THE AGE OF UNPEACE: Mark Leonard Explains How Connectivity Causes Conflict – and How to Cope

THE AGE OF UNPEACE: Mark Leonard Explains How Connectivity Causes Conflict – and How to Cope

Victoria Camblin

War, as we have defined it for millennia, is subject to regulations, governed by laws and protocols intended to distinguish between war criminals from state leaders, war casualties from victims of murder. International legislation has given logic to carnage, containing the utter horror of human nature in cases of exception sealed by declarations and treatises, customs and conventions, ratified in Nuremburg and The Hague. But violence, vaporous and volatile, cannot be enclosed. After 1945, the sovereign authors of this definition anticipated a third world war that might be explained in the terms of the first two. Global northern powers waged a Cold War and wars on abstractions — on drugs and on “terror” — while awaiting nuclear winter. As we entered the third millennium, winter hadn’t come. The Iron Curtain fell, and within a decade and a half Armageddon began to look more like Hurricane Sandy than it did Hiroshima. Our vision of hell became an internet service outage, and loss was a server down – not a jet or a “man.”

As the technology that keeps us plugged into the world changed our ideas about work, play, care, communication, and consumption, it somehow failed to alter our perception of conflict. Distancing its users from the pervasive violence of our social, political, and economic reality, our means of connection allowed the global north to operate as though war existed “elsewhere,” if it existed at all. We imagined a general improvement analogous to “progress,” forgetting in the relative peace of our era how often Europe, for example, used to go to war with itself. Perhaps we live in an exceptional time — yet in modern warfare, states of exception are the refuge of the most criminal acts. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine reminded those fortunate enough to have spent the last two decades in NATO member states that land war and nuclear crisis were not left behind in the 20th century.

Mark Leonard is a thought leader in foreign policy, diplomacy, and globalized economics who has synthesized geopolitical trends in international bestsellers such as Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century (2005) and What Does China Think? (2008). He is the co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, which is the continent’s “first pan-European think-tank” – but not Leonard’s first strategic initiative. While working for the cross-party consultancy Demos in the 1990s, he authored the Britain™ report responsible for “Cool Britannia.”

The political scientist has developed his work in response to the swiftly changing climates – governmental and planetary – of our accelerated digital reality. But the third millennium has not made it easy to keep pace. Facebook wasn’t banned in China when he wrote his myth-busting guide to Chinese industry — Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t even made a profit, let alone a metaverse. Smartphones had keyboards, the revolution wasn’t on Twitter, and neither was Donald Trump. And, when Leonard wrote The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict (2021), Moscow had yet to besiege Kyiv.

Conceived in an effort to seek closure following Brexit, The Age of Unpeace sets out to uncover how venom came to flow through the arteries that once pumped potential, accord, and choice into what Leonard saw as the cultural and economic heart of the 21st century: Europe. What he found is that international relationships, like romantic ones, are most vulnerable — and most corrosive — at their points of intimacy and connection. The result is a “self-help” manual for coping with the hostilities of the everyday in a world where bridges are bombs, the cause is the cure, and armed forces and Amazon use the same ammunition: data. In its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russia deployed the digital and logistical arsenal enabling what Leonard calls “unpeace” alongside heavy artillery, guns, and bombs. Technology was in turn used alongside military and DIY weaponry in Ukraine’s defense. Connectivity’s role in war – traditionally defined – and its crimes is clear.

This interview appeared in the Winter 2021/22 032c Issue #40.

VICTORIA CAMBLIN: We featured you in 032c as part of our Europe Endless issue in 2005 – the same year you published your first book, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. We’ve all been surprised by the events of the intervening decade and a half, and particularly in the past five years since the Brexit vote. How did this crumbling lead you from the pan-European dream to the potential harms of connectivity?

MARK LEONARD: My own life has been immeasurably improved by the connections that have been built between different parts of the world. My mum’s family were German Jews – my dad was born in 1930 and was evacuated as a very young child during the Second World War, and his father was gassed when fighting in the First World War. My generation is the first in 150 years that has not faced war, exile, and extermination as my family did. So, in addition to putting foods on our supermarket shelves and cultural riches at our fingertips that were unthinkable for earlier generations, the coming together of European countries offered me a clear way of making sense of my personal history. I set up a pan-European think tank with offices in seven different countries. I had the sense that what was happening as a result of globalization – nipping down barriers between countries, expanding international travel, the internet and its universal sphere of information – was bringing people together. On top of a globalist economic structure, we were building a political superstructure that would encourage empathy and the pursuit of common solutions to planetary problems.

