When was the last time a coalition of medium-size nations came together to address a regional security problem, as Saudi Arabia and other nations are doing in Yemen, without boundaries being set for them by a geopolitical hegemon?
The answer to that question, I believe, is never. The nation-state model of our time was still struggling to emerge, the last time there was neither a functional hegemon, nor a legacy hegemonic idea, nor a small group of hegemons dominating the “known”* world.
To find a time when the “advanced,” more organized peoples across the belt from southern China to Europe were not dominated by a very small number of hegemons (including long periods when there was only one), we have to go back to Europe’s inward-turning period of the 13th to the early 15th centuries.
To understand this point, contrast that interim period first with the earlier dominance of Rome, and Rome’s legacy successors, the Byzantine and “Holy Roman” Empires.
Then contrast it with the later dominance of small handfuls of hegemons: successive kingdoms in Europe; the Ottoman Empire; the United Kingdom; the Communist bloc of Eurasia, and the United States.
None of these hegemons ever exercised absolute power, or controlled all the territory that mattered to its security. What made them hegemons was the reality that important “security events,” including those outside their recognized borders – insurrections, local conquests, coups, raids, even the growth of rival empires – took place in the context of boundaries set by the hegemon(s).
The career of hegemony
Hegemons set boundaries – and often set the pace – for even the nations most like them in power and influence. In modern times, it was effectively Britain that set the boundaries on how far Napoleon could push his eruption from France across Europe and into the Near East. It was Britain that set the boundaries over the next century on the aspirations of a unifying Germany. It was the United States that set the boundaries on how far Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union could push outward.
But a key feature of the hegemons I have in mind here is that their interests cause them to set boundaries that affect conditions for everyone. The terms of trade, control of the seas, travel across borders, the enforcement and recognition of borders – these features of the geopolitical landscape may not be universally implemented, but the hegemon sets the standard. Those not under its direct sway are held to deviate from it.
Perhaps most importantly, if least visibly, the most dominant hegemons set boundaries for what other political visionaries conceive of as possible, and even how they define their aspirations.
The conditions set by hegemons affect small events as well as major eruptions (e.g., the French Revolution and the ensuing shenanigans of Napoleon). Tribes, provinces, small nations – all can be caught between great hegemons, as many were, over the centuries, between dominant European powers and the Ottomans, or between Britain and another European power, or between the United States and the USSR. The hegemons clash with each other, perhaps, but whatever they do sets boundaries on the arrangements and vision of the smaller powers.
In this light, we can see how the example of Rome, and to some extent earlier examples like Persia and Egypt, carry through to hegemony in modern times. The greatest hegemons set boundaries for so much of the known world that it might as well be all of it.
We have had hegemons on this model for such a long time now that it’s hard to imagine what things would be like without them. Granting that the reach and character of a hegemon depend partly on the prevailing level of technology, I think the last time the “known” world was effectively without functioning hegemony was – to set rough boundaries on the period – between the fall of Jerusalem to Central Asian invaders in 1244, and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. (I might be persuaded that the earlier date should be moved back to 1187, and Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem.)
During that period it was possible to rove much of the Middle East, West Asia, and Europe and not collide with a dominant hegemon. “Empires,” lacking the substructure of true nation-states, were entities that enterprising bands could maraud through. Of equal importance, territorial divisions within “kingdoms” were the norm, and wars incessant between dukes and princes, caliphs and viziers.
With the end of the Crusades, a fractured Europe gave up on projecting power as a means of protecting itself against Muslim armies. But the locally fractured Islamic world had not yet coalesced into the Ottoman model, with its extensive bureaucratization and talent for loosely administering far-flung provinces.
In the 600 years since, however, combinations of dominant hegemons, and the evolving system of modern nation-states, have set boundaries on what is possible – how we actually define political or “security” events – throughout that same region. And those influences have in turn set boundaries in the last two or three centuries on what is possible elsewhere, in East Asia, Africa, and even (to some extent) the Americas.
The proposition that is being deconstructed
Subjugating, raiding, or conquering territory ruled in primitive fashion by a weak chieftain, or none, is a very different proposition from having to overrun, say, “Italy,” which today has a central government, a standing army, and allies, and which subsists in a complex security environment guaranteed by even larger, stronger powers. The conditions set by hegemony are what allowed our idea of what “Italy” is, and what its function is, to develop.
But it’s precisely the proposition of “overrunning Italy,” with all the geopolitical premises that carries, that is being deconstructed before our eyes, with the partitioning of Ukraine and the destruction of “Syria,” “Iraq,” and very possibly “Yemen.”
