The Age of Unpeace [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Mark Leonard, Co-Founder and Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the first pan-European think tank. They talk about whether ties between countries foster conflicts, how Europe should behave in relation to the aggressive policies of China and Russia, and whether it is possible to cooperate and create rules limiting the negative effects of interdependence.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): Why did you write The Age of Unpeace (2021)?

Mark Leonard

Mark Leonard (ML): The reason I wrote the book is because there had been a big clash between the world I wanted to live in and the one that I found myself living in. This led me to re-examine many of my prior convictions. A trigger for me was 2016 – the year of Brexit and Donald Trump being elected the president of the United States. This events went against the world of connectedness and internationalism.

What I realized through these kinds of processes was that though my own experience of the last few decades was one where we are banding together with the world (through trade, integration, and new technologies), which has been an incredibly empowering and positive experience, 52% of people in the United Kingdom and enough people in the United Sates to elect Trump had a radically different interpretation of exactly the same events. This led me to spend a lot of time trying to understand why the lived experiences of different people could be (and should be) so different.

Running away from my enormous emotional and political commitment to the European Union, expressed by the process of integration, which made my life immeasurably better than that of my parents, grandparents, and earlier generations in my family. However, at the same time, it is very striking how all of the things that I see as empowering and giving opportunities have been perceived as creating threats and insecurities by other people.

After digesting that shock, I started to think differently about the experience of the last few decades and to look at the dark side of connectivity. For all the positive things that the connected world has brought us (wealth, new technologies, improved living standard), there are also negative developments, which brought people a sense of insecurity, conflicts with one another, and created a whole series of new forms of instability in the world – and that is what my book is about.

LJ: Where did the need to invent the new term (unpeace) to describe our times today?

ML: I did not invent the word unpeace, it is actually an old Anglo-Saxon word. What I was trying to capture with it is the disconnect between the official account where we were (which is to see the last 30 years as a golden age of peace, when we did not have wars between any great powers) and the experience which people had (that of an enormous amount of instability, conflict, and unhappiness), which was playing both within our societies and between different countries.

My good friend, Ivan Krastev, wrote a wonderful column about the war in Ukraine shortly after it started in February 2022, saying that he thought that a lot of people in their 20s and 30s thought that they lived in a post-war period only to discover later on that it was actually an inter-war period. He observed that, actually, many people in the ‘old world’ would have the same experience. My book says that that is wrong. It is not that the war started on February 24, because Ukraine had already been in a state of war for eight years.

Even if this ‘fighting war’ ends, it does not mean that we are going to be in an age of peace again, because what we have seen is that many different conflicts that take place between different powers, which might not fit the conventional definition of ‘war’, where you have countries declaring war on each other, invading armies doing most of the fighting, and then demanding a peace treaty – that does not happen very much – even in Ukraine, that did not happen. But at the same time, they are fighting with each other in a number of different ways – whether it is through cyber-attacks, manipulating the financial system, migration, among others.

A metaphor that I use in the book is a reference to a marriage that goes wrong, but the couple cannot get a divorce. Geopolitics today is a bit like that. Just like in a marriage that goes wrong, there are things that brought the couple together, the good times become a weapon that they use to hurt each other in the bad times. In a marriage, it is about who gets the pet dog or the holiday home, but above all about who looks after the children and how you talk to them about what is going on. In geopolitics, it is increasingly about all of the different threats that bind the world together – trading relationships are being turned into sanctions, energy is being turned into a weapon, the Internet becomes a place for spreading disinformation and cyberattacks.

Even migration has been turned into a weapon – the free movement of people, the ultimate thing that was meant to bring people and the world together, is being instrumentalized by various leaders. It is no coincidence that the Russians are attacking civilian centers and infrastructure in Ukraine rather than simply going after soldiers, because what they are deliberately doing is driving millions of people from their homes in the hope not only to spread terror in Ukraine, but also to put political pressure on the countries that these people are going to (such as Poland). Certainly, these countries are being extremely generous in the short term, but the pressure put on their public services (the housing market, school system, hospitals, etc.) is going to quite large if this war continues. This is a political act as well.

LJ: Is decoupling from Russia the right move for the United States in this context? Should the European Union try to do the same? Or is the price too high?

ML: Europe is decoupling from Russia. It is going to be not only inevitable, but also irreversible. Whatever happens in this war, it is very difficult to imagine how we could go back to the world from before February 24, 2022. I am an internationalist, so I think that the world is better of if people have relationships with each other. Here, the challenge is, however, to structure these relationships in a way that they are not toxic. One of the difficulties we had in the area of our energy relationship with Russia, is that it was organized in a way that was too one-sided and asymmetrical. As a result, Russia could use energy to blackmail and bully other countries. The lesson from that is not that we should never buy anything from the countries that we do not like, but instead we should never put ourselves in the position of dependence on a single country, with whom we have a difficult relationship.

In some ways, the solution to a one-sided dependency is more relationships, so that if one of them goes wrong, you can diversify and hedge by going to other countries. This is what has been increasingly happening. In the old days, you had these just-in-time supply chains, which were very fragile, and which were basically all about cost (and driving the cost down as low as possible). Now, people talk about just-in-case supply chains, where you make sure the supply chains are more complicated; therefore, you are not focused just on cost, but also on security of supply, so that you may have different options for when things go wrong. In a way, that is a metaphor for a bigger way of thinking of how relationships work.

It is a very different world. The reason why this has happened is because we have nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons mean that a war between great powers is unthinkably dangerous. The desire to conflict between great powers has not disappeared, but their ability to have wars in conventional terms has disappeared as a result of nuclear weapons. This is why the situation of unpeace is increasingly the case. People are manipulating the ties they have together, because it is less dangerous and expensive than sending troops.

It is interesting to see how even the war in Ukraine, on the one hand, looks like the old-fashioned war, it does not feel like unpeace. In my book I argue that a) what happened was because of connectivity gone wrong. The resentment that Putin felt about the growing connection between Ukraine and Europe. This created a sense of anxiety which led to the battle between the two connectivity processes – the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union. It ends up going wrong from the Russian perspective to the extent that Putin thought that he was going to lose Ukraine forever. This is why he started the tragic process of annexation of Crimea and starting a war in eastern Ukraine. The war ramped up and it has now taken an even more dramatic form.  

It is also true that the way in which the war is being fought is very different from the WWII – it is a very much war around peace. Even the way it is fought on the battleground is very much about connections. Ordinary Ukrainians are uploading onto apps information about where the Russian troops are, which gives Ukraine a technological advantage over Russia. It is a very high-tech war – with drones and UAVs. Technology is changing the face of war. But this is only one of the battlefields where the war is being waged.

The Russian side is using manipulation of the energy sector and displacing millions of people, which put pressure on our side. Our side imposes incredible sanctions attempting to restrict technology aid to the Russians. Therefore, even when we are focusing on the battlefield and thinking about tanks, there are also other, less traditional types of war to those which were around in the times of the WWII or the Cold War.

The war in Ukraine is like a time machine – it is both taking us back to the 20th century and at the same time it is very 21st century, because of the connectivity element.

LJ: Let us turn to China. How should we view the relations between China and the United States?

ML: The conventional way to understand the relationship between China and America is that it is bad, because the two countries are so different from each other that they are the complete opposites – the United States is this ultimate capitalist and the biggest developed country in the world, whereas China is a communist state and a developing country. China is the world-wide producer, the U.S. is the consumer of last resort. East and West, democracy and dictatorship, yin and yang. Many people think that this is the reason why there is so much tension between the two states.

However, China and the United States used to get on quite well when they were the complete opposites of each other – in fact, so well that people started talking about having single combined economy. There is an almost perfect complementarity between the Chinese and American economies, while the societies may work together very effectively.

One of the reasons why the relationship has become much less good is that China and America have been converging and becoming much more alike. The more they become alike, the more they hate each other and the more tension there is between the two of them. The process that we could have recently observed was that both countries have been going up – in terms of expanding exponentially mutual knowledge. The two countries have started mirroring each other.

China has tried to go up the value chain and to become more of a high-tech economy. It has developed various internet platforms. It is modernizing its military. It is doing many things that the United States has been doing that are the source of its great power. On the other hand, the U.S. has been becoming much more like China. It used to believe very much in free markets; now, they have the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is a massive industrial support program where all the subsidies go into the market to mirror what China is doing in terms of developing its green technology. Moreover, the U.S. used to have a hub and spoke approach in Asia about its military bases etc.; now, it is trying to develop economic relationships with people.

We see a gradual process of these two countries mirroring each other more and more. They become more similar and at the same time more hostile toward one another. This spiral of integration, which leads to convergence, to competition, and eventually to conflict. As Peter Thiel, an American entrepreneur, observed, typically, when two people are after the same thing, they tend to copy each other to the extent that the thing that they both desire (in this case: to be the number one country in the world) is less important than the rivalry between them.

My book essentially argues that the process of connecting the world both gives people a motive for conflict with each other and an opportunity. The works of Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish sociologist and thinker, devoted to how connectivity and technology are leading to comparisons between different players, also put forward a theory that our ability to compare ourselves to other people in the world leads to a very strong sense of resentment – which creates conflict. He talks about almost a free-floating discontent in the Internet age, because people used to compare each other to their neighbors or parents, whereas now everyone can compare themselves to the most privileged people in the world. Clearly, they cannot compete with what they see, which causes them a lot of frustration and discontent.

Connectivity and integration have quite profound implications for how people feel about their relationships with others – both with other countries and within our own societies, which can cause tensions.

LJ: Should liberals try to play the populist game?  

ML: The main challenge for liberals is that, traditionally, we have said that it is a win-win situation in terms of global integration, free trade, and free movement – that it is good for everyone. That the pie is getting bigger and that everyone is better off. Then, in 2008, with the global financial crisis, there was growing awareness in many different places that, actually, there were losers as well – even though they were not actually losing, they were not winners as much as other people were. That relative difference (between the people who did really well and those who did not do as well) became strong enough to create a huge sense of resentment and frustration among large numbers of people – enough people to vote for Brexit, to elect Donald Trump in the United States or the Law and Justice party in Poland.  

The question is: How do you fight back? People like Emmanuel Macron say that all we need to do is to say that the new split is not between the left and the right, but between open and closed. I think that if you make a split between the open and closed societies, you will lose. People from the closed societies will start building walls.

The challenge for liberals is: How do you make openness feel safe for the people? You need to make them feel that people are in control of what is happening – that it is managed. Therefore, this ‘split’ should not be between open and closed, but rather between the managed and unmanaged interdependence. The former means that you can actually be honest about the fact that there are winners and losers, so you can try to redistribute some of the gains from the winners to help the losers.

That is the big picture of what I call ‘disarming connectivity’ – trying to de-risk it, make it less risky. This approach would cover a number of areas – for example, immigration. It is clear having open borders and free movement is very good for overall economy, but it can be bad for wages in particular sectors and put pressure on places where these people moved. If you track where people are going to and think about that, you can put in safeguard for salaries in the sectors which are being pushed down; you can tax the benefits from free labor market and invest the money in more school places, hospitals, and housing to make sure that other people can benefit from it as well.

The same is true with free trade, which also creates winners and losers. If you are re-investing the extra revenue that comes in, helping prepare people for losses, the most difficult areas are those where we see a cultural change in people’s identities. This is one of the areas where liberals found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. But I think there are ways of showing that you care about culture – which is not necessarily an intuitive thing for liberals, who are often portrayed as ruthless cosmopolitans.

If you want to stop people from becoming nationalists opting for simple populist solutions, then it is incumbent on liberals to show that you care about the people who are on the wrong side of these processes and to find ways of reassuring them, winning their consent, and bringing them along with it. This means that you can then have a much more sustainable openness. If you do not do that, the danger is always that it will all get overturned and you will get people like Donald Trump elected, who end up going for the complete opposite of what liberals want – introducing illiberal measures in ways that are really disruptive (also to the people they desire to appeal to).

Liberals, therefore, face the challenge of giving the people a sense of agency and showing that liberalism is not simply about the forces of capitalism and cultural and technological change, which is going to destroy a lot of the things people care about. This seems to be the big lesson of the recent years – liberals need to not only find a different language to talk about what is going on, but also start engaging in some of these more complicated issues.

In some ways, it is a bout a return to liberalism and moving away from the neo-liberal or libertarian paradigm, which is often where liberals found themselves in the last couple of decades. It is a big change, but if it is not embraced, then – I fear – we could end up with a much more illiberal world.

The podcast was recorded on February 14, 2023.

Find out more about the guest: 

Find out more about the book:…ook/dp/B08GFFT7F9

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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