The more interdependent the world became, I thought, the greater the prospects for peace and for harmony. In a way, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century was a love letter to the ideals of internationalism – ideals epitomized by the European project, which I thought had brought so much richness to the world and provided a template for how countries could thrive in a more interdependent society.

There is an equally emotional, personal quality to how you introduce your latest work, too. The Age of Unpeace is not a love letter, it’s a self-help manual – a therapeutic handbook for coping with a geopolitical breakup?

In hindsight, I might have sensed it coming. But in 2016, the forces of the last decades that I had approached in positive terms were experienced in a very different, very brutal way. What I saw as bringing opportunity, security, advantages were perceived by many as bringing vulnerabilities and threats, as closing options rather than opening them – so much so in the UK that 52% of British people voted for Brexit. In the US, Trump was elected. All over the world, large sections of the population were drawn to a politics of building walls, bolting doors, and ripping up international treaties. I was forced to rethink my assumptions about how the world was working and where we were headed.

At the time, people in my network were saying that the big challenges of 2016 would have to do with political leadership, and that the battle was not going to be fought between left and right, but between “openness” and “closedness.” When I began work on what would become The Age of Unpeace, I thought I was going to be writing a defense of openness. But as I started digging deeper, I began to realize that it’s very, very difficult to disentangle all of the things I love about internationalism and globalization and connectivity from the things other people find so hurtful, so scary, and so risky.

How can the same tendencies that have taken our civilization forward and brought people together also divide people and create violence and unease – what’s the mechanism for that turn?

Connectivity gives people the opportunity to fight each other because it gives them the motive to do so: as we compare ourselves to others around the world, we split our societies into polarized filter bubbles, spreading an epidemic of envy. When people feel their circumstances don’t match up with the idealized lives of the privileged, or don’t feel represented in the discourse – with identity politics, for example – there is an overwhelming sense of loss of control. This feeling of powerlessness feeds the movement against internationalism exemplified by Trump and Brexit. But beyond the motives, the scary thing is that we have a new arsenal of weapons with which to compete with each other. War between great powers became more and more dangerous as the 20th century progressed – so dangerous that it could destroy the entire biosphere. In lieu of the nuclear option, countries began to weaponize the ties that bind us together.

The metaphor I use is that of a marriage that goes wrong: it’s the very things that brought the couple together during the good times that become the means to hurt [each other] in the bad times. People getting divorced use custody of the children, the dog, the holiday home to wound each other. In a connectivity conflict, we hurt each other by turning all the strands of globalization into weapons. We use trade and finance, the movement of people, building infrastructure, international law, and the internet to manipulate and inflict harm.

Why do you call this "unpeace" instead of "armed conflict" or even war?

Turning these big forces into new weapons doesn’t meet the traditional definition of war, so there is a widespread sense that we live in a golden age of peace. But we don’t. The weaponization of these links is in fact hurting and killing many more people than conventional wars have – hundreds of millions of people are being negatively affected by these conflicts every year. We just don’t have a language for it yet. For most of human history, we’ve punctuated war and peace as two distinct states of being. In cyber, they began to use the term “unpeace” – a resurrected Anglo-Saxon word – to describe this gray zone of foreign intelligence gathering in the digital domain. I think it captures this broad condition of being suspended between war and peace.

Photo: Mstyslav Chernov

China and the US differ with regard to the regulation of internet usage and the question of anonymity on the web. On the American “cozy web,” where intimate communities of like-minded people coalesce around sometimes harmful ideas, you’re sharing anonymously or under pseudonymous handles. China is not as liberal vis-à-vis the identity of the user. Is anonymity part of what complicates or corrupts our relationship to connectivity as it has evolved in “unpeace”?

