Welcome To The New Middle Ages?

Parag Khanna in a TED lecture, July 2009

I've been thinking a lot about history lately. There's something oddly reassuring about finding patterns in history, if only to reassure myself that the passage of time is cyclical and that we will eventually cycle into a new phase.

I'm not the only one whose been thinking this way, and geo-political scholar Parag Khanna is seeing parallels that I admit I don't necessarily agree with, but I think are thought-provoking:

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.

Certainly, there's a point to be made in the suspicions and outright rejection of science by people who really don't belong in leadership positions. Global power is also very decentralized--look at the one remaining alleged "superpower" deeply in debt to China. In lieu of trade routes, we have American corporations outsourcing labor--"flattening" the market, as it were. The metaphor is far from perfect but interesting.

Cheryl Rofer, who is very into Medieval history takes a very literal look at Khanna's parallels and takes issue with them.

I’m still trying to figure out what Khanna is trying to say. He's got a potpourri of observations but doesn't put them together into anything coherent. When people say that something is medieval, in general, it's not a compliment and refers to "the dark ages" and a lack of enlightenment, which, by some accounts, came later. He’s also got his centuries mixed up. If he’s talking about Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, that’s the thirteenth century into the fourteenth. And he leaves a lot out, like how intertwined governance and religion were and that states as we know them were just developing. I'll address just a few of his points.

"Numerous centers of power." Well, okay, but Matt Eckel points out that the physical and communication separation was much greater in the thirteenth century than it is now. Plus one of those centers today spends more on defense than all the rest combined. The Crusades were an attempt to globalize war, and the Mongols were pretty good at that sort of thing too. Economically, there was some trade, but nothing like the financial globalization we have today.

So what do you think? Are we living through the 21st century version of the Dark Ages?

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