United States and China: Rivals in an Increasingly Medieval World

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

It's no secret that relations between the United States and China have been tense in recent years, nor that they are growing more so. There are several reasons for this, not least of which is the rise of what a recent Rand Corporation study is calling "neomedievalism."


They list the key findings of their study as follows:

  • Politically, the centralized nation-state is in steep decline, spurring severe political crises in many countries.
  • Economically, growth has slowed and become imbalanced, leading to the return of entrenched inequalities and expansion of illicit economies.
  • Nonstate threats, including pandemics, banditry, and ecological and natural disasters, could outpace rival militaries as security concerns.
  • Preindustrial aspects of warfare have reemerged, including the prevalence of siege warfare, irregular and protracted conflict, the privatization of warfare, and the prominence of intrastate conflict.

While I could take these findings apart and spend hours commenting on each, it's important to take a close look at what this means to the United States' primary geopolitical adversary today: China.

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Commenting on this Rand Corporation study, "The Hill" opinion columnist Andy Langenkamp had this to say:

In China, inequality is also rising and economic growth is slowing. Leaders increasingly rely on repression; China’s internal security budget has exceeded its defense budget for more than a decade.

Because of this state of affairs, China and the U.S. do not seem to be in a position to engage in a full battle with each other any time soon. The weaknesses of the two states and the internal and international challenges they face make it too risky to enter into a direct conflict. Also, rulers cannot assume that citizens will rally behind a war effort that requires real and sustained sacrifices.

The result is likely to be a protracted, low-intensity conflict, rather than an all-out war. This is not to say that we will not see an intense escalation. For example, a Chinese blockade of Taiwan is not out of the realm of realistic scenarios. In all likelihood, however, the Sino-American battle will be fought in the grey areas of cyberspace and economic issues.


While I'm inclined to agree with the idea of a full-scale battle between the US and China exploding, the idea of a prolonged, small-scale conflict, a second Cold War, is much more likely. China is beset by problems; their economy is weakening, their population is about to fall off a demographic cliff, and they are facing significant domestic unrest. But the United States has troubles of its own, not least of which is a befuddled president and an increasingly incompetent federal bureaucracy — not to mention the degrading of our military.

America is still a major player; we are also protected by two great oceans, which gives us a significant advantage in any military actions, although that advantage has shrunk considerably since 1941. But China still has strengths as well, being a major exporter and creditor to the United States and the other Western nations.

Medieval states are characterized by weak central governments, lack of unity among the populations, unbalanced economies, and recurrent warfare and raiding by military and quasi-military structures that are often little more than bandits. Taking a quick look around the globe right now, it sure looks like there are a lot of these things already happening.

The Rand Corporation report describes what the world is entering into now as neomedievalism — but it may be more apt to call it a return to feudalism. It's enough to make one wonder if a new Dark Age is on the horizon.


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