Thursday


A reader, Greg R. Lawson, commented on my last post, The Economic Future of Europe, including the following:

“Bigger issue now is, what does the US do with its western flank in an era most believe to be defined by the rise of Asia?”

Since my post about the European economy suggested a kind of European regionalism, I immediately began to think of the regionalism that I had described in a global context, i.e., I began to think in terms of global regionalism, and I realized that this would be a fruitful geopolitical perspective.

It is of the essence of geopolitics and geostrategy to think of social, economic, political, diplomatic, and military milieux in terms of their geographical distribution. That these generic strategic trends in human history are not equally distributed, and that the physical topography of the globe has a direct impact upon their distribution, shapes the world in which we live — the possibilities, the opportunities and the constraints.

A region is geographically defined, but not defined by nation-states. This distinction is important, because in the contemporary international system, the power is vested in nation-states. However, it must be observed that it has been primarily economic, military, and diplomatic power that have been vested in nation-states. Social, religious, and intellectual power have been attracted to the locus of economic, military, and diplomatic power of the nation-state, but the non-state structure of social, religious, and intellectual power has never been entirely eclipsed by the nation-state.

In the Islamic world, for example, the idea of the Ummah — the global Muslim community — is an important idea, and not a mere abstraction. The Ummah defines a region that is not a nation-state, just as do Catholicism, capitalism, and petrochemical producers.

A map of global Muslim populations shows the geographical distribution of the Ummah, which constitutes a region, but not a nation-state.

In the past, all regionalism was bioregionalism. A people’s way of life followed from the biome and the particular ecosystem in which they lived. Prior to the industrial revolution, the food that you ate, the clothes that you wore, the buildings in which you lived and worked, and the work that you did was all a function of your ecological situation. Since much of the language that one uses on a daily basis is derived from one’s food, clothing, shelter, and work, and the concepts embodied in language express these ideas, the greater part of our intellectual life also reflected bioregionalism. (This has been a theme I have urged since I started writing this blog.)

A map of terrestrial biomes from Wikipedia; each biome fosters a particular form of life in terms of the ecological resources that are regionally available.

With the Industrial Revolution this strong sense of regionalism was compromised once it become routine to import foodstuffs, clothing, building materials, and even forms of work that had not previously existed, or existed in the form that they came to have under industrialization. However, new and abstract forms of region began to supplement the declining strong forms of regionalism that once so completely defined life. Thus industrialization has changed regionalism, but has not eliminated regionalism. This is significant.

In the early part of the twentieth century many of the most advanced thinkers of the time seized upon internationalism as the direction in which the world was headed — what I would call the dominant strategic trend. A part of this intellectual fashion for internationalism was due to Marxism, which was always international in conception and ambition — communism was frequently called “international communism” in order to focus attention on it as a global movement, the communist anthem was called the “Internationale,” and the gatherings of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) were called “Internationals” — but not all of this fashion for internationalism can be attributed to communism.

The Wobblies were an explicitly international organization.

Many major thinkers who were in no sense Marxists consistently thought and expressed themselves in internationalist terms. Bertrand Russell is a good example of this. For Russell and many others, the obvious telos and rationalization of the de facto global political order could be nothing other than internationalism. This may sound a bit odd to my readers in the US, as internationalism never had much of a following in the US, where popular sentiment has often demonized the United Nations and other internationalist movements and organizations. And yet we did experience the international style in modern architecture, and a variety of related international movements made themselves felt in the US no less than in Europe.

But internationalism faltered under repeated blows to the international system throughout the second half of the twentieth century, not least the Cold War that divided the international system into two systems, at war with each other, and contesting their mutual periphery.

The global village that was once imagined as the consequence of universal telecommunications technology and a rapid global transportation network has not come to pass, any more than the “melting pot” model of diversity, which latter has since been replaced by the “tossed salad” model. Instead, the global village has become a place of its own, the region of cyberspace, which touches upon physical space at millions of points of contact, even while remaining distinct. We could map cyberspace onto physical space, or physical space onto cyberspace, but in each case the map is not the territory and the two spaces cannot be shown to be identical.

