World View: Connectivity is the new battlefield

The internet, border controls, supply chains and migration are the new weapons in our globalised world

South Sudanese children gather in a refugee camp:  migration pacts may be among the big flashpoints in geopolitics to come. Photograph:  Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

South Sudanese children gather in a refugee camp: migration pacts may be among the big flashpoints in geopolitics to come. Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

 

Most predictions about the future of technology age badly, but even the least prescient of them can tell us a great deal about the present. If a single statement could capture the blend of western hubris and techno-utopianism that marked the dawn of the 21st century, it was a remark by then US president Bill Clinton in March 2000. “The Beijing regime has been trying to crack down on the internet,” he said. “Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.”

Clinton was reflecting a widely-held faith in the internet as an unstoppable force that would frustrate, and perhaps even threaten, the power of authoritarian regimes to circumscribe their people’s lives. Informing that faith was a broader conviction among western leaders that globalisation would make countries and peoples more alike, and therefore less likely to come into conflict. In China, it was assumed, a growing educated middle class with unprecedented access to the rest of the world would grow steadily less tolerant of the stultifying atmosphere at home. And by plugging Beijing into the global system through trade and supply chains, war could be made irrational.

Two decades on, the Jello is firmly stuck to that wall. The Chinese Communist Party has not been swept aside by the internet. Instead it has used digital technologies to tighten its grip – building a vast surveillance state, developing new cyber weapons and creating a parallel internet that is closed to the biggest western platforms and heavily censored by the party. China’s rising wealth and its deepening integration in global networks has coincided with a period of acute tensions in its relations with the United States, which now openly identifies a rising China as its most pressing challenge. The balance of power between Washington and Beijing has shifted; China’s growth has made it an economic and military competitor, and it is increasingly willing to exhibit its new clout in the world. The idea of war preoccupies planners in both capitals.

We have always known that bringing people together can be at once a source of understanding and the cause of division. The question of whether interdependence is a guarantee of peace has been debated for centuries. In a thought-provoking new book, The Age of Unpeace, Mark Leonard goes a step further and argues that connectivity itself is what drives people apart. “It gives people the opportunity for conflict; reasons to fight each other; and a lot of weapons with which to inflict harm,” he writes.

Globalisation gives states more opportunity to meddle in each other’s affairs. Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, observes that proximity, whether through migration, trade or the internet, allows people to compare themselves with others, to feel envy, to have the urge to compete. Digital tools and the algorithms they use feed resentment and bring out people’s competitive side while at the same time taking away some of their human agency by breaking them into disaggregated data points. “Connectivity increasingly makes people feel the world is beyond their control,” he writes.

Large conventional wars between states have all but disappeared. Nuclear weapons make the price too high. What have taken their place, Leonard argues, are “connectivity conflicts”, which are less costly, more effective and now far more prevalent. In these conflicts, the weapons are the tools of the globalised digital economy – the internet, border controls, supply chains, migration, the financial system. China buys fealty and influence by building infrastructure around the world. The US’s weapons of choice against Iran have been sanctions and cyber attacks.

When Turkey shot down a Russian jet that came into its airspace at the Syrian border in 2015, Vladimir Putin responded not with a missile but with a ban on fruit and vegetable imports from Turkey, the grounding of package holiday flights to Turkey and a pause on the countries’ visa-free travel regime. The package cost Turkey an estimated $14-15 billion. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forced to apologise and seek to mend relations. But this is also how Erdogan fights his battles. He used the threat of a wave of refugees – in effect weaponising migration – to get the EU to agree a deal that earned Turkey €6 billion and relaxed visa rules. “In future years the big flashpoints in geopolitics are less likely to be about control of the land and the sea,” Leonard writes. “Instead they will be about migration pacts, offshore financial centres, fake news factories, state aid, computer chips, investment protection and currency wars.”

Globalisation will not be reversed. Severing the ties that connect modern states cannot be done without giving up some of the biggest advances in human history. But connectivity has to be managed. Because otherwise, if Leonard is right, then every trade deal or every new technology that brings people closer will also make the world a more dangerous place, leaving us in an age of perpetual conflict, “not officially at war but never at peace, in which no one can remember the origins of our disagreements”.

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