In China, in the early days of the internet, you didn’t have these legal requirements to use your own name. This is something the government has been pursuing aggressively since the Arab uprisings, when many countries got scared of political tensions spreading like wildfire around the internet, and China introduced a number of strategies to end anonymity and gain more control. One way they did that was to get companies to police themselves. The big platforms in China have armies of hundreds of thousands of censors policing their own feeds. And at Facebook, they’re doing exactly the same thing. In that sense, there are some global norms emerging around privacy – around what you’re allowed to put on the internet and what the platforms are responsible for. I don’t think we’re at the end of the story yet, and there are interesting arguments on both sides of the anonymity debate. One thing that’s clear, as you say, is the return of the repressed via these cozy communities, where people behave in ways that are not necessarily acceptable in society, because they feel safe in these internet bubbles. And that is scary. It’s scary to Western governments and to China’s, regardless of how anonymity is regulated online.

The individual user fears the loss of control – of how they operate online, and elsewhere – and so do sovereign states. My question is, do we all fear the real threats? Why does the US compare itself and fear losing control to China and not Zuckerberg, or Jeff Bezos?

I think the most basic, visceral fear is still other countries – specifically, other countries getting involved in your political process and controlling it. That’s why China’s not allowed to own TikTok or Grindr, and why Chinese citizens are not allowed to go on Facebook or use Twitter. But it’s among citizens that there’s also growing concern about surveillance capitalism – worries about profit models that track our data and manipulate our behavior.

What worries me is the dehumanized way we think of “the cloud.” Online, actors are divorced from their actions, and actions from their material consequences. When we order from Amazon and it shows up at the doorstep, we are able to ignore production and labor. You mentioned earlier that war in the digital age is not fought by men in uniform, but people who work for Amazon wear uniforms. The foot soldiers of the lockdown were food delivery messengers decked out in branded livery. He may be 9,000 miles away, but there is an actual guy removing your video from Facebook.

I don’t think the state has disappeared. In fact, it’s becoming more visible, just in different ways – both as a protector and as a villain. Because we are letting go of the liberal illusion of its absence during the 1990s and early 2000s, people are much more conscious of the state. At the same time, one of the challenges of globalization is that individual states do lose a lot of agency. In the 19th century, a lot of people felt that the entire world was being shaped by decisions taken in imperial metropoles thousands of miles away, which made no sense to them at all. That’s how a lot of people feel about cosmopolitan elites now – whether that means their own governments or the big companies making decisions that have a massive impact on their lives, but over which they have no control. The desire for more control that results is one of the things leading people to turn to “strong men,” who at least give the illusion that they can restore agency and control, even if they can’t do it in practice.

And in this sense, perhaps it’s not relevant whether these “strong men” look like Trump or Bezos. Early on in the book you compare the problem of connectivity to the pharmakon, which is an ancient Greek term for a medicine that’s worse than the disease. The map of ancient Greece was also filled in by colonial expansion and trade. Sure, there were political refugees and population issues motivating migration, but at the heart of travel and connectivity were emporia-market outposts. Commerce has always driven connection. The tools are much better now, but what is it about the way we use them that is truly unique to our times? Connectivity is a complicated force, as you say, because it’s not exceptional. It’s not nuclear weapons; it’s an energy source. Or in the addiction analogy, it’s not hard drugs – it’s food.

You’re right that connectivity is bound up with civilization and with humanity. But I do think that there is something quite unique about the period we’re in at the moment. Globalization and the digital revolution have brought us together in unprecedented ways; our connections have grown in exponential number and depth. Supply chains have become so complicated that an iPhone has components from dozens of different countries around the world. The amount of data we have about what’s going on in these different places, and the volume of people traveling around them, are unique in history. The closest parallel to what’s happened in the last three decades is the period between 1850 and 1914, which was obviously the first era of real global connectivity. The telegraph, the steamship, the motorcar – they all came at once. Then and now, faster connections shrink the world in dramatic ways. Capitalist economics bind everyone into a single global system. During World War I, countries came together in new ways – in tragedy and disaster – and the assumptions that people had made in the idealistic period that preceded it became casualties in the killing fields, too.

So, you’re saying the body count in 20th-century warfare can be seen as collateral carnage from the accelerated connectivity of the Industrial Revolution – the result of the first great modern connectivity conflict?

And connectivity went into reverse as a result of the Great War, when that first period of globalization started unravelling. You end up with a sanctuary of division, with the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War driving the world apart again. The second age of connectivity comes at the end of the Cold War, when the internet and globalization follow industrial revolution and empire, creating a whole other level of interaction. Meanwhile, you have these universalist fantasies about how the internet and globalization are going to bring democracy and freedom in their wake and lead to “one” world, making war impossible. We haven’t had a World War III yet, but people are now aware of the divisive downsides of connectivity. And I suppose it’s healthy that we can have this realization without destroying the entire planet. Now we must take action to make sure that we never do. This is another subtext of the book: it’s not impossible to imagine things going really badly wrong, and ending up with a situation that looks a lot like our current one, but on steroids.

