3 Mar 2024

Timothy Heath: Are we entering a 'neomedieval era'

From Sunday Morning, 11:30 am on 3 March 2024

The world is regressing to a norm closer to the average experience of humankind, a US defence expert says.

Weaker states, fragmented societies, stagnant economies and intrastate conflicts are all hallmarks of pre-industrial societies, Timothy Heath says.

Heath is a senior international defence researcher at the RAND Corporation. 


In a recent paper, he argued that to understand the risks involved in superpower competition between the US and China, we must understand that we now live in a “neomedieval era.” 

“I define that near medieval world in five ways. First, there is a weakening of states. Second, societies are fragmenting. Third, economies are growing slowly. Fourth, threats are pervasive and last warfare is becoming informalised, which is to say it's experiencing a shift back to features of warfare that are more commonly seen in the developing world and pre-industrial societies - such as the reliance on private armies or contractors,” he told Sunday Morning.

He believes the modern industrial period is an anomaly in human history.

‘Rarely have you ever seen societies that exhibited such cohesion and internal strength, unity, and highly productive economies with large middle class.

“It's really hard to find outside of the modern industrial pyramid, and even in the last 20 years, these kinds of societies really were concentrated in Europe, the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

These societies have all experienced deindustrialisation and a consequent process of weakening states and social fragmentation, Heath says.

While the incidence of war between states is declining, conflicts within states are on the rise, he says.

“These are conflicts often centered around issues of ethnic religious identity, and sectarian issues, fights over resources, and fights that occur within failing and weakening states.”

Heath says such conflicts are common throughout history as nation states have traditionally struggled to ensure stability.

“Internal turmoil and internal conflict were extremely common throughout history all the way going back to the Bible.

“What we've seen in the past few decades is the Cold War peace start to break down, and these old forms of conflict started to emerge and intensify. We're seeing them play out in the headlines today.”

The power of nation states is shrinking, he says.

“Think about how the US was able to reshape societies in Japan and Germany in the ‘50s and 60s when the United States was at the height of its power.

“And compare that with its unsuccessful effort to reshape Iraq and Afghanistan, where it simply did not have the resources and the will to change those countries in the way that it could with Germany and Japan.”

The Cold War was a standoff between nation states in the “prime of their health”, Heath says.

“The United States, China, Russia and Iran are nation states in decline. These are much weaker states that cannot mobilise societies in the way that the US and Soviet Union could in the ‘50s and ‘60s, just look at the US it's deeply polarised and divided.

“Look at Russia, fighting supposedly for its life against NATO. The Russian government is afraid to conscript its people and has to rely on convicts, foreigners and the poor to fill out the ranks of its military.”

The fundamental problem all these countries face is as they deindustrialise and experience slower growth they cannot generate the resources to meet the expectations of their people, he says.

And Heath says China, once an engine of global growth, is no exception.

“The Chinese government has been very frank in admitting that they simply cannot meet the needs of their own people, The lower performance of the state intensifies discontent and then people demand remedies that the state cannot meet, which diminishes [state] legitimacy more.”

One of the drivers of this instability is “yawning inequality and lack of social mobility” in both liberal democracies and authoritarian states, he says.

“European countries are experiencing the rise of more extreme political parties, and reports of political violence in the US levels have reached a point that hasn't been seen since the Civil War.

“As avenues for legitimate advancement diminish, illicit avenues of moving up become more attractive. And it's not a coincidence that the world is facing a pretty serious and intractable problem of organised crime.”

Governments will have to address unfairness and promise populations much less to address this new normal, he says.

“These societies are definitely going to be harder to govern than was the case in in the 50s and 60s, when you just had this incredible prosperity. Even the 30s and 40s, outside of the wars.

“But, you know, this incredible success of these nation states brought a lot of domestic security that was a luxury, we may not be able to enjoy anymore.”