As far as “world order” is concerned, the future may resemble the pre-modern past. The characteristic political institution of modernity is the nation-state. But before the era of European nation-states was inaugurated in Westphalia in 1648, Europe and much of the rest of the world was feudal. Today, the nation-state appears to be disintegrating. As it does, we should expect relationships of power around the world to again take on a feudal character, similar in form to pre-modern feudalism but operating on very different foundations.
I’m not referring to the so-called “neo-feudalism” described by Joel Kotkin — a socially ruinous and politically dangerous polarisation of wealth within nations where the middle class is rapidly vanishing. This primarily economic phenomenon is more accurately described as an extreme form of oligarchy. It is a product of liberal globalisation.
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What I see developing is an alternative system of relationships among armed world powers, one which we might call “feudal globalisation.” Liberal globalisation seeks to universalise a “rules-based” order of nation-states cooperating to facilitate economic prosperity and to elevate mutual consent as much as possible over physical violence, which serves as a last resort when negotiation fails. Feudal globalisation embraces intimidation and violent domination of people and resources — embraces it forthrightly, except when trying to play the rhetorical game of liberal norms for diplomatic purposes, as Vladimir Putin occasionally does in his territorial claims.
Putin is one of the great lords in this alternative system. His vassals include the presidents of Syria, Belarus, and (to a lesser degree) Turkey. When Viktor Yanukovich was president of Ukraine, his was shaping up to be such a vassal regime, and there are rumours that when Putin began his invasion he had hopes of reinstalling him. Iran, Xi’s China, and Maduro’s Venezuela are also players in this alternative system. A year ago, Anne Applebaum dubbed this cadre of heads of state “Autocracy Inc.”.
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Meanwhile, in the US, Shivshankar Menon, a former National Security Adviser to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recently observed that large a part of the “foreign policy establishment… has embarked on an ideological quest to divide the world between democracies and autocracies”. This is certainly how the Biden administration frames the stakes of its opposition to Russia in Ukraine.
This belief rests on the assumption that we are engaged in a struggle over what kind of nation states will shape world politics. But if this 400-year-old premise is really what is at issue, then something structurally deeper than democracy is at stake — namely, the question of whether world politics will operate according to nation-state logic or feudal logic.
Applebaum helpfully points out how the feudal alternative functions as a system:
“Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks … connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with the corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another…. Their links are … designed to take the edge off Western economic boycotts.”
It is crucial to recognise, however, that these networks do not only consist of states and entities within them. Since the end of the Cold War, militarised “sub-state actors” have multiplied and taken on increasing importance in this system. As strategic analysts Ramon Blecua and Douglas Ollivant observe: “The influence of powerful non-state actors is becoming more relevant at shaping state policy than the classic power competition among states… The presence of this myriad of sub-state actors means that if one is looking only at states, one is missing a good part of the picture.”
In feudal globalisation, these sub-state actors serve as lesser vassals to the lords who, in the classic formulation by Max Weber, maintain a monopoly on the permissible use of violent force within their defined territories. In Blecua and Ollivant’s words, sub-state actors’ “capacity to mobilise support among local constituencies gives them some sort of legitimacy, and their control over the use of force in a certain territory provides a quasi-state character to them”.
In Syria, for example, “Iran and Russia finance their proxies directly without going through the Syrian Government, and thus exert real control over military operations. This means that Assad finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being a vassal sovereign in a land ruled by armed bands of uncertain allegiances.” Similarly, the militias that Russia has supported in the Donbas region of Ukraine for nearly a decade have prepared the ground for the recent “referenda” held there.
The basic character of the state as a monopoliser of violence is crucial for understanding the history that is playing itself out now as these monopolies increasingly falter. In land-based feudalism, the capacity for violence is necessarily decentralised; it resides in and is primarily for the defence of local agrarian economies. Only rarely and with difficulty can it be organised to serve the purposes of monarchs.