What is the traditional definition of “war,” exactly?

The classic definition of war is an organized conflict that takes place between two states. It starts with a declaration of war and it ends with a peace treaty. The people who fight in it wear uniforms, and they’re the main people who get hurt. There are rules, actual laws of war, which determine how the war can be prosecuted and make a distinction between civilians and combatants – and, ideally, protect them.

We still have those sorts of wars, of course, but it’s rare. In much of the world, you’d have to go back decades to find one that would meet that definition. Even if you take a wider view and include civil wars and other kinds of armed conflict, in historical terms very small numbers of people die from them today.

More people commit suicide every year than die in armed conflict between countries. So, according to the formal definition, we are living in that golden age of peace. But if you look at the amount of violence and tension there, conflict between all the great powers is spiralling out of control – the most dramatic being between China and America, but also between Russia and the European Union, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and so on. These hostilities do spill over into armed conflict and war – in Syria, in Libya – but the losses resulting from those that fall short of the formal definition are turning out to be more significant. A lot of think tanks, such as RAND and others that used to work on nuclear conflict during the Cold War, now work on this gray zone – especially in cyber. There are millions of attacks every year between different players, often orchestrated by countries. It’s not just criminals. It’s coast guards, not pirates, going around and de facto occupying atolls in the South China Sea; it’s so-called little green men being sent across the border into Ukraine by Russia. Increasingly, the lines of attack follow the exact channels of globalization.

How do we begin to quantify the casualties of unpeace? It's hard enough to count the casualties or cost of war, as it's traditionally defined.

According to the UN and other research, hundreds of thousands have been killed, lost their jobs, or been denied access to medicines as a result of trade wars. But nobody has really looked at how many people are hurt by the macroeconomic damage caused by sanctions. The internet has been used in classic cyber attacks, but when you have attempts to undermine trust in the democratic process, for example, billions of people are impacted when other countries try to infiltrate or influence elections.

With Covid-19, we have this angel’s share of deaths where the cause wasn’t assigned to the virus, but was nonetheless related. If you are injured in battle and die from complications five years later, are you even considered a casualty of the war, traditionally?

Not according to the sort of figures coming from the various academic projects and databases counting casualties and looking at the costs of war. When I first started writing The Age of Unpeace, I thought it would be great to get a figure for the number of people who were killed or harmed every year by connectivity conflicts. But one of the difficulties with the weaponization of almost everything is that it’s hard to work out a way of comparing things. We don’t talk about this type of conflict; we don’t even think about it. My hope in trying to capture this phenomenon and show the damage we’ve already encountered is that “unpeace” [will become] a prism through which people look at the world, and that we will find new methodologies as a result.

One example I always go back to is auto collision. You can actually count those deaths with some accuracy, and they far exceed any estimate of human loss in WWII, but we tolerate cars as part of our daily lives – even though we have the numbers. Maybe future humans will look back and wonder how we tolerated the carnage, in the same way we think of gladiators today. But we seem to need more than just the numbers if we want to show the violence inherent to what we’ve come to consider normal, especially since mechanization and digitization make it so easy for us to sweep it under the rug. This is why I wonder about terminology: if we don’t call it war, how will we sanction the weaponization of connectivity?

The first thing we need to do is become more conscious of what’s going on – then we can develop norms to regulate it. During the Cold War, when the biggest danger to humanity was nuclear weapons getting out of control, we created a whole series of norms to mitigate that risk, creating arms control regimes and new ways of working together. But nuclear weapons are very difficult to get hold of. There [is] a finite number of them; you can lock them down. If you’re in a situation where any form of contact can be weaponized, it’s much more difficult to spot the problem, because there’s no real difference between what we do for fun and what we do to harm people. Leisure and economic activity are served by the same tools we use in conflict.

And the same tools we use for survival. It’s like food addiction: the typical doctrine of abstinence used for drugs and alcohol doesn’t work, because if you give up food you will die. You have to come up with another system, one that integrates what was used for harm into a healthful practice. You have to work, as you say, on your relationship to connectivity.

