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Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Age of Unpeace: Why connectivity causes conflict.”
The European Union is built on a simple idea. Binding nations and peoples together creates peace and makes war too expensive to contemplate. By building a community around the coal and steel that were used to build weapons, the EU managed to turn enemies into friends. After the end of the Cold War, Europeans set their sights even higher. They hoped that by opening borders and promoting trade, travel and the internet, they could spread these lessons to the world, and promote global harmony.
The truth turned out to be different. In 2016, through Brexit and the election of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Europeans discovered that many of their citizens disagreed that the world was a better place for its interconnectedness. And the behavior of other countries — from China and Russia to Turkey and Brazil — has shown how nationalism and power are trumping internationalism and the law. The inevitable conclusion is one that’s shocking to many Europeans: The connections that knit the world together can also be used to drive it apart.
In today’s globalized world, geopolitics has become a loveless marriage in which the partners can’t stand each other but are unable to get divorced. And as with any collapsing marriage, it is what was once shared during the good times that has become the means to inflict harm during the bad.
Hyper-connectivity is not only polarizing societies into competing filter-bubbles and creating an epidemic of envy, it is also providing a new arsenal of weapons for great power competition. Countries are now waging conflicts by manipulating the very things that link them together — using, for example, sanctions, boycotts, export controls or import bans for political goals.
The weaponization of interdependence goes well beyond trade, however. Global health concerns should have brought the planet together during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we saw mask diplomacy and vaccine nationalism.
In the field of infrastructure, China is indisputably the biggest power, using its Belt and Road Initiative to increase its political power through economic dependency. On the tech and information front, the fights are not just about spheres of technological influence and who sets the standards, but also very much about democracy and the freedom of our societies.
Even climate has become a battlefield — surprising, given we are all in the same sinking boat.
And though we may all know about Turkey and Belarus weaponizing migrants, there have actually been over 70 instances of such uses of mass migration in the last few decades, and they have been devastatingly effective.
To be sure, connections between countries have been instrumentalized before. What is new here is the dense network of links that give sanctions, blockades and PR campaigns a viral quality and a deadliness that did not exist before our world became defined through networks.
There’s a word that captures our liminal condition — suspended somehow between war and peace. The phrase was first used by academics in the field of tech, like Oxford’s Lucas Kello. Looking to describe the grey zone they were witnessing, in which millions of attacks that fell short of conventional war were being carried out every day, they rehabilitated the beautiful Anglo-Saxon word “unpeace.”
Recognizing that we’re living in an age of unpeace has important implications for Europe. While many believe we’re moving into a bipolar world, in which we’ll all be forced to choose sides between China and the U.S., Europe has its own unique geopolitical strength — one it’s well equipped to exert.
Along with the U.S. and China, Europe is one of three empires of connectivity, each with their own ideas and ability to shape the planet.
The U.S. is primarily a gatekeeper. The ubiquity of the dollar and its dominance over the internet allow it to shut countries out of the global financial system or to put their citizens under surveillance.
China aspires to be a relational power. It seeks to connect other countries to its market and bring them into a Chinese sphere of influence.
Europe has a different approach — as rule-maker. The 80,000 pages of the acquis communautaire, governing everything from gay rights and the death penalty to lawnmower sound emissions and food safety, is the EU’s operating system. And the EU does not just abide by this system itself. It uses its economic power to make those who come into contact with its network follow the rules as well.
If the connections between countries have become deadly weapons, they will have to be managed — and the EU is well placed to do that, with rules and norms that take away their sting.
If the Cold War was eased by arms control, the equivalent for our age is “disarming connectivity.” 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 — on everything from trade and migration to technology and cultural change.
Connectivity, whether we like it or not, is a double-edged sword. Acknowledging that is another simple but powerful idea with the potential to shape the world.