The world, we are told, is entering a new era of “great-power rivalry.” Or at least, it was supposed to be.
The most recent US National Security Strategy, issued by President Joe Biden’s administration in 2022, confidently asserted that “the post-Cold War era is definitively over,” and that we were entering an era defined by “competition between the United States and the world’s largest autocracies” — namely, China and Russia.
The strategy explicitly states that the US does not seek a “new Cold War,” but its framing of the world as an ideologically driven competition between democracy and autocracy makes it hard to avoid the comparison, particularly since the same superpowers are involved this time around, just with a little economic and political rebranding.
But is the Cold War the right analogy for what’s happening now? There is no shortage of alternatives. Pointing to Vladimir Putin’s territorial aggression, Ukraine’s leaders and their defenders have cast their comparison to World War II, with Russia now in the role of Hitler’s Germany. (Putin himself wouldn’t argue — he just portrays the other side as the Nazis.) Perhaps, some cautious “realists” suggest, the entangling alliances drawing Western countries into conflict make this moment more like the lead-up to World War I. Certainly the reemergence of trench warfare on the European continent for the first time in decades makes it hard to resist the comparison.
To suggest as the Biden administration has that we’re entering a new age of superpower conflict, whatever historical comparison you reach for, is also to argue that we’re turning the page on an era in which America’s main national security concern was not other powers, greater or lesser, but non-state terrorist groups. There was reason to think this after the decimation of al-Qaeda and ISIS. But the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel were a shocking reminder that, while we might not be interested in non-state terrorist groups, they’re still interested in us.
The result is that the US now finds itself operating in two strategic eras at the same time. In one, heavily armed industrial militaries fight a catastrophic war over a chunk of Europe (with a potentially even more catastrophic invasion scenario lurking in Asia). And in another, a Yemeni rebel group using rudimentary drone and missile technology shows itself capable of causing a disruption to global supply chains on par with Covid-19.
To comprehend this chaotic era — one in which nation-states boast historically destructive firepower but in many ways appear weaker than ever, unable to mobilize their populations around a common call or control their international environment — we need to go beyond the well-worn 20th-century analogies. We need to get medieval.
Back to the future
A recent paper published by the RAND Corporation argued that to understand the risks involved in superpower competition between the US and China, it’s vital to understand that we live in what the authors describe as a “neomedieval era.”
“There’s so many anomalous things about our current situation that I found existing theories very unsatisfying,” said one of the paper’s co-authors, Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher and China specialist at RAND. He points to unexpected events like the increasing centralization of power in Xi Jinping’s China and the political fault lines exposed by the January 6 insurrection in the US. “What I’ve realized is that the last 200 years in many ways stand out as an incredible anomaly in human history, and that the situation we’re in now actually has a lot more features in common with the pre-1800 world than the recent past.”
Saying we live in a “neomedieval” moment doesn’t mean that a US-China war would be fought with broadswords and chain mail. The authors define the neomedieval era, which they argue began around 2000, as being “characterized by weakening states, fragmenting societies, imbalanced economies, pervasive threats, and the informalization of warfare.”
Thinking about the world this way requires a bit of a mental adjustment, largely because we’re accustomed to thinking of states as the core units of international relations. “States,” according to the sociologist Max Weber’s classic definition, are the entity that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory. And the world map as we know it is divided up into 193 or so of these territories, which we call “countries.” They have flags, capitals, and United Nations ambassadors.
But this is a relatively recent arrangement. Historians generally date the emergence of the modern state system back to 17th-century Europe. Before that, nationality had what the historian C.V. Wedgwood described in her history of the Thirty Years’ War as a “fluidity which is startling to the modern mind.” Governmental authority was often divided between royal families and religious authority. Royals could be of a completely different nationality from the people they governed, with authority rooted in heredity and marriage rather than popular consent. (Britain’s ruling House of Windsor, currently led by King Charles III, traces its origins to what is now Germany.) The authority of a king could be challenged by local barons and dukes. “No one thought it strange that a French soldier should command an army against the French and loyalty to a cause, to a religion, to a master, was commonly more highly esteemed than loyalty to a country,” Wedgwood wrote.
