Neo-Medieval Times

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Nation-states aren’t the only forces in the world anymore. Parag Khanna says the new realities of international relations look a lot like old realities—really old realities.

The 21st century looks more like the 14th century than it does like the 19th or the 20th. As in the 14th century, we now have empires, religious groups and fanatics, fears of the plague and superstition, multinational corporations, and city-states—Dubai is the new Venice. That is really what the world looks like today. It doesn’t look the 19th century, with clean-cut territorial empires.
The nation-state has just about passed away in terms of exclusivity. Now, when people talk about countries and international relations, they have to acknowledge that what they’re talking about is, at best, a particular slice of what’s going on in the world, and is not at all representative of the entirety of what’s happening. But there are some exceptions. When you look at China, you don’t exactly say that it is disappearing as a state. When you look at the financial crisis, all of a sudden, the United States is more of a state than ever. It has decided to take over practically the entire financial-services industry.
On the other hand, there are some states that will never really be states. People are saying, “Let’s take Afghanistan and let’s build this state, and one day it will look like Switzerland.” But the truth is, all of these failed states—of which there are dozens and dozens around the world—are coming into being, and the U.N. and other agencies are trying to do “nation building” at a time when all of these new actors are coming in and taking control of public services. I don’t believe, after going to Afghanistan a few times, that Afghanistan is ever really going to be a functioning sovereign state—ever. You’re going to find, in a lot more places in the world, this hybrid reality that isn’t as simple as “this is a country and you operate at the mercy of the government.” You’re going to find areas and zones controlled by different entities.
What comes next is companies and NGOs teaming up to do basically whatever they want. But it is also a new age, where a lot of new actors—because of cyberspace and the internet—aren’t interested in territory at all. They’re just interested in making money or controlling “mindshare.” Niall Ferguson calls it “apolarity.” There isn’t just one pole; it’s a confusing mix of things. And I think it’s going to be that way for a very, very long time. It’s a function of globalization, because globalization resists centralization. You can’t really have a centralized empire calling all the shots.
Is this a sustainable world order? If I offered that suggestion to a conservative American realist who believes that America should control the world, then they say it’s not sustainable. They tend to believe only unipolar hegemony is sustainable. That is, one power on top, everyone else underneath them, and that power calls the shots. On paper, that makes tons of sense. If you want to make it happen, just ask George Bush how feasible it was. Neo-medievalism might be extremely messy; it might be so complicated that you can’t even wrap your mind around it. But guess what? That’s reality, and we shouldn’t be making projections on the world that bear no resemblance to reality.
Look at global problems, and look at how weak and pathetic global diplomacy is at confronting them. Neo-medievalism is a good thing compared to that, because you unleash the potential of all these other actors. Bill Gates gets a seat at the table. There is recognition of the power and responsibility of NGOs and corporations in a way that the U.N.-centric and state-centric order doesn’t allow for. In the U.N.’s General Assembly, Mali has as much of a vote as the United States, but the fact is that Mali’s health budget comes from a guy named Bill Gates. In some years, a large percentage of the budget of the World Health Organization comes from the Gates Foundation. So you’ve got an NGO providing the money for an international organization of governments to function.
The key principle is overlap. Many people think that because a company isn’t a country, it falls beneath some jurisdiction. But more and more companies fall into all jurisdictions and under none at the same time, because all they do is regulatory arbitrage. They just move around wherever is best for them. Why did Halliburton go to Dubai? Changing this would never work because globalization is more powerful than any one country. Globalization creates perpetual, universal opportunities for nonstate actors to exploit. And governments can’t control globalization. No one can.

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