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BOOK REVIEW - The Age of Unpeace: How connectivity causes conflict

- Reviewed Book: Leonard, Mark. The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict. Random House, 2021.

- Book Review by Mario Parolari


When the research for ‘The Age of Unpeace’ began, the book was supposed to become a plea to our contemporary world as it manifests itself: open, globalized, and connected. Since WWII, the western world has witnessed the disappearance of conventional state-vs-state warfare, and the rise of the European communitarian project, together with democracy, well-being, and possibilities.

For the author Mark Leonard, a British political scientist, director, and co-founder of the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank, it was globalization, free trade, technology, and internationalism what made our lives safe and fulfilled across the second half of the 20th century. However, as soon as Leonard began digging into the benefits of connectivity for humanity, the sociopolitical landscape started turning towards an unexpected result. Brexit and Donald Trump’s election signed a way back to nationalism and protectionism that seemed to reject connectivity and its globalist values. Just a few months after the book was published, Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine, signaling the return to a state-vs-state warfare in continental Europe since the fall of Nazism.

The ‘why’ question between all these events led the author to investigate the major challenges of our time. From mass migration to economic warfare, from people’s problematic use of the internet to companies’ problematic use of surveillance technology. Behind these conflicts, Mark Leonard identified a common denominator, which became the new argument put forward by the book about our contemporary world. While the forces of connectivity link the world together, the same forces provide opportunities for conflict, reasons to fight and weapons to harm. Connectivity is thereby bringing us inside the age of “unpeace”, which the author describes as “an unstable, crisis prone world of perpetual competition and endless attacks between competing powers” (6).

Throughout the book, Leonard draws into interdisciplinary research (political science, history, sociology, economics, and psychology) (9) and personal interviews to understand why and how connectivity came to divide and arm our societies. The book’s chapters are divided into three sections explaining opportunities, reasons, weapons and warriors of the age of unpeace.

The centre of this state of unpeace, Leonard observes, is the technological competition between China and the United States. By comparing Facebook headquarters with a Chinese facial recognition company, the author draws a new “connectivity-security dilemma”: the two great powers are imitating each other in employing technology, fearing the influence of the rival and pursuing domination by economic warfare. According to Leonard, connected networks allow countries to compare and imitate each other, enhancing greed, fears and desire for power, which ultimately leads to conflicts. This creates a spiral of competition across open societies, fueled by the interconnections of the globalized world.

Furthermore, the book investigates the reasons for modern conflicts to emerge. Accordingly, digital connectivity changes the identities and interests of people and countries, fostering competitiveness in human nature. Using the example of dating apps, Leonard shows how social media break societies into micro-communities. These “imagined majorities” (60) polarize nations even on factual truths, leading to comparison, envy and politics of identity.

Between nations, these processes spark a sense of belligerent tribalism and grievance, exemplified by the geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, a manipulated interdependence allows low-cost modes of conflict, such as cyber-attacks and proxy wars.

Other than the technological world, the conflicts to which the book refers are played in the realms of international economics, global infrastructures, international law and migration flows. In Leonard’s account, sanctions, infrastructural competition and lawfare, together with the strategic control of refugees and the internet, represent the weapons that presidents such as Erdogan (interviewed by the author) and Putin rely on to engage in conflict, thereby fueling the global state of unpeace. On the geopolitical chessboard, the major “empires of connectivity” (143) are the United States, Europe and China in opposition to the so-called “fourth world” (160). Accordingly, Leonard theorizes (164) their incompatible visions of the present and future of the connected world: America as an instrumental “gatekeeper power”, China as a “relational power” and Brussels as a normative law-maker.

Overall, the book sheds light on the most relevant issues of our time by identifying macro trends and connecting dots into an innovative theory of globalization. The book deserves praise for the importance of the theoretical effort, and for the academic and geographical vastness of the research that made it possible. However, despite the author’s guiding idea being clear and sound, sometimes the structure of the text prevents the reader from fully comprehending it. The chapters’ division into sections (opportunity, reasons, weapons, and warriors) is well thought out. Considering this, the content of the various chapters sometimes does not make justice to the section’s scope and seems not to flow with what comes before and after. Too many examples and a few explanation sections make the book appealing to a wider audience but sacrifice clarity and flow of exposition.

To conclude an alarming scenario, the book draws a manifesto to “disarm connectivity” (169). Leonard’s idea is that “rather than architect [for a new world order], we need to find therapists who can help us to accept who we are - and teach us how to manage our demons” (17). The way to go would be to first face the problems of connectivity in our society by changing the way we gather data and by focusing on real consent. Furthermore, societies should make interdependence livable by establishing healthy boundaries that reconcile global mobility with national identity. Finally, connectivity should be made safe by mitigating the risks of conflicts and limiting those too hard competitions. However, the most relevant ‘policy recommendation’ that the book proposes is to trace the roots of the described conflicts in our lifestyles and choices, rather than blaming only external actors.

Because of the size of the problem, the shortcomings of Leonard’s therapy are evident. The book's theoretical schematization of the actor’s stance towards connectivity does not leave room to imagine how they might even try to solve the problem. Moreover, when it comes to some of the crises described in the book, especially quick, short-term processes such as migration flows and military escalations, prevention is decisively better than therapy. In conclusion, in the long run “disarming” connectivity might not be enough.


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