The idea that geopolitics might be going back to the future isn’t new. Back in 1977, the international relations theorist Hedley Bull wrote that it was “conceivable that sovereign states might disappear and be replaced not by a world government but by a modern and secular equivalent of the kind of political organization that existed in Western Christendom in the Middle Ages.” He defined this organization as one in which “no ruler or state was sovereign in the sense of being supreme over a given territory.” In other words, the state is no longer the only game in town when it comes to governance.
The neomedieval analogy had a moment of popularity in the 1990s, when theorists sought to capture the sudden political and economic complexity of a post-Cold War world torn loose from the two poles of the US and the Soviet Union. Neomedievalism was dusted off to explain a world in which multinational corporations, often with senior executives from multiple countries and little loyalty to the country where they were based, could acquire a level of political power that rivaled national governments. “The hierarchies of international capitalism resemble the feudal arrangements under which an Italian noble might swear fealty to a German prince, or a Norman duke declare himself the vassal of an English king,” the journalist Lewis Lapham wrote in 1988.
Neomedievalism was also used to explain arrangements by which governments would voluntarily surrender a certain level of sovereignty to multinational bodies, as the nations of Europe did with the European Union, culminating in the introduction of a common currency in 1999.
In an influential and controversial 1994 Atlantic article — later expanded into a book, The Coming Anarchy — journalist Robert Kaplan portrayed West Africa’s chaotic civil wars, fought in territories where national boundaries drawn by colonial powers that often had little relation to ethnic realities on the ground, as a preview of a world where national borders were less relevant and “a pre-modern formlessness governs the battlefield, evoking the wars in medieval Europe.”
In more recent years, the idea has been taken up by writers like the paratrooper-turned-military contractor-turned-academic Sean McFate. His 2015 book The Modern Mercenary argued that the increasing prevalence of private military contractors, such as America’s Blackwater or Russia’s Wagner Group, in conflicts around the world presaged a neomedieval world in which “states did not enjoy the monopoly of force and subsequent special authority in world politics.”
“States are not timeless,” McFate told Vox. “They’re not universal. They had a beginning, a middle, and they may have an end.”
The court of Putin
For all its resemblances to 20th-century warfare, the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine has some clearly premodern characteristics. Which makes sense, given who is prosecuting that war — the UK-based Russia analyst Mark Galeotti describes Russia under Vladimir Putin as “a peculiar hybrid: an almost medieval court perched atop a modern, bureaucratic state.”
Galeotti explained to Vox that in terms of “day-to-day aspects of governance,” Russia is “really not that different from any other European country,” with typical bureaucracies running day-to-day affairs — your ministries of finance or foreign affairs. But, he says, “from time to time, someone from far, far above reaches down and changes things, whether it’s something as basic as arranging for someone to be arrested, or having someone’s driving offenses erased, or dramatic changes to macroeconomic policy.” The power of the people who can make these changes is determined — as in a medieval court — solely by their proximity to the absolute ruler. “Those people who have the favor or the ear of Putin can basically do whatever they want.”
This dynamic was illustrated most dramatically in the decision to invade Ukraine, and in how that war has been conducted. “This war is being fought the way that Putin and his collection of cronies, none of whom have military experience, decided to fight it rather than the war that the generals would have fought,” said Galeotti. It was the act not of a president, which Putin technically is, but a king — or, better, an emperor.
And for all of Putin’s constant invocations of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, it is abundantly clear that Putin has little hope of mobilizing society on the level that Josef Stalin did during that conflict. Russia is set to spend about 6 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and military spending this year. This may be an unprecedented number in modern times, but it is nothing compared to the 61 percent of GDP the Soviet Union spent during World War II (or the 50 percent spent by the US in that war, for that matter).
