoing therapy required to detoxify personal relationships. Although psychologists do not think you can ever fully cure codependency they have laid out five steps to manage it so their patients can still lead a fulfilled life. I have tried to adapt these treatments into a five-step programme for the age of unpeace, based around the idea of ‘disarming connectivity’.
Paradoxically, the best way to unite the world is to create enough distance to make people feel safe and in control.
Step One: Face up to the problem
The first step in all therapy programmes is facing the problem. At the root of our global tensions are the grievances of individuals, whose lives have been made insecure, stressful and unpredictable by our connected age. Social media exacerbate fragmentation and unleash envy and resentment. Rather than telling people they are irrational or wrong, politicians must express a deeper understanding of people’s lived experience. […]
Step Two: Establish healthy boundaries
I talk in my book about how all the things that are meant to bring us together seem to be driving us apart. Paradoxically, the best way to unite the world is to create enough distance to make people feel safe and in control. The dividing line should be between ‘managed’ and ‘unmanaged’ togetherness, rather than ‘open’ and ‘closed’ societies. […] [T]he goal should be to introduce healthy borders to allow contact but reduce the risks of connectivity, so that citizens stop feeling the need for the protection of walls. Interdependence can only survive in the long term if it feels safe once again.
Step Three: Be realistic about what you can control
Rather than coming up with a new architecture or philosophy to rewire global politics, the best we can do right now is to recognize the dangers inherent in connectivity and try to manage them. Sigmund Freud once wrote to one of his patients that her therapy would be a success if it could turn her ‘hysterical misery into common unhappiness’. The equivalent for international politics would be to transform uncontrolled connectivity conflicts into a tough competition, with limits and rules to mitigate the risks.
In order to make connectivity safe, states need to establish recognized boundaries to their own behaviour, similar to the ones they created after the invention of the aeroplane and the atomic bomb. In other words, humankind has to learn to govern the technology it has created. At the moment the system allows for unlimited escalation. This needs to give way to rules for survival. World order could be built like a Russian doll. The outer layer – with a very small number of rules designed to prevent the destruction of the planet through war or the climate crisis – would apply to all countries. Within that global container, smaller dolls could develop more extensive rules. For example, democratic countries might choose to develop norms on the regulation of data or new technologies. And within the democratic world, different regional organizations such as the European Union can develop much thicker rule-books among their own members. The goal should be to develop laws as closely aligned as possible to the citizens who have to live with them.
I think the biggest challenge to the liberal order comes from within our divided societies.
Step Four: Self-care
Our experience over the last fifty years is that equal, free, prosperous states tend to be better neighbours and more constructive international citizens than those that struggle with authoritarianism, extreme inequality or political chaos. While it is right to recognize the vulnerabilities of Western democracies to manipulation by states such as Russia or China, I think the biggest challenge to the liberal order comes from within our divided societies. And that is where we need to focus the bulk of our attention. The generational challenge for internationalist leaders is to redesign their national education, healthcare, social care, welfare and industrial policies to produce wealth and distribute it fairly at home. Building domestic strength and self-confidence is the strongest foundation for international engagement. […]
Step Five: Seeking real consent
We know from human relationships that there is a single principle that is key to any kind of legitimacy: consent. And that is the one thing which has been most conspicuously lacking when it comes to connectivity. Governments and companies have driven forward connectivity without any serious attempt to secure consent either domestically or internationally. Most countries (democratic and non- democratic alike) felt that they had very little choice in accepting the whole economic, political and values package. Domestically people felt they didn’t have the chance to say ‘no’ or even ‘slow down’, given the depth of political consensus behind the agenda; while some global companies operated in almost completely uninhibited fashion. Indeed, politicians and businesses even framed what they were doing as part of a benign mission, to which there was also no real alternative. Of course you could theoretically opt out of everything but, for most, it was essentially an all- or- nothing choice.[…] The results of this non-consensual connectivity have then been various forms of resistance or outright revolt.
Global Public Opinion on Democracy: While most still embrace democratic ideals, there’s discontent with how political systems are functioning by Richard Wike, Director, Global Attitudes Research, Pew Research Center
An alternative agenda would be characterized by working hard to get real consent for contact between peoples and nations. That means tech companies that are subject to real democratic control; countries whose polities want accelerated trade and free movement pressing forward even faster while others choose to opt out, and an overall framework that makes those choices possible and discreet, so that people don’t feel they have to overturn the whole of society to have their voice heard or to stop the specific thing they don’t like. […]
Of course this approach poses a bigger question: whose consent? And how should it be sought? […] There is a real question about how to achieve consent in conditions of polarization. Our elected institutions are creaking. And referendums don’t seem to do any better at healing divided societies. But from Iceland to Estonia people are trying out new forms of deliberative politics, while leaders in countries such as Denmark seem to be able to reach across the divide between classes and ethnicities. Rather than giving up, it seems like an urgent question for our generation to take on.
I am not a fatalist. Just because trends have established themselves over the last few years does not mean that our downfall is inevitable. Human history is not predetermined. Politics has the power to change course. And what’s more, with recent changes in America and Europe, it already has. Covid has begun to sketch out the beginning of a framework for cooperation on future pandemics (although the West and China have not yet really joined forces). We are developing a more subtle debate about how to manage the technology that has enabled us to develop vaccines, feed the world, store renewable energy and connect the world. The huge recovery plans in Europe and America – coupled with the political awakening I have just described – should allow both continents to build back better. They have already taken some of the steps I laid out in my therapy for a connected world by working to establish healthy boundaries, self-care and seeking greater consent from their people.
By introducing the right therapy into our politics now, we can lay the foundations for a major reset. And in the long run the architecture could be different too.
At times of major change, it is more glamorous to point the way to a new Jerusalem or sketch out the architecture for new world order. But I am convinced that the therapy being sought in Washington and European capitals will be better. It does not offer any permanent solutions to the challenges of unpeace, but it does promise a chance to avoid its worst side effects. By introducing the right therapy into our politics now, we can lay the foundations for a major reset. And in the long run the architecture could be different too.
We have started a new quest to preserve some of the advances of interdependence without stumbling into catastrophe. It involves recognizing that connectivity, whether we like it or not, is a double-edged sword. Once we accept that it means conflict as well as cooperation, we can benefit from the strategies that minimize discontent and limit the violence it brings in its wake. As with all psychological maladies, the first step back to health is to acknowledge that there’s a problem. That is the ultimate purpose of my book. It is an intervention.
Find out more about The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict, by Mark Leonard. Copyright 2022. (2022, © Penguin Books)