The reason is simple. No dominant hegemon is stepping in to enforce modern definitions, and boundaries on what is possible. Quite suddenly, after six centuries of a hegemonic geopolitical environment, we are operating without one.
The collapse is total, in fact, because it involves not a true and gradual loss of power by the most recent dominant hegemon – the United States – but an abrupt change of will by the hegemon, and a relinquishment of the organizing hegemonic idea.
The organizing idea of the hegemony
The organizing idea of today is not imperialism, colonialism, or any of the vilified –isms tossed around by 20th-century malcontents. It’s the founding concept of the United Nations: the idea of universal principles and international covenants, freely arrived at and binding nations large and small. It took the nations centuries to formulate these largely Western principles, and a singular nation, the United States, to enforce them as a hegemon.
Hegemons have enforced other principles, as the Ottoman and Soviet empires did. But the hegemonic idea of the Pax Americana – to some extent, like the Pax Britannica before it – is the one most of today’s living generations carry in their heads as a mental image of the status quo.
Without hegemonic enforcement, however, no such idea can be reliably adhered to. People don’t see that today, because it has been all of those 600 years since the peoples of the known world have lacked both a hegemonic idea, and a hegemon enabling it to function in practice as well as theory.
A world without a hegemon
We are, right now, stepping off into a world without a hegemon. But this time, we will have armed nation-states as the principal political actors, and a level of technology that tends to demand greater organization than what people lived under 600-800 years ago. We’re headed in a direction mankind hasn’t gone before.
In 1244, the Near East or Eastern Mediterranean might simmer uneasily for decades while the rulers of Europe or Asia Minor sorted themselves out. But in 2015, everything from trade to TV cameras moves too fast for such prolonged indecision.
Much will change in the next 22 months. We will revisit some very basic truths, such as the truth that the nation-state is a people’s bulwark against both imperial absorption and tribalist chaos. Only people in a nation-state have protection against empire. But without a hegemon on the American model, nation-states usually have to buy their protection very dear.
There is no other great power that will operate as a hegemon on the American model. Russia and China will operate as they always do: on the regional-hegemon principles of intimidation and extortion, with economic exclusivism in view rather than concepts like “free trade,” “free exchange of ideas,” and “freedom of navigation.”
The aspiring caliphs of Islamism will operate on yet other principles, disavowing the nation-state altogether, and disdaining the Westphalian constructs of national borders and what it means to have “peace.”
The function of the nation-state will be in flux: without a hegemon to enforce its prerogatives, it will find itself adrift in important ways.
But national populations will see with fresh eyes the benefits that nationhood confers on them, and I predict will be all the more anxious to preserve or restore them. Ideologues may rejoice that the nation-state finds itself at sea. But don’t mistake that for a trend in the human heart.
A door swinging open
What we face in the coming days, interestingly enough, is a period of opportunity. What that will look like is a subject for another post (and one I’m not sure it’s time to write yet). Many people will read it all as general calamity. The world has not lived with the geopolitical governor “off,” in the manner that lies before us, for a very, very long time. Nothing in our shared understanding of recent history helps us to parse it.
But for my fellow Americans, I commend to you largeness of vision about our national future – the future of politics within our borders. The struggle of the political left over the last 150 years is a struggle that has to die from sheer meaninglessness, as the order that it hates so much changes out from under it. That resentful struggle of the left will not dictate our political future, unless we succumb to its death-trance out of fear.
The parasitic logic of the left is actually dependent on the order that we see collapsing. The vision of liberty, by contrast, is built from the ground up to accommodate change and use it as opportunity. There will be an America 2.0 out of the “center that cannot hold” – and we are the ones who will get to write it. So set your watchmen on the walls. And saddle up.
* By “known” world, I mean the world knitted loosely together at a given time through regular trade, survived two-way travel, and mutual knowledge, with evidence of that knowledge recorded or deducible from contemporary information. For example, what we call China and India today were clearly parts of the “known” world for the late Roman Republic (i.e., in the second and first centuries B.C., prior to the days of empire), and vice versa, as were big swaths of Africa. Somewhat less of the world had been “known,” in this sense, at the time of King David of Israel eight to nine centuries earlier.
Most of the earth has been inhabited since before recorded history began, of course. But much of it did not have the characteristics I speak of. And one of the chief distinctions now is that we know far more about the Rome, India, China, and Persia of that republican era in Rome than we know about most of the other lands and peoples at the time. “Known” world is a shorthand with a defensible premise behind it. Today, every corner of the globe constitutes the known world. But as little as two centuries ago, we still could not say that. Its expansion has been accelerating rapidly.