Welcome to the middle ages


Was it only 20 years or so ago that Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the ‘end of history’? Fukuyama may have one of the biggest brains on the planet, but he was spectacularly wrong about the idea that Western-style democracy was about to sweep the world. More’s the pity. The sad reality is that the current international order is beginning to look more medieval than modern.

The most blood curdling example of the new medievalism is the spectacular and largely unforeseen rise of ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Who would have thought that putting heads on stakes would come back into fashion? Even if the claims about ISIS advocating mass female circumcision prove to be fabricated, there are clearly better places to be a woman at the moment than in the Islamic State.

It is not simply the levels of barbarism and brutality that ISIS is reviving that sets them apart though. There are two other striking features of their emerging power base that are noteworthy. First, they appear to have authority and control without any of the trappings of a modern state.

Not only are they unrecognised as such by other states, but the boundaries of their rule are imprecise, shifting and seemingly dependent on the very direct application of personalised power – much as they were in medieval Europe.

Second, ISIS has the potential to overturn one of the apparently established facts of contemporary international relations: old-fashioned territorial conquest can still pay, it seems. Many observers – including me – thought that growing economic interdependence and the surprising fragility of the global economy meant that the logic of warfare had changed forever.

Simply put, everyone had too big a stake in the extant order to risk destabilising it. More could be achieved through trade than invasion.

But if ISIS can capture and control oilfields in Iraq they will have a potential economic asset to complement their political and military ascendancy. The great hope must be that they will still need to engage with the world to exploit this resource and that this may have a sobering – and, dare one say, civilising – effect.

Unfashionable and politically incorrect though it may be to say so, the great, albeit paradoxical achievement of medieval Christendom was to put religion in its place. Pluralism and toleration of difference became part of the political fabric of Europe because it eventually dawned on the continent’s absolutist rulers that endless slaughter and internecine warfare wasn’t terribly productive.

The quest for political and economic order proved more compelling than theological purity – thank the Lord.

One of the great long-term consequences of the separation of church and state was a growing respect for individualism. People – even women – were allowed to make up their own minds about questions that had formerly been the preserve of priests and hereditary rulers.

The pay-off of these intersecting social changes wasn’t just a staggering leap forward in human understanding, scientific rationality and economic development, but also the eventual acknowledgement and codification of human rights.

It’s easy to be cynical about the effectiveness of institutions such as the United Nations at times of crisis. But as even the Abbott government – not normally known for its love of multilateral institutions – has discovered, the UN has its uses.

The sobering reality is that reaching international agreement about anything is formidably difficult. The fact that a body exists that is not only dedicated to trying to do precisely that, but which champions universal principles about people’s individual rights simply on the basis of their common humanity, is a remarkable achievement, and one we lose sight of at our peril.

Recent events in the Middle East serve as a painful reminder that making the transition to democracy is difficult and fraught with uncertainty. Even where democracy has been established, there is no guarantee it will endure in the absence of conducive circumstances, as the local example of Thailand demonstrates.

At a time of global turmoil when the trampling of individual rights is becoming the rule rather than the exception, and the brutalisation of civilian populations is a routine part of international affairs, it is easy to forget what an achievement the creation of international institutions such as the UN actually is. Little wonder so many are risking everything to try and get themselves into the much-maligned European Union.

Feeble though the institutions of international co-operation may be, they are better than the alternative. The challenge, as ever, is to translate good intentions into tangible outcomes. There is no shortage of thugs and zealots with whom to try and reason.

An absence of even the pretence of global governance might presage a descent into the sort of anarchical chaos we associate with 15th rather than the 21st century.

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