Future Shock? Welcome to the New Middle Ages

By Parag Khanna

Financial Times | December 28, 2010

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 recent years it has become conventional wisdom that the post-cold-war world will see rising powers such as China and Brazil create what international relations experts call a “multi-polar” order. Yet for the next 10 or 20 years, it is not at all clear that the future many imagine will come to pass – namely that the relative US decline will continue, Europe will muddle along, China and India will grow ever stronger, and other straight-line projections.

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.

This was a truly multi-polar world. Both ends of Eurasia and the powers in between called their own shots, just as in our own time China, India and the Arab/Islamic community increasingly do as well. There is another reason why the metaphor is apt. In medieval times, the Crusades, and the Silk Road, linked Eurasia in the first global trading system – just as the globalised routes of trade are doing today.

The merchant houses of Bruges and Venice financed transcontinental ventures to discover sources of spices and other riches. Marco Polo reached the court of Kublai Khan in China, but only after admiring the vineyards of Kashgar and being awestruck by the material abundance of Xi’an. Arab pilgrim Ibn Battuta made an even greater parallel voyage from Morocco to the Far East, visiting the thriving civilisations of southern India and Sumatra along the way.

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.

Some see contrary trends in the light of the financial crisis. But given the power of the forces pushing a new medievalism, it is too simple to speak of a “return of the state” evident in the bail-out of Wall Street and the stimulus packages of governments. Far more revealing about the future is the crumbling of most of the post-colonial world from Africa to the Middle East to South Asia, where over-population, corrupt governance, ethnic grievances and collapsing infrastructure are pushing many states towards failure.

From Congo and Sudan to Pakistan, many “states” are likely to see a move towards a hybrid public-private system of governance. Take Afghanistan, where a postmodern arrangement between international extractive companies, the Kabul government, local warlords and foreign peacekeepers seems as likely an outcome as any – a neo-medieval model also being used in Africa and elsewhere too.

In the economic sphere, most states, rich or poor, western or eastern, have become filters, trying to manage inflows and outflows of goods, money and people that globalisation has imposed on them. In medieval times, one’s welfare depended on family status, guild membership and property holdings. Cities were stratified according to socio-economic caste. Loyalty was not to the “state” as such, but to whoever delivered the goods.

Today, the world’s population turns ever more to companies to provide essential services, whether security or healthcare. Even in rising India, much “public” welfare is provided by industrialists such as the Tatas and Ambanis, whose family businesses also run entire factory cities. They are increasingly the equivalent of the House of Medici, the family that came to dominate Florence from the 14th century. The Islamic world today is replete with such political philanthropy, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hizbollah in Lebanon functioning as political parties but also as social institutions supplying healthcare and schools.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. But the medieval parallel is at least a warning against over-simplified references to the neat 19th century “Concert of Europe”, the balance of power between European states that followed the Napoleonic wars. This system saw a modus vivendi between a handful of nation states. But our new world is far more complex.

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 writer is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the forthcoming How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (Random House, 2011).

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