For all that Russians may support what Putin calls the “special military operation” in principle, they don’t seem particularly eager to put their lives, or their children’s lives, on the line for it the way their grandparents did in the Great Patriotic War. Nor does Putin have the ability to compel service as Stalin did without risking his own position. In the fall of 2022, Russia announced a “partial mobilization,” to call up around 300,000 men to fight in the war, but a far greater number than that — perhaps as many as 700,000, according to some estimates — chose instead to flee the country.
Galeotti cautions against thinking of this unwillingness to die for the cause as just a Russian issue. “I was talking to someone recently from the British Ministry of Defence, who was saying, ‘God only knows what would happen if we had to try and call up our reserves.’” Indeed, a recent poll found that nearly a third of Britons ages 18 to 40 say they would refuse to serve in the military if a world war broke out and the country was under imminent threat of invasion.
The Ukraine war has also exposed the unreadiness of most Western powers to produce the firepower needed for an all-out industrial-scale conflict. The US has had to scramble to ramp up production artillery shells after it became clear that Ukraine was firing about half the number of shells in a day that the US was producing in a month before the war. According to one estimate, near the start of the Ukraine war, Germany had only about enough shells in its reserves for two days of heavy fighting.
Ukraine may end up being the exception that proves the rule. It’s a throwback to mid-20th-century warfare, but the Ukrainian conflict makes it very clear that 21st-century countries are not at all equipped to fight that kind of war.
“The only way to fight a total war is to basically become an authoritarian socialist system,” said Galeotti. “The point of the matter is modern states aren’t used to doing this kind of thing.”
Between the lines in the Middle East
A neomedieval perspective can be helpful in analyzing the dizzyingly complex interlocking conflicts in today’s Middle East — and not only because it’s one of the few regions where absolute monarchies, like Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, are still major power players.
The escalating regional crisis set off by the October 7 attacks is one in which questions of nationality are as fluid as they were more broadly in the premodern era. The territory referred to as “Palestine,” including Gaza and the West Bank, is geographically noncontiguous, politically divided, and not fully sovereign in terms of having a monopoly on the use of force over its territory. The groups in Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” — Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, the various Shia militias of Iraq and Syria — occupy a sort of in-between status in the international system, not quite one thing or another.
Hezbollah is a political party serving in Lebanon’s internationally recognized government, and the de facto governing authority in parts of the country, and a militia group fighting against Israel as well as on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and a kind of vassal force on behalf of its chief patron, Iran. Yemen’s Houthis are routinely referred to as “rebels” and not recognized as the legitimate government of Yemen by the international community, even though they control the country’s capital. Hamas is viewed by Iran as a tool for projecting regional power but often seems to act independently.
In other words, it’s a region where looking at the lines on the map will only tell you half the story of what’s happening.
A different kind of superpower clash
What would a true world war look like in a neomedieval world? The RAND paper argues that during the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial societies experienced a strong degree of “social cohesion” that included a “stronger sense of collective purpose, shared culture, and common values.” This cohesion often came at the expense of ethnic and sexual minorities who experience discrimination and exclusion within those societies, but it also made possible the social and industrial mobilizations necessary to fight world wars.
That’s not the case today. “In China and the United States, social disorder has grown, to which governments have struggled to respond. The result has been a further erosion in state legitimacy,” the paper suggests. Even as tensions between the two superpowers have grown, “Neither side has mobilized its citizenry against the other, and strategies of mass mobilization do not appear plausible for the foreseeable future.”
A theoretical US-China war, most likely over Taiwan, would look nothing like what Americans have gotten used to in the last 50 or even 75 years. Even one of the more optimistic simulations of combat over Taiwan foresees the Americans losing half as many troops in three weeks as in 20 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans have gotten used to a world in which a small fraction of the population fights its wars: Less than 1 percent of adults are in the military, and less than 6 percent have served. America’s armed forces increasingly rely on what some experts have termed a “warrior caste” of multigenerational military families. The US military now regularly falls short of its recruitment goals.
