(Image Credit: http://www.amazon.co.uk)
Speaking at the 2017 installment of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Ian Goldin, a Professor of Globalization at Oxford University, stole a sombre march over his more ebullient participants, most of whom represented the crème de la crème of the neo capitalist billionaire creed. Goldin, if not impudently hurling sand in the finely lubricated gears of capitalism, issued an impassioned plea. “We need to make the choices to ensure that globalization is sustainable, that connectivity is sustainable, that we deal with intractable problems that are worrying people.” Within five years of Goldstein’s prescient warning, Russia helmed by a megalomaniacal Vladimir Putin, embarked on a full throated invasion of Ukraine, a conflict that still rages on at the time of this review.
In a 21st century world, where the tentacles of globalization have reached every perceivable corner of our planet, thereby ensuring not just seamless connectivity, but an inextricably linked chain of inter dependencies, words such as ‘invasion’, ‘incursion’, etc sound medieval. It would be almost heretical to envisage two intimately connected nations taking up even metaphorical cudgels against each other, let alone attempt a foolhardy physical assault. Yet, as Mark Leonard argues in his extremely compelling book, “The Age of Unpeace”, and as Putin has illustrated in a most vengeful fashion, it is this very connectivity that threatens to tear countries apart. The more a nation’s prospects remain glued to the workings and actions of another, the more the potential prospects for a dangerous ‘disconnect’.
Leonard, in his capacity as the director and co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, is at the vanguard of change and connectivity that has permeated the modern world. He uses his vantage point to contend that the heave and heft of connectivity over the past few decades that has influenced policies with respect to realms as diverse as mass migration, technology, cross border trade and travel, births conflict as opposed to resolving it.
Leonard’s work is interspersed with interesting theories, which even though sounding radical at the outset, are pregnant with an attribute of profundity. For example, in illustrating the frantic ‘decoupling’ that is being attempted by the United States due to frayed and fractious relations with China, Leonard introduces his readers to the fantastic theory of ‘mimetic’ desire postulated by French historian, polymath, philosopher and literary critic René Girard. Girard argues that humans imitate the desires of fellow human beings to such a degree that the object of the original desire gets diluted and is sacrificed at the altar of rivalries that fester around it. Thus as rivals compete for any desired object, they become inextricably linked, and obsessed with each other. Then they begin mirroring one another. Ultimately the rivalry ensures in a complete obliteration of individual identities as the warring factions become doppelgangers.
The United States, encouraged by a contrivance of arrogance and naiveté, moved heaven and earth in paving the way for Deng Xiaoping’s sedate China to embrace the World Trade Organisation. China not only refused to follow the Western playbook containing the precepts of democracy and the philosophy of human rights, but it also upended received wisdom by engaging in an exercise of unabashed ‘mimesis’. When Google’s Deep Mind created a spectacular AI programme “Alpha Go” that trounced World Champion Lee Seedol in the ancient board game of “Go”, the Chinese viewed this as their “Sputnik moment”. In an eye popping display of state funded public private partnership initiative, China under Xi created an entire AI ecosystem from scratch banking on the able guidance of Kai-Fu Lee, the Asian investor and one of the pioneers of AI in China. Kai-Fu Lee coincidentally received his Ph.D. in continuous speech recognition from Carnegie Mellon University.
The hunter had become the hunted. The jumpstart which the US had in the field of AI was rapidly eroded and the US now finds itself mimicking China as it tries to untangle itself from the spidery web of intricate connections. Similarly, Erdogan’s rapacious Turkey threatens to send hordes of refugees/ migrants into the EU unless the EU divests itself of billions of euros to Turkey in aid. The EU has been compelled to yield to Turkey’s constant arm twisting as there does not seem to be any other viable alternative.
The US also engages in its own ‘model’ of threat liberally. Backed by the position of the dollar as the global currency of choice, the US attempts to starve its adversaries such as Iran by resorting to forced changes in the global financial system such as SWIFT. Iran, in turn, miffed at what it perceives to be a mountain of injustice done to it, is responding with proxy wars by arming rebellious terrorist factions such as the Houthis in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Palestine. Reciprocal cyber and drone attacks have become the flavour of the contemporary geopolitical sphere. Lucas Kello, of Oxford University Leonard terms these developments as occurring in an “age of Unpeace”.
The internet is also being slowly, albeit surely ‘Balkanized’. But on the internet, decoupling is already well under way. China has effectively blocked Western platforms and has built an alternative/ parallel online space. Thus, Baidu is a replica of Google; Alibaba replaces eBay and Amazon; WeChat substitutes WhatsApp; Weibo steps in for Twitter; and Didi Chuxing is the synonym for Uber.
Best-selling author and a perpetual upholder of Panglossian vision, Thomas Friedman is attributed with a theory termed “The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention”. This theory argues that no two countries that are part of the same global supply chain will ever fight a war as long as they are each part of that supply chain. The title is derived from the long and complex supply chain stretching over countries and continents that ultimately is responsible for the manufacture of a Dell laptop. Unfortunately in an age of “Unpeace”, such theories are apt to crumble.
“The Age of Unpeace” is an essential and timely reminder of the perils of a tussle for one upmanship and superiority that has its battlefield not inside bloody and macabre trenches but in the more sophisticated, convoluted and ubiquitous medium of connectivity.