A Connected World Is Tearing Us Apart
Here’s How to Fix It.
By Mark Leonard
I should be the last to spot the crisis of liberal internationalism. Like many in Europe, I am part of the first generation in my family for 150 years not to face war, exile or even extermination. Growing up in Brussels in the 1980s with a British father and a French-born German-Jewish mother, it was my European identity that brought meaning to my fragmented personal history. I believed that a sense of shared European destiny was not only possible, but necessary to avoid the catastrophes of the past. As the founder of a pro-European think tank, I have spent my career promoting diplomacy over war, and unity over separation. My family life, my work, and my worldview were all buoyed by the rising tide of internationalism.
But in 2016, with Britain voting to leave the European Union and Donald Trump winning the White House, the tide went out. I felt shipwrecked. Why did so many people reject the forces that had made my life so much safer and more fulfilled than those of my ancestors?
Many of my friends think we are facing the fight of our lives, a struggle to save the internationalist world order. Politics for them no longer split “left” from “right,” but “open” from “closed.” The big questions are now: Welcome migrants or build walls? Free trade or protectionism? Modern values or a return to tradition?
When I first noticed this phenomenon, I had planned a passionate plea for an open world. But the more I’ve tried to understand our politics, the more I’ve become uneasy with the simple resumption of “one world” liberal internationalism. Any division between “open” and “closed” mindsets fails to capture the grand paradox shaping our times: The more people and countries are drawn together, the more they want to be apart.
I had an epiphany about the dilemma facing our world during one of my trips to Beijing. While browsing in my favorite bookshop, The Bookworm, I came across a volume called Facing Codependence, by Pia Mellody. Though a work of psychology, it seemed to capture many of the pathologies that beset international relations. Rather than talking about interdependence as a necessarily healthy phenomenon, it identified a condition called “codependence,” during which the ties between different players become toxic, but also inescapable.
There seemed no better analogy for contemporary politics. Once an unbridled internationalist, I have now come to a worrying conclusion: that connectivity itself drives us apart. It gives people the opportunity for conflict; reasons to fight each other; and the weapons with which to do so.
Let’s start with the opportunity for conflict. In a connected world, people don’t have an option to keep to themselves: everyone is in each other’s face. This allows us to work together, to trade, and to develop bonds of friendship. But connectivity also creates opportunities for greater competition. As the world becomes ever more crowded and digitally connected, these points of contact create potential sources of conflict. During the Cold War, an Iron Curtain separated the Soviet Union from the West. But today, China and the US are bound so closely together that connection is inevitable. A virus emerging from Wuhan sparked a global pandemic which has devastated America and escalated diplomatic tensions between the two superpowers. The resultant supply chain snarl-ups and U.S. stimulus bills have produced inflation unseen in America since the 1970s—which now threatens to push investors away from the U.S. and towards Chinese markets instead. These spiraling knock-on effects show the danger of connection: when one side sneezes, the other (quite literally) catches a cold. Connected networks are the transmission belts for conflict—allowing people and nations to turn our open societies against themselves.
The transformations wrought by connectivity have provided the reasons for conflict too. Though I interpreted the last few decades as a story of progress and prosperity, others saw things completely differently. For many, internationalists opened the door to the off-shoring of their jobs. They invited in well-qualified migrants who would work for less money, crowd their hospitals and schools, drive up house prices and introduce different languages and shops to our high streets. They provided new routes for financial crises, terrorism and pandemics to enter our communities. And our culture changed so profoundly that some profess to fear becoming “strangers in their own lands.” In other words, many of the things I saw as bringing peace and opportunity have made others feel vulnerable and poorer. Happily ensconced within my own bubble, I was not confronted with the loss of control that connectivity was fueling in parallel bubbles.
Most disturbingly of all, the ties that bind us have been turned into weapons. The forces of connectivity intended to bring the world together have metamorphosed into the battlegrounds of a global tug of war. Trade wars, sanctions, cyber attacks, fake news and the expulsion of refugees have shown how leaders can manipulate these links between nations to inflict pain on others and get ahead themselves. Just last year, Belarus´s dictator Alexander Lukashenko used his secret services to transport migrants from the Middle East via Belarus into Poland and Lithuania, in retaliation to EU sanctions. And when Lithuania sought to deepen ties with Taiwan in November, China halted imports of Lithuanian goods and exerted pressure on EU businesses to do the same. All these points of contact form the basis for permanent conflict that pits nation against nation.
