Academic journal article Parameters

Deconstructing Our Dark Age Future

Academic journal article Parameters

Deconstructing Our Dark Age Future

Article excerpt

The Middle Ages is an unfortunate term. It was not invented until the age was long past. The dwellers in the Middle Ages would not have recognized it. They did not know that they were living in the middle; they thought, quite rightly, that they were time's latest achievement.

--Morris Bishop, 1968 (1)

To many observers, almost two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union the post-Cold War world's future remains frightening. In an increasingly multipolar world, rapid advances in technology and globalization have dangerously empowered nonstate actors who compete for legitimacy with states and undercut long-held constructs of national autonomy and sovereignty. The community of nation-states, ensnared by its own bureaucratic inertia and dwindling capacities, cannot keep pace with these agile malefactors. More and more states contract out their responsibilities to commercial entities, further eroding their monopoly on power. (2) In such an environment it can appear that crisis is imminent, powerful states will weaken, and weakened states will fail. The Westphalian state system will crumble, and the world will slip into a New Dark Age presaged by fragmented political authority, overlapping jurisdictions, fluid territorial boundaries, group marginalization, divided loyalties, no-go areas, and contested property rights. (3) But this Draconian future might not become reality.

Crises tend to generate apocalyptic warnings, and this is not the first period in modern history when observers have misused historical themes such as the Dark Ages to describe troubling shifts in global politics. (4) The rise of Adolf Hitler in the interwar years and the imagined aftermath of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union were often described in comparable terms. (5) Had he survived the Battle of Hastings, one supposes even King Harold II would have viewed the Norman conquest of Britain as turning the clock back 66 years. Worrisome social and environmental trends should be cause for concern. Patterns in global terrorism, competition for dwindling resources, and mounting perceptions of inequality, among other discomfiting trends, should stimulate reassessments of policy and strategy. But is what we are witnessing a dissolution of the international system as we know it--and a return to Petrarch's poetic construct of "darkness and dense gloom"--or, instead, are we merely distracted and deceived by the noisy death rattle of the cherished model that attempted to explain it? (6)

This article suggests that the system of Westphalian states is not in decline, but that it never existed beyond a utopian allegory exemplifying the American experience. As such, the Dark Age thesis is really not about the decline of the sovereign state and the descent of the world into anarchy. It is instead an irrational response to the decline of American hegemony with a naive emphasis on the power of nonstate actors to compete with nation-states. The analysis concludes that because the current paradigm paralysis places a higher value on overstated threats than opportunities, our greatest hazard is not the changing global environment we live in, but our reaction to it.

No "Majestic Portal"

For more than a decade, political scientists have proposed the ideal of the Westphalian state--a territorial, sovereign, and legally equal entity--as most similar to academic shorthand rather than an empirical reality. (7) Still, security analysts routinely invoke the Westphalian paradigm to underwrite their observations of global chaos and predictions of a dismal future. (8)

This paradigm endures because during the past century it has become a guiding principle in America's worldview, the product of utopian interpretations of power relationships. To understand why this is the case, a brief review of the genesis of the international relations (IR) field of study might prove helpful. Emerging from the field of diplomatic history, IR took hold mostly in the United States in the period following World War I, as much out of revulsion for the scale of that conflict's slaughter as to investigate the causes of war and peace. …

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