An unstable world
The coronavirus pandemic has upended almost all aspects of life as we knew it. The global health crisis, by no means over, has injected much unpredictability about the future. The main trends shaping our world have not, however, been caused by the pandemic. Several though have been accentuated by it. Globalization for one, was already in retreat in recent years not least due to protectionist policies and the rise of populist and hyper-nationalist leaders. But COVID-19 set globalization back even further.
There is a rich body of literature and recent works that examine both the global impact of the pandemic as well as how it shaped or sharpened key international dynamics that predated it and continue to hold sway. Two very different but thoughtful books in this genre were by Fareed Zakaria titled ‘Ten Lessons for a Post-pandemic World’ and Noreena Hertz’s ‘A Lonely Century’, published last year.
A more recent work is not focused on the pandemic, although there are references to it, but shines a light on one of the defining trends of the present era- a world that is more connected than ever with all its multifaceted dimensions and implications. Connectivity is generally assumed to bring nations and people together, create interdependence, symbiotic and cooperative relations between states and mitigate hostility. Not so, argues this new book. The title sums up its main proposition – ‘The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity causes Conflict.’ The author, Mark Leonard offers a picture of the world that is in perpetual crisis and unstable, where there is ceaseless confrontation between competing powers.
He acknowledges the enormous progress a globalized world has made in reducing poverty and making education and health available to billions. But globalization has also given people the opportunity to fight, the motive to compete and the arsenal for conflict, he says. The central thesis of his book is compelling – connections that link the world are also what are dividing it and “becoming weapons”. Citing the response to the pandemic, Leonard argues that instead of uniting behind collective action to increase global supplies of vaccines and medical equipment, countries have acted selfishly and some have used stocks to prevail over others.
He asserts that countries today are waging conflicts by manipulating the very connections that have expanded between them. That is why for him the distinction between war and peace no longer holds.
‘Connectivity conflicts’ are, according to him, becoming more prevalent in the nuclear age as they are less costly and more effective. In this ‘age of unpeace’ millions of people are harmed by such conflicts while the ‘body count’ in conventional wars has been much lower in the 21st century.
The debate on the future of globalization will continue for years to come but a new work shines a light on how connectivity is creating tensions and conflict.
The author substantiates his hypothesis of how connectivity creates the opportunity, motive and means for conflict by examining the US-China relationship. He argues, with some justification, that competition between the two has taken on a “deadly quality.” The classic security dilemma which drives states to build defenses against rivals triggers the same behavior in others and leads to a “vicious cycle of insecurity” and an arms race. Leonard demonstrates that this ‘security dilemma is now evident in the realm of technology between the two superpowers – technology being at the heart of their confrontation today. America’s anxiety over losing the economic and technological edge has led it to impose tariffs, curbs on Chinese investment and bans on tech sales to Chinese companies. This in turn has exacerbated Chinese insecurity as Beijing construes these US actions as efforts to contain China and has therefore opted for strategies of self-reliance in its industrial and technological development policies.
The author considers a host of contemporary issues such as artificial intelligence and its impact, “threatened majorities” who start acting like minorities, economic warfare, use of global financial networks as tools of foreign policy, cyberspace as the arena of tech wars and the cultural backlash against cosmopolitanism. All these serve in different ways to illustrate the pervasive ramifications of connectivity but also how the competition that ensues leads to “a perpetual age of unpeace.”
In a thought-provoking chapter that discusses the geopolitics of connectivity, Leonard seeks to show why this drives countries toward competing rather than working together. He recalls that the issue of whether interdependence creates peace or encourages war has long been debated by scholars and philosophers. He comes down on the side of the argument that precisely because war today is not an option, states use connectivity networks, manipulate links and deploy these new tools for power plays. Thus, globalization has turned into a weapon, according to him. It has yielded a “new topography of power” in which networks – of people, finance, technology – have become the currency of power.
Is there a way to address the toxic tensions that interlinkages cause? The author has a pragmatic answer – not to dispense with connectivity but disarm it by opting to co-exist with those whose values are different and by taking “the sting out of interdependence”. He lists a number of steps to manage connectivity in an insightful concluding chapter.
While this book makes a useful contribution to an important issue, the debate on the future of globalization will continue for years to come. For now, the pandemic has had a disruptive effect on a globalized world – especially on global supply chains – and even accelerated de-globalization in many ways. Some term this phenomenon as ‘slowbalization’. That leaves open the question on whether this is a transient phase or become a more enduring feature of the international landscape.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha