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Our Neo-Medieval World

[ 14 ] December 30, 2010 |

Parag Khanna has an interesting essay in the Financial Times. You need a subscription to read it the whole thing, but a few important excerpts are below:

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.

In fact, the world we are moving into in 2011 is one not just with many more prominent nations, but one with numerous centres of power in other ways. It is, in short, a neo-medieval world. The 21st century will resemble nothing more than the 12th century.

You have to go back a thousand years to find a time when the world was genuinely western and eastern at the same time. Then, China’s Song dynasty presided over the world’s largest cities, mastered gunpowder and printed paper money.

At around the same time India’s Chola empire ruled the seas to Indonesia, and the Abbasid caliphate dominated from Africa to Persia. Byzantium swayed and lulled in weakness both due to and despite its vastness. Only in Europe is this medieval landscape viewed negatively.

Now, globalisation is again doing much the same, diffusing power away from the west in particular, but also from states and towards cities, companies, religious groups, humanitarian non-governmental organisations and super-empowered individuals, from terrorists to philanthropists. This force of entropy will not be reversed for decades – if not for centuries. As was the case a millennium ago, diplomacy now takes place among anyone who is someone; its prerequisite is not sovereignty but authority.

There’s more. I find Khanna’s discussion of the growing significance of non-state power, authority and identity more compelling than the notion that multi-polarity is neo-medievalism, but at any rate the essay is a refreshing reminder that the consistently conventional focus on foreign affairs as statecraft continues to be increasingly out of step with our globalized world.

Thoughts?

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  1. Daniel Nexon says:

    1) There’s nothing new in the op-ed: this is the same notion of neo-mid. that’s been peddled for decades in the IR community:
    2) There’s little here that wouldn’t described the 19th century, the 18th, the 17th, etc. etc.; and
    3) If I’m going to be even more pedantic, I go after this analogy in the last chapter of The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe. The “state” is in much better shape than the analogy assumes, and the sense that the state is losing significant power and authority to other actors begins with an inflated sense of the past power of the state vis-a-vis other actors.

    Did Parag include you in his email blast as well? And you just went and posted with minimal wrapping? Sucker :-)

    • bh says:

      ) There’s little here that wouldn’t described the 19th century, the 18th, the 17th, etc. etc.; and

      Right. The ‘Medieval’ dynamic described here could easily apply to classical antiquity as well.

      It’s not so much any of the parallels described in the excerpt are wrong, exactly, but they don’t seem unique to a particular period.

      Though I’m at least partially for anything that hits against the canard that ‘globalization’, however defined, is some sort of unprecedented contemporary phenomenon.

      • bh says:

        Arggh… tag hell. Let’s try this again…

        Daniel Nexon wrote:

        There’s little here that wouldn’t described the 19th century, the 18th, the 17th, etc. etc.

        Right. The ‘Medieval’ dynamic described here could easily apply to classical antiquity as well.

        It’s not so much any of the parallels described in the excerpt are wrong, exactly, but they don’t seem unique to a particular period.

        Though I’m at least partially for anything that hits against the canard that ‘globalization’, however defined, is some sort of unprecedented contemporary phenomenon.

    • Dan, didn’t say this was new – said it was an interesting essay and a refreshing reminder. I stand by that last especially – you and I might know Hedley Bull was writing about this way back in the 70s, but pick up most issues of Foreign Affairs and it’s clear how many elites still think the story of world politics is primarily about statecraft.

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    If you haven’t yet read Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror,” you should. It’s a great, great read. In it, she compares the 20th Century to the 14th.
    And with Fundmentalism rising, and Conservative De-evolution of economies and cultures that’ve happened in the last 30 years, I guess that since that book was published in 1978, we’ve regressed another 2 Centuries.
    Makes perfect sense. I’ve noticed. Haven’t you?

  3. Matt says:

    American fundamentalists are already working on their bridge to the 12th century; I’d guess they’ve got another generation or so before they start imploring Gawd to send a king to rule the country.

  4. Brad P. says:

    It doesn’t really sound as if the medieval world is returning. It sounds more like the colonialist/mercantilist world that followed it is waning.

  5. Lee says:

    Hi, this is my first post to this blog but I’m a semit regular reader. I’m not really looking forward to a neo-middle ages. The last middle-ages wasn’t so good for my group and the neo-middle ages doesn’t look much better.

  6. The 21st century is exactly like the 12th century except in the many, many ways in which the two centuries are different. Leaving aside the fact that our world is, in fact, globalized–only a small and diminishing proportion of people in our world are peasant farmers, global supply chains are distributed broadly in ways with few parallels, and the intensity of migration worldwide is novel (and to what new destinations!)–I’m left wondering whether he thinks civil society is a novelty of the past two decades.

  7. bh says:

    … and while we’re on the things-that-aren’t-new tip, I’d also like to complain about anything that describes Soft Power as some sort of novelty.

    There have been alliances, client states, economic favoritism, appropriation of cultural symbols, etc for at least as long as their have been empires. But you’re never going to read a lede that goes, “Drawing on the techniques of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Chinese government has…”

  8. Dirk Gently says:

    We can make lots of comparisons, many of which would seem to me to be quite astute and useful. But could it be that some of these things are historically new?

    I wonder whether the impact of megacities (particularly those which are not the seat of formal governmental power) and the concomitant rise of a globally mobile elite (I’m thinking professionals, scientists and academics who share a common outlook, language, status and to some extent culture, all residing in different cities around the globe) is something historically new, at least if we plug them into this analytical framework. There’s also more international contact among second or third tier cities/governments and transnational companies. For instance, the mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado regularly send or host international delegations to try to attract investment by way of things like company headquarters relocation, wind turbine manufacturing, etc. (so do most American cities/states). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine, say, Victorian Birmingham or Byzantine Antioch making such arrangements.

    And not to get all Virilio on you, but let’s not overlook the importance of technological innovations in war, namely nukes, supersonic jets, rockets and drones. With all this in play, economic and population backwaters can insist on being at the big kids’ table.

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