Internationalism, then, did not happen, or, at very least, did not happen as it was expected to happen. Instead, the growing complexity of the world facilitated the emergence of ever more forms of regionalism. Some have read in these tea leaves the perennial nature of the nation-state, but this is a delusion arising from limited imagination. The ultimate dissolution of the nation-state will come about not as a result of internationalism, but rather from a flourishing regionalism that subdivides nation-states like the inheritance of traditional estates when not checked by a custom of primogeniture. But this will not happen for a long time yet. Other trends must play themselves out for hundreds of years yet before the nation-state is a mere historical curiosity.

The structural forces in the world, then, that create and sustain regionalism are themselves important strategic trends that must be recognized. But that is not all. Above and beyond particular regionalisms there is regionalism itself as a force in world history. And we must even go beyond the understanding of regionalism as a strategic trend of the global system that facilitates other strategic trends. This is not at all wrong, but it is too limited. We must learn to understand regionalism on its own account, both driving other developments even as it in turn is driven by anterior developments.

Let us consider, very briefly, some of the major strategic trends of our time, and we will see that they are strongly regional trends:

● The Decline of Europe By “the decline of Europe” I do not mean the relative decline of European economic importance due to the increasing economic activity of other regions of the world, but the decline of the European idea as a force in world affairs. Europe has not only retreated from the apotheosis of its 19th century colonialism, it has turned against itself and its traditions and has adopted an attitude of atonement, frequently expressed in the form of foreign aid. Part of this attitude of atonement is also expressed by the liberal immigration quotas that has led to the rise of Eurabia. Europe is facilitating the disappearance of its own unique tradition.

● The Rise of Asia As with the decline of Europe, so too with the rise of Asia: this is partly about improving economic performance and industrialization, but it is just as much about the confidence of Asian peoples to assert themselves in the world as the Europeans once asserted themselves, and to do so they have borrowed heavily from the intellectual resources of the European tradition even while distancing themselves from that tradition. Colonialism and neo-colonialism are condemned, while quasi-colonial activity (like China’s growing role in Africa) is called anything but colonialism. More importantly, this is done with a clear conscience, as was also the case during Europe’s period of colonial expansion.

● The Stability of US Power Despite a great deal of declensionist talk that I have discussed in other posts (especially my recent From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), the American economy will remain the largest in the world for some time, and even after China’s economy becomes the largest in the world in terms of absolute numbers, the US economy will have the greatest productivity of any economy on the planet for an even longer period of time. The springs of ambition and invention have by no means peaked in the US, and we can expect the American people to continue to assert themselves aggressively in world affairs has has been the case since the end of the Second World War.

These three strategic trends together necessarily mean another strategic trend:

● The Shift from an Atlantic center to a Pacific center I have discussed the decline of Atlanticism and the possibility of a Pacific-centered world order in other posts. With the stability of US power as the fulcrum, the center of world affairs will slowly shift from the Atlantic, dominated by a declining Europe, to the Pacific, dominated by the rising Asia. I emphasize here that this shift will be slow and gradual.

The shift from an Atlantic-centered world to a Pacific-centered world will be a consequence of the decline of Europe and the rise of Asia, and thus this shift will not be consolidated until these developments are mature. In other words, the 21st century will not be the Pacific Century, but rather the century of the fluid periphery (see below), one of the developments of which will mean the shift to a Pacific-centered world order. It will be the 22nd century that will be the Pacific Century. So you see that when I say that this shift will be slow and gradual, I am talking on the order of centuries, not years or decades.

The shifting world center from the Atlantic to the Pacific is but one aspect another another major strategic trend that will be expressed in many different forms, and this is:

● The Fluidity of the Periphery The fluidity of the periphery will be expressed in a variety of distinct movements and changes, but the very fact that the periphery of the mature and established de facto global political order will be fluid is significant. In the past, the periphery was not fluid, but static. Nothing happened in the periphery, which was one reason that Ovid so lamented his exile to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) on the Black Sea. The periphery was once the edge of civilization, dominated by stalled technologies. In the future, more things will happen, and more history will be played out, on the periphery than in the center. The fluidity of the periphery will involve, but will not be limited to, the following:

* Atlantic to Pacific Shift The fluidity of the periphery will include the above-mentioned strategic shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but this shift will occur on such a time scale that it would be unnoticeable to most living through the shift except that we will know to watch for it. This will be a macro-temporal revolution in world history, and as such almost invisible to the micro-temporality of individual consciousness.

* Globalization Globalization in turn can be understood by many different labels — it is what I have called the extension of the industrial revolution to those parts of the world that have not yet industrialized; this global economic growth has been called “re-balancing” by Thomas P.M. Barnett; at the same time “re-balancing” might also be called a leveling of the global economic playing field, and this has also been called the global rise of the middle class. More tendentiously, I might call this strategic trend The End of Poverty, for when the gains of global industrialization are consolidated over the next two hundred years, one of the profound developments will be the end of the kind of poverty (made visible by the contrast between rich and power, and made more visible yet by the telecommunications technology that emerged from industrialization) that had typified the human condition since the dawn of agriculture and urbanism.

* Divisions internal to the Periphery Uneven development will more and more mark the fluid periphery, as some nation-states in Latin America and Africa develop rapidly, joining the global economy and catapulting their populations on a new trajectory of development, while other nation-states in Latin America and Africa cannot break out of the failure cycle, continuing to stumble and stagnate while neighboring nation-states pull far ahead of them. These divisions within the periphery will foster instability and tensions, as populations inevitably seek to better their lot by moving from failed and failing states into neighboring successful states.

* Global Divisions The consolidation of the democratization of the Western hemisphere will continue to contrast with non-democratic, non-representative, autocratic regimes throughout the fluid periphery and indeed throughout the Eurasian landmass. While there will be democratic regimes in the Western hemisphere that perpetuate the failure cycle, the slower pace of life that results will constitute a de facto social consensus for a society not to live in the fast lane. By contrast, outside the Western hemisphere, the failure cycle will be exacerbated by non-representative regimes that impose failure upon a restive population. These global divisions will be expressed as geostrategic tensions, which will in turn be expressed as flows between the divisions, and these flows — of populations, of resources, of smuggled contraband, of technology, etc. — will flow through the periphery, further destabilizing regions already destabilized by divisions internal to the periphery.

There are limits to the fluidity of the periphery. Fluidity is constrained by regional stability. Now by “regional stability” I do not mean a part of the world that is political stable (which is how the term is usually used in contemporary discourse) but rather that regional strategic trends that are geographically defined by not embodied in formal institutions. Actually, a distinction could be made between formal and informal regions, but I haven’t thought this through yet, so I will leave this potential distinction to another time. I hope that the reader will see, without further elaboration, that the same structural forces in the global system that create regions are powers that limit the latitude of other regions, sometimes simply by their existence, and other times by actively working against the strategic trend expressed by another region.

So that is my sketch of regionalism and how it will play out at least over the next two hundred years. I hope that even if the reader disagrees with the details of the picture that I have sketched, that you will at least see the power of differently-defined regionalisms in the global system, that this regionalism is a force to be reckoned with, and that regionalism may possibly become the dominant strategic trend, or a dominant strategic trend, over the long-term future.

There is much more to be said regarding regions, and I hope to think more on the matter, now that I have proposed it to myself in this explicit form, but for the time being I will close with the observation that regions are likely to play a larger role in history than either internationalism or nation-states.

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Thursday


In the wake of the violent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, members of the Gaddafi family, regime loyalists, and hired mercenaries fled Libya and scattered themselves throughout North Africa and the Sahara Desert. This is petty obviously a potential source of trouble for the places that these defeated and discontented refugees have sheltered. I wrote about this situation and its potential for destabilization of region in several posts:

The Gaddafi Diaspora

David and Goliath

Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny

The Survivor: Saif al-Islam Qadhafi

Trouble Brewing in the Desert

Several recent articles on the BBC document the trouble that has particularly come to affect Mali, where many Tuaregs who once fought for Gaddafi fled and reignited an insurgency against the Malian government:

Sand and fury: Mali’s Tuareg rebels

Mali clashes displace nearly 130,000, UN warns

Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali

Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup

Mali soldiers loot presidential palace after coup

The trouble brewing in the desert has now claimed its first nation-state casualty: there has been a coup in Mali. Most interesting in this situation is that the government in Bamako has not been overthrown by Tuaregs or others in active insurgency, but rather by government soldiers who felt that they were not receiving the resources that they needed to combat the resurgent Tuaregs in the north of the country, far on the periphery where the Tuareg nomads know the desert and the writ of the government in Bamako is difficult to enforce.

There is reasonably detailed account of events in Mali at Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), MALI: Rebellion claims a president, that gives some background to the story.

The situation in Mali is as perfect an instance of unintended consequences as one could find. The BBC article cited above, Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup, quoted Abdul Aziz Kebe of the University of Dakar in Senegal much to this effect:

“Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gaddafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region.”

There is no need to qualify this statement with “Western powers,” although Kebe may have intended to emphasize that it was Western intervention that made possible the defeat of Gaddafi. This may well be true, but we cannot prove that this is true, because the Libyan rebels may have overthrown Gaddafi without Western assistance. As a counter-factual condition this isn’t very stable ground for an argument, and neither is its implied contrary, as implied by Kebe.

The coup in Mali could yet fail. Portions of the military remain loyal to the president. But succeed or fail, the coup demonstrates that the Sahel has been destabilized by the overthrow of Gaddafi and the diaspora of his family and followers. The destabilization of the Sahel will not end with Mali, and, in any case, the trouble in Mali is only beginning.

The BBC article cited above, Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali , quoted Bazoum Mohammed, Foreign minister of Niger, as saying:

“We’re upset that the Malians have allowed this situation to get out of control.”

Of course the government in Niger is concerned about destabilization in the region, but they have contributed to the situation by allowing Saadi Gaddafi to speak publicly on television, announcing that he would lead a counter-revolution against the Libyan rebels.

Every actor in the region — whether state or non-state actor — has its levers to apply pressure to the situation in hopes of a result more to their liking, but since everyone is employing their levers in their own interest and without regard to the regional outcome, the result is chaos in the strictest sense of the term. No one can say what comes next in the Sahara.

Ironcially, it was Gaddafi the visionary (not Gaddafi the thuggish dictator) who saw this problem and pressed for a United States of Africa. A regional hegemon that could impose its will, or a voluntary association of states surrendering security arrangements to a binding trans-national security regime could bring peace at a cost, but neither the peace nor the cost is possible at this time.

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Friday


A Discourse on Center and Periphery

In a posthumously published remark Wittgenstein mentioned “the main current of European and American civilization.” (I previously quoted this in my post American Civilization.) The remark is made is passing, in the context of highlighting Wittgenstein’s own feelings of alienation from this tradition, which he employs as a caution at the beginning of one of his posthumously published works, lest the unwary denizen of this main current of European or American civilization should crack its covers and find himself challenged by a fundamentally different perspective.

If civilization has a main stream, does it also have tributaries, shallows, bends, bayous, and parallels to all the hydrological structures of riparian environments?

This passage from Wittgenstein is interesting in several respects. It assumes that there is a main current of European and American civilization, and a main current implies that there is also a periphery to civilization that it not the main current — perhaps even distant sources of the main stream, tributaries, bayous, and other topographical features of the river of time (to continue with the implied metaphor of a “current” of civilization). I find this metaphor to be highly suggestive and even fruitful. Civilization is an historico-temporal phenomenon, so that any detailed articulation we can being to our historico-temporal understanding will likely result in a more fine-grained understanding of civilization. (We could, alternatively, say that civilization consists of temporal structures.)

The “river of time” is an ancient metaphor, and like all metaphors it has its uses and abuses. One of the signal sea changes in twentieth century philosophy on which I have remarked elsewhere but receives scant attention in the literature, is the nearly complete turn-around from philosophical rejection of the reality of time to a philosophical acceptance if not embrace of the reality of time. There were, however, holdouts, even in the analytical community, and some of these holdouts went so far as to deny that there is any such thing as the “flow” of time, which is pretty much the same thing as denying the metaphor of the river of time, which is pretty much the same thing as denying the temporal reality of historico-temporal phenomenon such as civilization. (Pretty much, but not exactly.)

I will here take the reality of time and of temporal phenomena as given, thus betraying both my naturalism and my acceptance of the contemporary philosophical consensus that time is real. I won’t bother to argue for this. While some metaphors may be more apt than others, and some metaphors more intuitively perspicuous than others, I don’t see that the “river of time” metaphor does any harm, and in so far as the metaphor can be extrapolated as suggested above, it may expand our conception of temporal phenomena such as civilization.

There is a sense in which a Wittgensteinian approach to civilization is both obvious and interesting. In his The Faith of a Heretic, Walter Kaufmann writes of the application of the later Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances to words with complex meanings like “religion” and “civilization.” Subsequent philosophers have come to call such words “open textured,” and this applies to a great many common nouns. When we casually employ language in conversation such open-textured concepts cause little trouble, and especially so when there is a desire for mutual understanding. But when we attempt to make the open-textured concepts of ordinary language rigorous and precise we almost always run into trouble, and the contexts in which we attempt to precisify our concepts we usually cannot count on a desire to collaboratively converge upon meanings. (For this reason, among others, certain kinds of communication are possible among friends and family that are not possible with others — assuming that friends and family are sympathetic to us, which for some is a vertiginous leap.)

In any case, “civilization” would seem to be a paradigm case of an open-textured concept such that the instances that are taken to exemplify the meaning of the term display a family resemblance rather than all possessing a particular property by which all are definitively identified as being civilization. (That is to say, the legitimacy of an open-textured concept implies the rejection of essentialism for the concept in question.) Also, and as importantly, an open textured concept is open to revision. It can accommodate new permutations of meaning while abandoning old meanings. One way to revise the concept of civilization is to arrive at a more comprehensive conception by extrapolating Wittgenstein’s metaphor, and one way to do this is to leave the literalness of the metaphor aside, and instead of speaking of a mainstream of civilization and its implied branches off the main stream, to speak of the center and the periphery of civilization.

Civilization, to date, has meant those human undertakings on the surface of the earth that have included building cities, engaging in large-scale communal projects (such as agriculture and religious ceremonies), systematic application of intelligence to technology in order to solve problems, the maintenance and extension of social structures, and many other things. Because civilization is open-textured, we cannot exhaust its meanings, so we must be content with an incomplete list that simply gives a sense of what is involved in the enterprise.

Arnold Toynbee, author of A Study of History

The main stream of civilization to which Wittgenstein referred can be taken as the earliest, largest, core, and central efforts of this type. This is the center of civilization. The list of civilizations that Toynbee gives in his A Study of History — Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern (Japan), Orthodox Christian (main body), Far Eastern (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic — constitutes a temporal-historical list of examples; the list of civilizations given by Samuel Huntington in his The Clash of Civilizations — Western, Latin, Japanese, Sinic, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, African — constitutes a spatio-structural list of examples. Both of these attempts at giving a comprehensive catalog of actual civilizations are imperfect and inadequate, but the intersection of both might give as a rough spatio-temporal catalog of the centers of civilization.

Samuel Huntington

The idea of the center of civilization is at once both vague and intuitive, making it difficult to precisify, but the rewards of precisification are all the greater given the potential of the concept. But we must honestly concede that the idea of civilization itself is none-too-clear, and even thinkers who worked on the idea for their entire careers, such as Toynbee and Huntington mentioned above, have done little more than point to examples — what philosophers call an “ostensive definition” — since a logical or formal characterization of civilization seems to be beyond the present conceptual infrastructure of the social sciences. But difficult as the task of formulating and formalizing the concept of a center of a civilization may be, we can gain a little bit of analytical clarity by contrasting the center of civilization with the periphery of civilization, and such an analysis has already been suggested.

The simplest model of center and periphery.

I have previously criticized the terminology of Thomas P. M. Barnett that employs the locution “credentializing.” While Mr. Barnett took the trouble to explain himself after my criticism (which clarification I have posted in Credentializing Clarified), I still find this term in particular (viz. credentializing) to lack intuitive perspicuity. However, Barnett’s influential text The Pentagon’s New Map, with its distinction between core states and gap states, is highly intuitively perspicuous, and it moreover is an exposition of the world in terms of center and periphery. (Huntington, cited above, divided the clashes between civilizations into fault line conflicts and core state conflicts, which also is a form of center/periphery distinction. I don’t know enough about Barnett’s position to know whether he was influenced in this respect by Huntington.)

A more realistic model of multiple centers and overlapping peripheries. Beyond this spatial model, one ought also to imagine multiple centers and overlapping peripheries in time.

The strategic logic of center and periphery is more fundamental than, and therefore underlies, the culture, social milieu, or civilizational context, and so we find in it a cross-cultural mode of analysis that is found in works antithetical not only to the “Washington Consensus” but even to western civilization. For example, we find this exposition of center and periphery in Abu Bakr Naji’s The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass:

“The two superpowers which used to dominate the global order controlled it through their centralized power. The meaning of “centralized power” here is: The overwhelming military power which extends from the center in order to control the areas of land that submit to each superpower, beginning from the center and reaching the utmost extremity of these lands. Submission, in its primary, simplest form, means that these lands owe the center loyalty, submission to its judgment, and responsibility for its interests.”

The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, Abu Bakr Naji, Translated by William McCants, translation supported by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University

And again a few pages later, in comparing relative Russian and American proximity to Afghanistan and adjacent lands:

“The matter is different with regard to America — the remoteness of the primary center from the peripheries should help the Americans understand the difficulty of our continued submission to them, their control over us, and their pillaging of our resources if we decide to refuse; but only if we refuse and enflame opposition to its materialization.”

Part of Naji’s argument is that the nature of power, and the nature of power projection, on the periphery is distinct from the nature of power and power projection close to the center. I find Naji’s position close to my own in terms of his analysis, and if we change the specific terms of Naji’s analysis it can be seen as an alternative formulation of Barnett’s gaps (as mentioned above) and George Friedman’s borderlands (as mentioned immediately below).

Another use of the strategic logic of center and periphery is to be found in George Friedman’s discussion of borderlands. I have previously visited this in Moral Borderlands where I quoted Friedman’s The Next 100 Years as follows:

“Between two neighboring countries, there is frequently an area that has, over time, passed back and forth between them. It is an area of mixed nationalities and cultures… It has a unique mixed culture and individuals with different national loyalties… But regardless of who controls it at any given time, it is a borderland, with two cultures and an underlying tension. The world is filled with borderlands.”

If we expand and extrapolate this that Friedman attributes to countries to also include multi-state entities, ethnicities, social systems, cultures, and civilizations, then his borderlands are approximately similar to Barnett’s unstable gaps between core regions.

There is a tendency today to minimize the distinction between center and periphery because of instantaneous global communications and nearly instantaneous global travel. (I considered the social changes wrought by ease of global travel in The Space Age and Addendum to “The Space Age”.) Indeed, there is a sense in which expanding globalization is the neutralization (if not the negation) of the center/periphery dialectic that runs like a thread through human affairs from the earliest empires of west Asia to the great confrontation of the two superpowers that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, with the stability at the center and its proxy wars at the periphery.

If (and I stress if) globalization is conceived as the elimination of dialectic of center and periphery, as the closing of Barnett’s gaps and the consolidation of the functioning core, or the elimination of Friedman’s borderlands, while these developments may be approximated, they will never be fully consolidated. In this sense, and I mean in this sense narrowly conceived, globalization will either falter in some phase of its unfolding, or the same dialectic of center and periphery will be extrapolated as human civilization extends beyond the surface of the earth and the periphery is to be found in marginal communities established far from the center on a new scale of distance that outstrips that possible upon the surface of the earth, and therefore exhibits the dialectic in an even more stark form (which I have called extraterrestrialization).

Civilizational centers migrate over time, albeit slowly, almost too incrementally to notice. During classical antiquity, Western civilization was centered on the Mediterranean; during the medieval period, Western civilization was centered in Western Europe; with the discoveries of the Americas there is a sense in which Western civilization has been centered on the Atlantic. Islamic civilization has similarly shifted gradually during its history. During the medieval period Islamic Spain became sufficiently wealthy and influential that Cordoba virtually represented a second center of Islamic civilization, so that the tradition seemed to bud another iteration of itself in a very different land than that of its birth.

In Human Nature and the Human Condition I argued that the apparent fixity of human nature was due to human nature being shaped by the human condition, and the human condition changes, albeit very slowly. Civilizational change, along with the migration of the center of a civilization and the redefinition of a barbarous periphery, is part of this incremental shifting of center and periphery. Thus the main stream of Western civilization to which Wittgenstein referred in the quote that opens this post, is, like any great river, an ancient stream that has changed its bed many times as both the geology underlying the river has shifted and the inhabitants who have lived along its banks have changed their habits and domiciles over time.

While the periphery may be barbarous and not fully civilized, as well as being far from the center of things by definition, that does not mean that the periphery is not important. In many cases, the fate of the center of a civilization is determined by what occurs in and at the periphery of civilization. Certainly this was the case with the later Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire grew the periphery was forced farther and farther outward in the grand strategic ambition to secure the center from incursion and instability, as well as to keep tribute and booty flowing inward from the periphery to the center. Eventually the fate of the Empire was sealed as barbarians on the periphery, attracted by the wealth, luxury, and comfort of Mediterranean civilization, pushed inward toward the center and eventually themselves took control of the center.

When the barbarians took control of the center of Western civilization and thereby in one fell swoop (a swoop that took centuries to consolidate) brought the periphery into the center, the center was then no longer the center and the whole of Western civilization was topsy-turvy for a few hundred years. This was formerly called the “Dark Ages,” but historians no longer use this term as it implies a valuation that seems out of place in objective historiography, though the term is often justly applied. (I previously wrote about civilizational dark ages in The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited.) It took hundreds of years for Western civilization to turn itself inside-out and in the process transition its center roughly from Rome to Paris, making the Mediterranean, once the center of civilization, into the periphery.

There is a close parallel between the frontier, as conceived in Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” and the periphery, or borderlands (or gaps). We could, in fact, speak in terms of the significance of the periphery in American history, and as soon as we do so we realize that, while the center is the focus of civilization, the periphery can be crucial to the development of a civilization. In this case, the Turner Thesis becomes the thesis that the periphery was of central importance in the development of American civilization, which latter Wittgenstein had called the “main stream” of civilization.

There are things that are possible at the center that are not possible on the periphery, and there are things that are possible on the periphery that are not possible at the center. This complementary facilitation is parallel to complementary obstacles: there are particular conditions for accomplishing anything at the center, and different conditions for accomplishing anything one the periphery. For example, at the center you need to the cooperation of the wealthy, the well-connected, the influential, the powerful, and the like. Without them, you accomplish nothing. On the periphery, on the other hand, you have a much freer hand in terms of those with whom you work, but the resources to which you have access will be correspondingly slight. At the periphery, infrastructure is thin on the ground or non-existent. If you want to try something controversial, this is the place to try your proof of concept.

Because of the complementary possibilities and obstacles of center and periphery, a large civilizational undertaking may require the agents of that civilization to pass back and forth between center and periphery in order to secure the resources necessary from the center and remove them to the periphery to accomplish in relative autonomy and seclusion that which cannot be easily accomplished in the center. The Manhattan Project drew the best minds from the centers of academic world, but it placed them in the isolation of the New Mexican desert. And while the focus of the Manhattan Project has been the design and testing center in New Mexico, the fissionable materials were created in the isolation of eastern Washington state at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

On a larger scale, it could be argued that the vitality of American civilization has been at least in part a consequence of the ongoing dialectic between center and periphery made possible by the unification, in one nation-state, of a industrially developed center along the eastern seaboard and the wilderness of the frontier in the interior of the North American continent. For the most part, these conditions were lacking in South America. The closest approximation was Argentina in the nineteenth century, which at that time was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and Brazil, which is today rapidly improving its fortunes as its people exploit the possibilities created by the vast Amazonian interior and the enormous and wealthy cities on the coast.

Similar considerations — a dialectic of wealthy cities connected to the outside world and vast, nearly empty interior wildernesses — hold for China and Russia, except that Russia has no major ocean coastline, though it does have St. Petersburg on the Baltic. In China, the balance is tilted toward the center (the large and wealthy coastal cities), while in Russia the balance is tilted toward the periphery (the vast spaces of the Russian interior and Siberia, lacking the counterweight of cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Qingdao).

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PS: This post has been in gestation longer than anything else I have made available here, since I began it just over two years ago. Thus these are perennial issues that I have had in mind for some time. Though I have been thinking about these ideas for some time, my thoughts still lack focus, but I wanted to at least sketch the idea in order to have the material available for further development.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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