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Neo-Medievalism and the New Nomos of the Earth?

January 4, 2011
Our Medieval Future?

From the UT Map Collection

Readers of this blog may have seen Parag Khanna’s piece in the Financial Times a few days ago, arguing that contrary to those predicting the 21st century being a repeat of the 19th, it “will resemble nothing more than the 12th century.”

Imagine a world with a strong China reshaping Asia; India confidently extending its reach from Africa to Indonesia; Islam spreading its influence; a Europe replete with crises of legitimacy; sovereign city-states holding wealth and driving innovation; and private mercenary armies, religious radicals and humanitarian bodies playing by their own rules as they compete for hearts, minds and wallets.

It sounds familiar today. But it was just as true slightly less than a millennium ago at the height of the Middle Ages.

Khanna’s point is that the 21st century will not just be multipolar from a great power perspective, it will also have non-state poles of power and all the economic and ideological possibilities this entails. Khanna also argues the global power distribution between East and West will return to its historical norms. China and India will regain their former political, cultural and economic spheres of influence. The United States, as Luttwak has argued, would stand in for the Byzantine empire, a declining power standing between Occident and Orient which will have the opportunity to play a powerful and enduring, if shrinking, role in the new international system.

No analogy is perfect, and Khanna is honest about that. However, I think he underestimates the degree to which globalization and global power politics differ from the medieval era. While Khanna points out that the Silk Road was an early global economic system, the implications of globalization have changed profoundly, and in ways that should add much stronger qualifiers to his argument. Firstly, the character of global trade is much more diversified and expansive than in the medieval era, obviously. But not only is it quantitatively different in its economic impact, it is qualitatively different in its geopolitical and cultural effects. For example, trade since the “Columbian Epoch” is far more based in global maritime trade, rather than the continental Silk Road or regional maritime networks of the 12th century.

12th century China, India, Byzantium, and others did not quite cohabit the same world. It was not understood as scientifically or morally one, and the primary world was within one’s own civilizational bloc. China was the Middle Kingdom, there was no Europe but instead a Christendom, and so on. Global communications and economics did not exist, and to use Schmitt’s terminology, there was no unifying nomos, no order and orientation, for the whole world, just for each civilization. Since then, the circumnavigation of the earth and the material-technical possibilities of world markets, world wars, and world communications created the possibility of global order and orientation. As Khanna points out, this order and orientation is about to change. But to what extent?

Today’s non-state entities are far different from Khanna’s depiction. The wealthy city-states and merchants, as well as the barbarians and pirates who profited from attacking them, did not rely on the state system for their wealth. The necessities of defense and legitimate authority were far different in that era – in the European case, the material requirements of warfare did not require state apparatus, and the authority of the Respublica Christiana did limit and moderate the forces of political competition. Being a wealthy port did not require a fully sovereign state or a member of one, and being a barbarian did not require much in the way of resources other than plunder.

This is profoundly different from today. Corporations and wealthy cities are able to act so independently because of the success of the sovereign state model, not just in spite of it. Yes, there are mercenaries and PMCs today, but their primary employers and backers are overwhelmingly states. The same goes for corporations – the case of the Somali pirates does not just demonstrate that non-state actors are becoming more important, but that state intervention and support is critical to upholding the markets which allow corporations to become so rich in the first place. Today’s corporations do not act like old city states or Italian banking families, and buy out their own military forces or mercenaries to protect their trading interests, they call on the US, European states, China, and other traditional powers to send in naval forces.

Even terrorists need the state and state institutions. Formal sovereignty and the legal system provides terrorists shelter from wanton interventions. The economies and financial markets states sustain allow them to launder money and conduct operations. The global transportation networks and armaments states offer allow terrorists to conduct their attacks. Finally, many terrorist organizations seek to seize control of the state to some degree. This is hardly the same situation as the 12th century.

Not always a peaceful time, not even for the Bzantines

Thus while Khanna does well to point out the limitations of the sovereign state and the 19th century model of thought, I think his closing remarks need qualification:

The only missing piece, of course, is America. The Middle Ages was pre-Atlantic. Yet today we have the legacy superpower of the US, located in the new world. If the European Union today plays the part of the Holy Roman Empire, then the US is the new Byzantium, facing both east and west while in a state of relative decline. The Byzantines lasted for many centuries beyond their material capability, through shrewd diplomacy and deception rather than by force.

This new world will mean huge challenges, for the west in particular. But if the US applies a genuinely Byzantine strategy, it has a good chance of stopping a slide into conflict. And remember that, despite its bleak reputation, the Middle Ages was actually an era of great invention and discovery – and one which eventually gave way to a great Renaissance too. As we witness today’s great power grievances mount and fear another world of war, we must remember the same is possible today.

The Byzantines did not prevent the world from sliding into conflict. Some of the most brutal barbarian invasions occurred during their reign, and Byzantium itself was engaged in plenty of conflicts, whether by choice or necessity. The key aspect of Byzantine grand strategy is that it did not rely on force entirely, but leveraged its wealth and diplomatic abilities to avoid or limit conflict when possible. It did not stabilize the world, indeed Byzantium’s method for surviving the Huns (admittedly an earlier period than Khanna discusses) was to let them expend their energies invading and plundering Europe. Nor did Byzantium have to worry much about conflicts between purely Asian powers, or purely European ones – at least not nearly as much as it had to worry about conflicts with steppe peoples, Arabs and Persians.

If the Middle Ages were not the prologue to the massive world wars (and again, the Mongols waged plenty of wars across Eurasia), it was because for most sedentary civilized powers, such wars were generally geographically and material inconceivable. Where they were possible, as they were between Europe and the Islamic powers, they were brutal and prolonged. Today, the existence of a common global system also has made the bracketing and limitation of these wars somewhat possible – if, as WWII shows, not necessarily guaranteed. However, it also makes global wars amongst the wealthy great powers possible – as Mackinder said, the earth is now a closed system, and what happens in any one corner of it can reverberate across it. The Byzantines had enough trouble stabilizing their own neighborhood, let alone the rest of Europe, South Asia and East Asia. It doesn’t have to be the 19th century for the 21st to be a tumultuous one.

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