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.