Naming a New Era:
the new middle ages

Martin van Creveld

Reproduced with permission from Foreign Policy #119 (Summer 2000)
Copyright 2000 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Ours is an age in which revolutions have been made easy, cheap, and plentiful. For years on end, not a day seemed to pass without some earth-shaking upheaval bursting on us: the Keynesian Revolution, the Missile Revolution, the Cybernetic Revolution, the Genetic Science Revolution, the Sexual Revolution, the Feminist Revolution (which continued the Sexual Revolution in some ways, but reacted against it in others), the Revolution in Military Affairs, the Technotronic Revolution, the Monetary Revolution. It is enough to make one’s head revolve.

Meanwhile, the one revolution that really matters has been all but forgotten. Unlike most others, it can be pinned down to the day and the hour: the morning of August 6, 1945. Out of a beautiful blue sky there appeared a single heavy bomber. Flying over Hiroshima, a city hitherto almost untouched by the war, it opened its bomb bay, dropped a single bomb, and turned away. Minutes later the sky burned, the Earth shook, and a column of smoke rose seven miles into the stratosphere. As the city all but disappeared and 75,000 people lay dead or dying, history performed a U-turn.

For a thousand years before 1945, the story of mankind had been one of political consolidation. To be sure, empires rose and receded, were created and fell to pieces. But however twisty the road, in the long run it always led toward larger and more powerful units. By 1914, virtually the entire Earth was dominated by just seven of them, six of them established by white men and five centered in Europe. Needless to say, they promptly fell to fighting each other on an unequaled scale and with an unequaled ferocity. By the time their struggle ended 30 years later, 80 to 100 million people had been killed.

In 1945, there were but two superpowers left. By all previous experience from the time of Thucydides on, they ought to have clashed in a mighty war or series of wars. But they did not. War, which up until then had served as the main instrument of consolidation, was swept under the carpet, so to speak. The more nuclear weapons proliferated, the greater the danger that victory might lead not to survival but to annihilation. As a result, war could only be waged between, or against, third- and fourth-rate military powers. A process of political disintegration set in, first in several of the former empires, then in numerous other countries—including one of the two superpowers. By the year 2000 the number of states had more than trebled.

From Indonesia to Scotland, and from the former Soviet Union to southern Africa, the process most characteristic of our age is political splintering, decentralization, even disintegration. Hardly a month goes by without some new state appearing on the map. And political transformation extends far beyond government. Each time a new user acquires a TV dish or links up to the Internet, the nature of politics undergoes a subtle change. Each time a new international organization arises, more states find themselves caught in its coils. The splintering process has led to vast increases in the power of organizations other than states, such as multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and the media. With each passing day these groups are a little more independent of government. With each passing day, the influence they exercise in world affairs grows.

Already now, the process is fast taking us back to the Middle Ages. The place of the emperor has been taken by the U.S. president, that of the pope by the secretary general of the United Nations. Unlike the pope he is an official elected, if only indirectly, by the people; to this extent the dictum vox populi, vox dei has literally come true. As in the Middle Ages, president and secretary clash over money. As in the Middle Ages, the president wields the military power and the secretary seeks to hold sway over public opinion. Perhaps most important, the secretary seems to be gaining at the expense of the president—to wage war in Kosovo, Somalia, and Kuwait, the latter ultimately needed the permission of the former.

Using history as our crystal ball, some of the main features of the New Middle Ages may be predicted with reasonable clarity. There will be continued political decentralization accompanied by massive population movements from one political unit to the next. These political units will vary widely, from sovereign states to international organizations that are not sovereign, and from those with large territories to those that have very little territory or none at all. Operating within a very loose framework of international law, from time to time they will go to war against each other. But compared with the titanic struggles of the years 1914-45, these wars will tend to be small and, except to those directly involved, harmless.

Assisted by the jumbo jet and the “CNN effect,” the people who make up those organizations will become more alike in some ways—using English as their lingua franca, wearing Western dress, eating hamburgers, and watching Steven Spielberg films. In other respects, however, religious, cultural, and social differences between them will persist. As cheap and readily available technology enables the most nonconformist and radical groups to spread their own messages by newsletter, TV, and the Internet, they may even increase; the end of history is not yet at hand.

To be sure, the future holds many dangers. Still, compared with the recent horrors of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, it is not an unpleasant prospect. After all, isn’t the best thing one can say about any European city that its core remains completely medieval?

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