In one of the most memorable scenes in cinema, Orson Welles' Harry Lime rides the giant Viennese Ferris wheel in the 1949 classic The Third Man and muses, "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
In some respects, our world today isn't far off from the European medieval landscape that Lime conjured up. It is a multipolar, multicivilizational world in which every empire, city-state, multinational corporation or mercenary army is out for itself. Instead of predictable relationships in international relations, the difference between the words alliance and dalliance is just one letter. There are so many failed or failing states that we have to question whether, as in the Middle Ages, we should accept that what passes for "government" will be different at any two points on the map.
Walter Lippmann warned that we have a tendency to define first and then to see rather than to see first and then define. The chaotic world we see today can't be easily defined, but it can be understood by looking back to an era in which both the West and the East were strong enough to call their own shots, when empires but also city-states competed for influence, when the Arab world and Islam were powerful, when governments mattered but so too did corporations and wealthy families and when religion and trade were driving forces in connecting the globe.
A thousand years ago, Song-dynasty China was the most advanced civilization in the world, India's Chola dynasty ruled the seas to Indonesia, and the Abbasid caliphate stretched from North Africa through Persia. In Asia it was a golden age. But in the West, we associate the medieval world with plagues, crusades, mercenaries, witches. And today we find ourselves again in a potentially long period of fear and uncertainty. Fear, however, can motivate innovation and progress. Inventions ranging from the cannon to the compass and even double-entry bookkeeping were developed during the Middle Ages. If we want to pull ourselves out of this new Middle Ages and into the next Renaissance, we need to similarly harness the turbulence of today to build a stable tomorrow. Perhaps a little fear of the future could help.
No End to Crisis
Over several hundred years between the 11th and 15th centuries, the great Eurasian landmass was beset by conflict and crises: a papal schism, the Crusades, Mongol invasions and the Black Death. Today we have crises in spades. The plague has reappeared in the form of global pandemics like AIDS. The world is still recovering from the worst economic downturn in 80 years. Terrorism is unstoppable in the Middle East and South Asia, piracy has returned to Africa's coastlines, and the U.N. recently declared organized crime a "superpower." As was the case hundreds of years ago, our present disorder is not episodic but chronic. Believing that the world is safer because there is less terrorism this year than last is like believing that the global economy is healthy just because the stock market went up for a week.
Ours is an arbitrary world: billions today live unsure of whether their true masters are the equivalent of local feudal lords, elected but corrupt politicians or distant corporate executives. Asian and Arab sovereign wealth funds buy up Africa's cropland to hedge against their own food shortages while profiting from the sale of poor nations' precious food supplies. But two things are sure: who has the money makes the rules, and the rules will be different wherever you go. Instead of the U.N. leading a world of strong international law, our international institutions are more like Europe's Holy Roman Empire, to whom local powers simply paid lip service.
Just as in the Middle Ages, our world today is more a network of villages than it is a single one. Megacities such as Rio, Istanbul, Cairo, Mumbai, Nairobi and Manila teem with hundreds of thousands of urban squatters and have become worlds unto themselves that most residents never have the privilege of leaving. Still, those in their migrant underclass often live in functional, self-organizing ecosystems. Whether rich or poor, cities, more than nations, are the building blocks of global activity today.
The look of the entire postcolonial world is in the throes of change. Today the world is being fundamentally remapped in a process that is as violent as it is necessary. It took the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648 for a fractured Europe to begin to codify a more predictable system of sovereign states. Now, from Congo and Sudan to Iraq and Pakistan, borders must be redrawn to correct for nonexistent or illegitimate governance and respect the aspirations of people to govern themselves. It could take decades for the growing list of failing states to be sorted out.