Absolutely. You want to get to a new set of norms, where certain types of behavior are cut out ... to allow the system to survive – and to stop us from going back to some sort of autarchic dark age where we couldn’t enjoy these technologies and links.

"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.”

The Age of Unpeace

Photo: Bobbi Zapka

Photo: Bobbi Zapka


There is a medicinal subtext to this recent work – you use viral infection as a metaphor, but more surprisingly, the study takes place in a framework of mental health. Many of your examples and terms come not from political science and tech, but from psychology and psychoanalysis – areas of care that have themselves become “viral,” as we meme our trauma and diagnose our depression on Instagram. Explicitly, you call for a global group “therapy”; how has self-help informed your approach here?

To describe the connections that bring the world together – and how they’ve gone wrong – I looked at sociological accounts and anthropology, and spent a lot of time on network theory. But some of the richest accounts I found come from psychology and self-help. Political action is increasingly driven by emotions, particularly as they apply to status and the loss thereof. Classically, political movements were thought of simply in terms of distribution, but we’ve built a narrative around distribution where you have winners and losers. Politics become about pride, loss, and humiliation – about dignity and control. Those feel like very psychological triumphs, and they’re very much about people’s relations with other players: it’s about relative loss and relative gains. I use the idea of co-dependence as a metaphor, because the ties that bind us are as much about psychology as they are about economics – and understanding them means listening to how people think about themselves, not telling them.

I think one of the typical problems of people in liberal cosmopolitan circles is that they think there is a full consensus that the open world is very good and benefits everyone, rather than listening to their critiques about what’s going on – and taking them seriously. If you don’t do that, you’re likely to make things even worse: people who are already upset about whatever’s upsetting them will also be angry that you’re denying their hurt and their pain. Meanwhile, you’re telling them they’re stupid for not understanding.

In the “convergence” chapter, describing your visit to the Facebook headquarters, you note their corporate guideline: “Don’t be an asshole.” Is the cosmopolitan elite, the globalist, being an asshole?

The problem is that the globalists have looked at the world in global terms. If you look at the world as a unit, the answer to the question of how things are going would be “great.” We’re a lot richer than we were before, and we have much better technology. But the globe isn’t a central unit of analysis for most people. Most people are not looking at what happens to the “whole” world; they’re thinking about themselves within it – and comparing themselves to others. Global connectivity has fundamentally changed who we compare ourselves to. It’s not your neighbors and relatives anymore, but the most privileged people in the world. It might not even be a real version of those people, just something performed for social media.

You also describe Mark Zuckerberg trying and failing to impress Chinese business leaders – who out-capitalist even the capitalists at Facebook – and bring in investor Peter Thiel’s obsession with René Girard and his theory of mimetic desire: “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.” I find Thiel’s yen for Girard fascinating. Like many in tech, he seems to both exploit this mechanism of envy and be afflicted by it.

I’m not an expert on Peter Thiel, but I use some of what he’s been writing and thinking about globalization to illustrate what’s going on. When I look at the competition between China and America, I argue that a lot of people think they are at each other’s throats because of what divides them. Whereas in fact, China and America got on quite well when they were very different from each other. If you go back to the 1990s, and even the early years of this century, people saw a very symbiotic relationship between China and America: the largest developed country in the world and the largest developing one, the biggest consumer in the world and the biggest producer. But recently there has been a convergence, not a symbiosis, between China and America. As the two countries have become wealthier, China has become more like the US – opening military bases around the world, developing its own technologies rather than simply copying them from elsewhere, and competing with the US in all sorts of sectors, from AI to driverless cars. As the US tries to defend itself from this competition, it is learning from China to protect its home market and prevent its technologies from being acquired by the other side. This is a mirroring process – just as Girard, Thiel’s intellectual mentor, argues that when two rivals are competing with each other, they become each other’s mimetic double. Because they are copying each other, the process of trying to differentiate themselves actually ends up eroding what distinguishes them – and the biggest tension comes from what they share, not what divides them. So, Thiel’s use of Gerard is an interesting way to think about how China/US competition has developed: the areas of convergence are where tensions are emerging, and the tech world is the core of that. That’s where the decoupling is starting, and where the conflict is being played out in the most graphic way.

“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.”

The Age of Unpeace

Photo: Facebook

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TextVictoria Camblin

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