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From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age: The Decline of the State and U.S. Strategy

From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age: The Decline of the State and U.S. Strategy - Cover

Authored by Dr. Phil Williams.

June 2008

67 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Security and stability in the 21st century have little to do with traditional power politics, military conflict between states, and issues of grand strategy. Instead they revolve around the disruptive consequences of globalization, declining governance, inequality, urbanization, and nonstate violent actors. The author explores the implications of these issues for the United States. He proposes a rejection of “stateocentric” assumptions and an embrace of the notion of the New Middle Ages characterized, among other things, by competing structures, fragmented authority, and the rise of “no-go” zones. He also suggests that the world could tip into a New Dark Age. He identifies three major options for the United States in responding to such a development. The author argues that for interventions to have any chance of success the United States will have to move to a trans-agency approach. But even this might not be sufficient to stanch the chaos and prevent the continuing decline of the Westphalian state.


Security and stability in the 21st century have little to do with traditional power politics, military conflict between states, and issues of grand strategy. Instead, they revolve around governance, public safety, inequality, urbanization, violent nonstate actors, and the disruptive consequences of globalization. This monograph seeks to explore the implications of these issues for the future U.S. role in the world, as well as for its military posture and strategy.

Underlying the change from traditional geopolitics to security as a governance issue is the long-term decline of the state. Despite state resilience, this trend could prove unstoppable. If so, it will be essential to replace dominant state-centric perceptions and assessments (what the author terms “stateocentrism”) with alternative judgments acknowledging the reduced role and diminished effectiveness of states. This alternative assessment has been articulated most effectively in the notion of the New Middle Ages in which the state is only one of many actors, and the forces of disorder loom large. The concept of the New Middle Ages is discussed in Section II, which suggests that global politics are now characterized by fragmented political authority, overlapping jurisdictions, no-go zones, identity politics, and contested property rights.

Failure to manage the forces of global disorder, however, could lead to something even more forbidding— a New Dark Age. Accordingly, Section III identifies and elucidates key developments that are not only feeding into the long-term decline of the state but seem likely to create a major crisis of governance that could tip into the chaos of a New Dark Age. Particular attention is given to the inability of states to meet the needs of their citizens, the persistence of alternative loyalties, the rise of transnational actors, urbanization and the emergence of alternatively governed spaces, and porous borders. These factors are likely to interact in ways that could lead to an abrupt, nonlinear shift from the New Middle Ages to the New Dark Age. This will be characterized by the spread of disorder from the zone of weak states and feral cities in the developing world to the countries of the developed world. When one adds the strains coming from global warming and environmental degradation, the diminution of cheaply available natural resources, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the challenges will be formidable and perhaps overwhelming.

These challenges will also have profound implications for U.S. security policy and military strategy. Reflecting this, Section IV considers the extent to which these trends and challenges have been incorporated into official thinking about U.S. national security policy, military posture, and strategy. Although there is considerable sensitivity to the need to adapt to a more complex, dynamic, and unpredictable environment, the continued focus on defeating enemies rather than managing conditions of complexity and even chaos is overly narrow. At best, the official assessments remain linear in terms of projections about states—and even when the focus is on state weakness, the emphasis remains on adversaries rather than the environment itself.

Consequently, Section V considers how—in the event the prognosis of state decline and emerging chaos is correct—the United States might seek to adapt its policies and strategies. Several different options are explored. These range from the adoption of vigorous preventive measures at one extreme to global disengagement at the other. The first option seeks to quarantine and contain disorder and chaos as far from the United States as possible. The second option seeks to quarantine the United States itself, thereby protecting it from the most serious consequences of an inexorable trend. A third option, lying somewhere between these extremes, offers a more selective and differentiated strategy. For both the first and the third options, the United States would need a far more holistic approach to the exercise of power and a far more coherent organizational structure than currently exist. In responding to security challenges, the United States develops several strands of distinct and often independent activities rather than a sustained strategic approach that integrates multiple activities and directs them towards a common purpose.

In a world where the United States seeks to combat extensive disorder and restore stability, military, economic, and diplomatic power have to be targeted in ways that create synergies rather than seams, that reinforce rather than undercut, and that provide maximum efficiency and effectiveness. U.S. interventions would have to be smarter, not harder. The problem is that effective strategies of intervention and reconstruction require more than the coordination of disparate elements. Strategy cannot be patched together. At the very least, it requires going beyond interagency collaboration to develop what might be termed transagency organizational structures. Based on but extending the task force concept, a transagency structure would be a central core of U.S. interventionist capabilities. It would include military forces, diplomats, reconstruction specialists, and legal experts integrated into one organization designed to assist a target state in reestablishing its authority, legitimacy, and effectiveness. Notions of joint operations would be extended beyond the military to civilian institutions, replace departmental loyalties with a sense of loyalty to the mission, and focus on synergistic effects. Without both organizational innovation and a shift of organizational cultures and loyalties, tactical success is unlikely—even if there is selective and limited intervention.

The caution is that tactical success might not translate into strategic success. After all, the state does not necessarily represent the optimum set of political arrangements for meeting people’s needs or for ensuring peace and stability. More organic, bottom-up forms of governance, for all their shortcomings, might be the best available in a world of increasingly hollow and failing states. The fixation with the centralized state needs to confront realities that point towards serious consideration of alternatives. The problem is that the stateocentric mode of thinking is so highly normative that consideration of alternative forms of governance, which does more than treat them as threats, is typically regarded as heretical, irrelevant, or misguided. Yet if we fail to see the decline of the state and to recognize the underlying realities, the prospect of a cascade of strategic surprises and a series of strategic disasters is inescapable.

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