Perhaps American society would “rally around the flag” in what seems like it could be World War III. But public trust in the military, while still high, has been falling dramatically in the US in recent years, including among conservatives during the years when President Donald Trump was frequently feuding with his military commanders. Events like the January 6 insurrection and Texas’s conflict with the federal government over border policy do not suggest a level of societal cohesion remotely necessary for global conflict as we knew it in the 20th century.
China might seem at first well-equipped for such a conflict: a relatively ethnically homogeneous society with a powerful authoritarian state and little public dissent. But, RAND’s analysts argue, appearances can be deceiving. Modern China, they say, is struggling with “corruption, malfeasance, and the failure to reverse destabilizing levels of inequality,” and has resorted to brute force to quell regional discontent in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The social strains exposed by China’s “zero-Covid” response to the pandemic, which included rare public protests and a new wave of out-migration, raise some questions about the Communist Party’s ability to maintain public commitment to a deadly and protracted all-out war.
“Compare Xi Jinping’s power to Mao Zedong’s,” says RAND’s Heath. “The people tried their best to carry out Mao’s schemes, even when they cost tens of millions of lives. By contrast, Xi Jinping has admitted on numerous occasions that the Chinese state simply can no longer meet the needs of the people.”
Analysts have suggested that China, which has not fought a war since an ill-fated invasion of Vietnam in the 1970s, would need to send 1 million to 2 million troops across the Taiwan Strait to have a hope of taking the island. (Russia’s pre-invasion ground force in Ukraine, for comparison was around 360,000, and did not need to make an incredibly complex amphibious landing.) Its forces would likely take heavy losses even if they were successful. Is Xi Jinping really willing to bet the future of his regime on the assumption that many Chinese families would be willing to sacrifice their only children to his war?
The significance of all of this, the authors argue, is that great-power rivalry in the years to come will “bear little resemblance to the titanic struggles of the past two centuries” and that “should the U.S.-China rivalry escalate to hostilities, the weakness of the states will seriously constrain their options. Incapable of mobilizing their societies for total war, the two sides might instead fight through proxy conflicts or by provoking political unrest in the rival’s homeland.”
A blockade scenario, cutting Taiwan off from food, energy, and other vital supplies, would be very much in the spirit of neomedievalism, evoking the siege tactics of centuries past.
The center cannot hold. But does that matter?
Neomedievalism also seems an appropriate framework for a time when national leaders of major industrial power are, with a few notable exceptions, universally unpopular. There are increasing doubts about the ability of modern states to cope with factors like the climate crisis, geopolitical instability, financial volatility, demographic decline, and rapid developments in technologies like artificial intelligence — a set of interlocking complex challenges some commentators have termed the “polycrisis.” It’s also a sobering worldview to consider when looking at what appears to be a pronounced uptick in the number of armed conflicts around the world and the number of casualties in those conflicts, after years of declines in both.
Yet while the concept of a neomedieval world might bring to mind images of a Hobbesian war of all-against-all or a Mad Max-like anarchy, many advocates of the term are not so pessimistic. The Princeton professor Philip Cerny instead predicts that the neomedieval world will be one of “durable disorder,” where some power is distributed from state to non-state actors but where key problems and global challenges can still be addressed. The dark ages were not always dark. Cerny points out that the medieval era in Europe “was one of increasing social, economic, and political development” as well as “growing surpluses [and] the spread of knowledge and innovation.”
Neomedievalism “helps people make sense of a world that doesn’t have order, but it’s not collapsing,” said McFate. “And I think increasingly, that’s what the 21st century kind of looks like.”
And Heath’s framing of the risks of a potential US-China conflict shows that, rather than being more violent, a neomedieval world might actually be somewhat more peaceful, or at least one in which powerful states are more constrained in their ability to wage all-out war on each other.
To be sure, though, one factor that neomedievalism can’t account for is nuclear warfare, which could allow leaders to inflict far higher levels of destruction with far less effort. If leaders are unable to mobilize their societies or industrial sectors to fight total wars, pushing the nuclear button might become more tempting.
Neomedievalism might help us understand how the wars of the future will begin, but leaders today have a lot more firepower they can use to end them than they did 400 years ago.
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