Therapy for the Age of Unpeace
Global politics seems to be in a double-bind. People crave control and autonomy, but they are far from ready to give up on the convenience of the internet, global travel and trade. As a result, international politics has become more and more like a dysfunctional relationship, in which the partners aren’t able to split up, but can’t stand being together.
If I am right in my diagnosis of the problem, then geopolitics needs therapists, rather than architects for a new world order. Instead of eradicating connectivity’s dark side with a grand design, we need strategies for weathering our new reality. Here are four steps to remedying our age of unpeace.
Step One: Face up to the problem
The first step is facing up to 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. Rather than telling people they are irrational or wrong, politicians must express a deeper understanding of people’s individual experience. The starting point must be to change the way we gather data. Instead of the abstract statistics of “Esperanto economics” we need to find a way of measuring wellbeing that reflects different metrics. Aggregated data on the impact of EU membership upon Britain hid sector-specific and regional challenges. If freedom of movement had negligible effects upon wages overall, surveys show that wages went down significantly in some professions like construction, as pressure on public services in high migration areas mounted. Preserving the benefits of a connected world means identifying such issues in the first place. New forms of data to understand different segments of the population will allow governments to protect those who lose out from connectivity. But we also need to go well beyond economic questions, remaining sensitive to fears over loss of status, and identity erosion.
Step Two: Establish healthy boundaries
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. Politics has to offer greater protection to the losers from economic openness, finding ways of specifically catering for the “left behind.” There are different policy prescriptions in different areas: trade deals that prioritize democratic control over frictionless contact; immigration policies that couple legal routes with flexible labor market policies designed to promote higher wages rather than a race to the bottom. President Biden has shown some willingness to move in this direction, introducing requirements for goods purchased by the federal government to eventually contain 75% U.S.-made content. This sort of balanced protectionism—which avoids restarting Trump-era trade wars but gives a leg-up to American manufacturers—is a step in the right direction. The bottom-line is that interdependence can only survive in the long term if it feels safe once again.
Step Three: Be realistic about what you can control
Hoping for a convergence around a globalist philosophy is hopelessly utopian. But the alternative approach—of seeing competition as a “systemic rivalry” that our side must win at all costs—could be equally dangerous. This precarity needs to give way to rules for survival. Our 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. Inside that global container, smaller dolls could involve more extensive rules. Regional organizations such as the European Union can develop much thicker rule-books amongst their own members. Though total unanimity within the international community is impossible, real progress can still happen: the OECD’s new global minimum corporate tax rate will cover 137 countries, tackling huge companies which have used a connected world to avoid paying their dues.
Step Four: Seeking real consent
Legitimacy in politics lives and dies by consent. But governments and companies have driven forward connectivity without any serious attempt to secure consent either at home or abroad. Its absence marks everything from trade deals to social media policy. 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 proper democratic control, countries where free trade and movement can be both embraced or curtailed, and an overall framework that makes those choices possible, so that people don’t feel they have to overturn the whole of society to have their voices heard. Phasing out secret trade deals would be a start, reassuring citizens that decisions aren’t being made over their heads. There are plenty of existing policies to look to as well. The EU’s world-leading General Data Protection Regulation gives internet users more control over who can access their data, and has been copied across the world, including in Japan, Kenya and Brazil. Countries like Iceland and Estonia have even experimented with new deliberative processes, like people’s assemblies, which give citizens another way to express their concerns.
If we continue on our current trajectory of greater connectivity, greater comparison and greater competition, we risk entering an age of perpetual conflict, not officially at war but never at peace. Though liberalism has thrived on principles of openness, it risks perishing from their abuse.
But I am not a fatalist. By introducing the right reforms into our politics now, we can lay the foundations for a major reboot. 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 turn to strategies that minimize discontent and limit the violence it brings. As is so often the case, the first step back to health is acknowledging that there’s a problem.
Mark Leonard is co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This article draws from his recent book, The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict.