Diary of a Financier

Bookshelf Update: Welcome to the New Middle Ages

In Bookshelf on Thu 6 Jan 2011 at 03:08
  • Adding “Welcome to the new Middle Ages” by Parag Khanna to my Bookshelf Newsstuffs.
  • Mr. Khanna compares the modern economic landscape to that of the Middle Ages, which begs for a future Renaissance.

Before leaving work every night, I staple together a compilation of newsstuffs from the day: articles that caught my eye, but found their way to the bottom of the pile during my daily triage. Before leaving for vacation or a business trip, I take an extra-large compilation to accompany me on the flight. I skipped a few days of Diary entries to enjoy some fresh powder with family & friends out in Utah at the beginning of this week, so this musing from The Financial Times found its way into my compilation.

In his article “Future shock? Welcome to the new Middle Ages,” Parag Khanna draws an interesting comparison between today’s global economic landscape and that of the Middle Ages:

Imagine a world with a strong China reshaping Asia; India confidently extending its reach from Africa to Indonesia; Islam spreading its influence; a Europe replete with crises of legitimacy; sovereign city-states holding wealth and driving innovation; and private mercenary armies, religious radicals and humanitarian bodies playing by their own rules as they compete for hearts, minds and wallets.
It sounds familiar today. But it was just as true slightly less than a millennium ago at the height of the Middle Ages.
I happen to prefer the comparison of modern America to World War I Britain, but I’m tickled by Mr. Khanna’s digging through history textbooks.
The only missing piece, of course, is America. The Middle Ages was pre-Atlantic. Yet today we have the legacy superpower of the US, located in the new world. If the European Union today plays the part of the Holy Roman Empire, then the US is the new Byzantium, facing both east and west while in a state of relative decline. The Byzantines lasted for many centuries beyond their material capability, through shrewd diplomacy and deception rather than by force.
This new world will mean huge challenges, for the west in particular. But if the US applies a genuinely Byzantine strategy, it has a good chance of stopping a slide into conflict. And remember that, despite its bleak reputation, the Middle Ages was actually an era of great invention and discovery – and one which eventually gave way to a great Renaissance too.
US=Byzantium… I’ve seldom heard that comparison. Mr. Khanna’s Opinion piece is thought-provoking such that I may, perhaps, even pick up a copy of his upcoming book, How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (Random House, 2011). Still, the more I think about his conclusions–the US, like Byzantium, will fizzle out over the next centuries, and a Renaissance will ensue–the more I see mere penetrating glimpses of the obvious. It’s a worthwhile read for the historical perspective nonetheless.


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