After the Second World War and the founding of the UN, and especially during the period of decolonisation, the aspiration to a global system of nation-states dominated the political imagination. Our world maps with their clearly drawn national borders reinforce this wishful picture. Nevertheless, there continued to be plenty of “failed states”— or in other words, regions of the world where the nation-state never managed to really catch on and sub-state groups continued to exercise violence and local control. The history of Colombia, for instance, is a story of ever-recurring civil wars, and today roughly two-thirds of the territory of this “nation-state” is ruled by rival militant groups, corporations employing mercenaries, and drug cartels.
During the Cold War, a kind of vassalage to one of the competing Superpowers was usually the best option for sub-state groups seeking more power. The Superpowers generally hoped to help their vassal groups become the monopolising state powers, and thus the illusion could be sustained that, in one way or another, history was moving toward a global nation-state system. And so for decades, the United States supported the Nicaraguan Contras as a rival to the socialist Sandinista regime, though the Contras seem to have had more success entangling themselves with drug profiteers than in making progress toward taking over the state.
Now, after the Cold War, the illusion that the nation-state system is history’s endgame is ceasing to be quite so convincing. Decentralised feudal order is returning — and sub-state groups have a variety of attractive options for alliances with powerful patrons.
This feudal order, however, is not based on agrarian economies. It is based on resources and products that yield money. The money supports warlords and soldiers and buys sophisticated weapons, and the warlords’ well-armed soldiers control the resources —petroleum, minerals, narcotic crops — that generate money. Like the Mafia, many militarised groups straddle the lines drawn by “rules-based” liberalism between criminal and legitimate profit. Mexican gangs, reports The Economist, “are no longer just drug-peddlers. They traffic people, steal oil and control the markets for avocados, tortillas and chicken in some states.” They have also doubled in number since 2010, and their violence plagues Mexico. Now that Cold War pressures no longer give a decisive advantage to a small number of large groups with putatively state-building aspirations, opportunities abound for militarised local powers to forge profitable dominions and alliances of interest.
There are even reasons to think that, in the competition for access to and control of resources, feudal globalisation has begun to have some advantages over liberal globalisation. Cartels, militias and autocrats don’t have to worry much about satisfying liberal international norms or watchdog groups when offering carrots and sticks to local populations or corruptible governments.
One of the great liabilities of liberal democracies in this contest may be the very one that seemed to be its great strength in the “end of history” euphoria: its faith in its own legitimacy. When I earlier cited Weber’s description of the state, some will have noticed that I substituted “monopoly on permissible violence” for Weber’s “monopoly on legitimate violence” — the latter being more apt as a description that privileges the self-conception of the liberal state. The “monopoly on permissible violence” better reflects the psychology of autocratic states and is adaptable to the brutal reign of sub-state actors. While all ruling bodies offer justifications for their rule, the need for a sense of legitimacy, of being fundamentally in accord with a deeper lawfulness, is in some way distinctive to liberal states.
The historical reasons for this need are complex, with roots in the legal culture developed in medieval Europe. But it is not hard to see that liberal democracies are experiencing an acute crisis of legitimacy in our time. Liberal political theory legitimates the state’s monopoly on violence by promising to use it to protect potential victims of violence, but liberal states are riven by disagreements about who qualifies as victim and deserves this protection, what constitutes violence, and what forms of violence are permissible or tolerable.
These internal crises of legitimacy render it increasingly difficult for foreign policy elites to sustain national commitments to liberal globalisation. Citizens are asked to make real sacrifices in the service of a project that shows little promise of succeeding and seems increasingly fantastical; and the unwavering commitment of many to this quixotic agenda further erodes the sense of liberal democratic legitimacy at home. While Putin may have unexpectedly breathed some new life into the Nato alliance, the cost of sanctions for domestic politics within the member states may be further loss of trust in ruling elites and, along with it, of faith in the legitimacy of the liberal order.
During the Cold War, liberal states could ally themselves with some unsavoury rulers and sub-state actors under the colour of ultimately promoting the vision of liberal globalisation in opposition to the communist vision. This accorded tolerably well with the need for a sense of the legitimacy of their foreign policy choices.
Today, however, as the rest of the world turns increasingly feudal, realistic foreign policy may require liberal states to ally themselves with forces manifestly out of step with the programme of liberal globalisation. Failure to resolve this conundrum is likely to hasten their collapse — and thus ensure the victory of globalised feudalism.