Do we really know what war is anymore? — The Weaponisation of Everything: A Field Guide To The New Way of War by Mark Galeotti review

This comprehensive – and somewhat bleak – survey of modern warfare questions our assumptions of what war is and details how we can develop the awareness and resilience needed to survive this new reality.

Flying Fortress bombers during a Second World War bombing mission. Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Flying Fortress bombers during a Second World War bombing mission. Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Mark Galeotti, expert on Russia and transnational crime, has an enviable facility with formulating and exploring big ideas in a way that is concise, yet powerful and provocative. His book Russian Political Warfare: Moving beyond the Hybrid (2019) was a model in that respect, debunking a lot of loose thinking about the manipulation of information and its relation to more ‘traditional’ means of offensive action. In The Weaponisation of Everything he broadens his argument, suggesting that non-military conflict, whether in the realm of politics, business, law, culture, influence, technology or organised crime, may be becoming ‘the new normal’. In fact, it may be so normal that we do not even realise we are engaged in conflict at all, accepting a certain level of chaos and instability as no more than business as usual. The structure of the book is clear and well-ordered, with useful examples. Though it was written before the current acute phase of the Ukraine crisis, much of its argument and analysis is currently being illustrated right in front of us.

In a series of snappily-titled sections (‘Gig Geopolitics’, ‘Buying Friends and Influencing People,’ ‘The Gangster-Spook Nexus’), Galeotti illustrates how every aspect of life, whether at governmental or citizen level, can be ‘weaponised’ by being used by one group against another, whether adversaries or allies, in order to secure strategic objectives or to destabilise competitors. In Part III, ‘War is All Around Us,’ he gives a sobering analysis of how withholding human necessities such as water, medicine and food can be used to bring enemies to their knees or discredit a rival regime. Innocent people, as he says, become both victims and weapons of war, through ethnic cleansing, displacement, starvation or, as the Covid pandemic has shown, through health. Overall, it is rather a grim picture, and although Part IV, ‘Welcome to the Future’ argues that global society may benefit from the very elements that may provoke conflict (cross-border supply chains; instant communications), and that instability should be embraced as a dynamic and positive force, the prescription for ‘Learning to love the Permanent, Bloodless War’ is not an encouraging one.

Of course, weaponisation of non-military elements has a very long history, as Galeotti acknowledges, and indeed offers interesting examples (Machiavelli, as one might imagine, was particularly good on this kind of thing). There is nothing new about disinformation, economic sanctions, culture wars, or soft power except the terminology. And although it may not feel like it, we are actually living in a more peaceful world than ever before. But that does not rule out a high level of instability and vulnerability, in a world so irrevocably interconnected that, as in chaos theory, small changes in a remote location may have a catastrophic effect thousands of miles away. The situation is made worse by what Galeotti calls a ‘deep legitimacy crisis.’ Aided by technology, people can insulate themselves from views different to their own, entrenching conspiracy theories as well as a widespread belief in the unreliability, if not outright venality of those in authority. This makes it very difficult for governments to build or restore the trust that would enable them to provide the security and order that, as Rupert Smith argued in The Utility of Force (2005), everyone seeks, whatever the nature of the regime.

Two significant underlying ideas emerge from The Weaponisation of Everything. The first relates to the meaning of war itself. Not definition: there are any number of books on that, though for my money Rosa Brooks, in her excellent How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything (2016) put her finger on it when she said that ‘for all practical purposes, war is whatever powerful states say it is.’ Rather, it is what war means to most people (except of course those poor souls in parts of the world where conflict dominates life). But a large and increasing number of people, particularly in the developed world, have no experience or memory, and very little understanding of what it means to be ‘at war.’ There has been no globalised armed conflict since 1945. Nearly all books about war point to the development of nuclear weapons as a turning point, but they have (thankfully) not been used since 1945 and, despite brief periods of crisis, the threat has so far been remote. Most people under the age of 65 do not have a grandparent, let alone a parent, who lived through the Second World War. Some families have experience of war through armed service, but distressing those experiences may be, they generally occur in remote locations. Despite the evidence relayed to our screens by the media and indeed by civilian observers, armed conflict takes place at a remove, and for many people does not seem ‘real.’

If asked what it means to be at war, therefore, people’s minds turn to conflict between armed forces, which might possibly have an impact on the domestic economy. But as this book shows, this is not only rare, but the very top layer of war. Everything — what we see on social media, high energy prices, arguments about statues or the merits of mandatory vaccination — can be interpreted (and often is in the media) as part of a ‘war.’ Yet most people do not think of it that way. Both governments and their citizens recognise the concept of ‘narrative wars,’ a battle between competing stories, ideologies and opinions of all sorts, conducted on social media and in political argument. But to most people, including governments engaged in promoting their own narratives, this type of war is of a different order, and they do not see waging it as a priority. Regulating the information space is difficult and expensive, and people value the ease and freedom technology brings. If everything is indeed weaponised, not many people are ready or willing to make the sacrifices that may be required to defend themselves.

That leads on to another important argument: our own responsibility. Galeotti, like other commentators, stresses the need for increased public awareness and resilience, for mounting a counterattack to authoritarianism and false narratives. Governments need to re-establish legitimacy, citizens need to call out false propaganda, censorship, bombast and jingoism. But ‘if we are to try to convey a positive message about ourselves, we have genuinely to live it first’— and therein lies the rub. For, as the book shows, all too often our own selfishness and greed (or, to be more charitable, apathy and laziness) positively encourage those who are weaponising trade, or legal systems, or the information space. In a discussion of Chinese trade policies, for example, Galeotti observes that ‘Beijing’s real advantages are foreign greed, short-termism.’ Of course it is never as simple as that. Governments have to try to balance the need for food, energy and essential goods against opposition to authoritarian states. Corporations have to consider their shareholders’ profits as well as corporate social responsibility. And we have to remember we get the governments we choose, if not those we deserve, and in the process ‘lay ourselves open also to manipulation and disruption from abroad.’

Maybe, as Galeotti says, we can all learn to love the permanent bloodless war. Already, a growing number of organisations are developing counter-weaponisation services and technologies, or spreading the message about individual responsibility. All is not lost. As for developing awareness and resilience: reading this book is a good place to start.

The Weaponisation of Everything: A Field Guide to the New Way of War by Mark Galeotti, Yale University Press, pp 240; £20


Gill Bennett