The U.S.–China Rivalry in a New Medieval Age

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Mar 19, 2024

A view of the U.S. Capitol Building behind razor wire fence, photo by John Webb/Getty Images

Photo by John Webb/Getty Images

Maybe you felt it watching a mob smash its way into the U.S. Capitol, or watching American military planes leave Afghanistan with people clinging to the sides. Maybe it was the angry parents jabbing fingers at each other over school vaccine requirements. Or the drug crisis. The homelessness crisis. The border crisis.

It can seem like things are falling apart. Timothy Heath has felt it for years now. He's a senior international defense researcher at RAND. In a recent report, he argued that all of the trend lines—weakening government, a fragmenting society, pervasive threats—suggest the era of industrial superpowers is over. We have entered a new medieval age.

Heath studies China, and his conclusion comes with a warning. Two centuries of American experience in conflict and competition will become less and less relevant as we move into this neomedieval world. Our rivalry with China may have more in common with the fitful conflicts of the 14th century than with the cataclysmic world wars of the 20th.

“We've seen for many years now signs that this age of prosperity and national strength is eroding,” Heath said. “I had been trying to figure out how to explain it, and none of the theories out there were very helpful. This idea of neomedievalism really clicked for me. And once I started digging around, the pattern was unmistakable. Just about every social science field was reporting evidence of regression.”

This is not a prediction. Heath believes we've been living in a neomedieval world for around 20 years now. We just didn't realize it.

That doesn't mean we're slipping back into an era of knights, castles, swords, and serfdom. The conveniences of modern life, from basic sanitation to artificial intelligence, are not in danger. Instead, when policy experts like Heath look back at the later Middle Ages, they see a handful of specific trends that put hard limits on what governments could do.

Power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of an elite few. Most people were disengaged, more concerned with getting through another day than with the affairs of state. Threats might come from within or without, from enemy armies, pandemic disease, famine, drought, disaster, or violent crime.

As a result, a king marching off to war could not mobilize his entire society to support the cause. Push people too hard, tax them too heavily, and they might rebel. Instead, leaders filled out their armies with hired mercenaries and often preferred the slow grind of a siege over the cost and casualties of open battle.

Skip ahead a few centuries, and everything changed. The industrial revolution brought with it a new kind of state: centralized, cohesive, its people united by shared ideals. Leaders could call upon patriotism and collective sacrifice in times of need. They could field huge citizen armies, swing their entire economies into the fight, and wage total war for years.

Experts often look to the Cold War to help understand the growing competition between China and the United States. But the Cold War involved two nations at the height of their power, fully focused on each other. That's not what Heath sees when he looks at the world of 2024.

Once-powerful governments struggle to govern. Politics have become tribal. Inequality is rising—and with it, social unrest and division. In the United States, barely 20 percent of the people who answered a recent Pew Research Center survey said they trust the federal government to do the right thing. The greatest national challenge in recent history, COVID, drove people apart instead of bringing them together.

In China, too, inequality and slowing economic growth have soured the national mood. Crime and corruption are rampant. National leaders increasingly rely on repression to maintain order and authority. The country's internal security budget has exceeded its defense budget for more than a decade.

People protest against COVID-19 restrictions after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, in Beijing, China, November 28, 2022, photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

People protest against COVID-19 restrictions after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, in Beijing, China, November 28, 2022

Photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters

These are not countries that could throw everything they have at each other. “The weaknesses of the state make it so risky, and the challenges these countries face are so immense, that they really can't afford that sort of conflict,” Heath said.

Decisionmakers need to adopt a more neomedieval mindset. They cannot assume the public will get behind a war effort that requires real and sustained sacrifice. Other threats—a pandemic, climate change, political upheaval—will always vie for attention and resources. With nations everywhere facing the same challenges, partners and allies will also be stretched thin.

Decisionmakers need to adopt a neomedieval mindset. They cannot assume the public will get behind a war effort that requires real and sustained sacrifice.

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That means, in any crisis, both the United States and China will be under pressure to avoid unnecessary escalation. The result will more likely be a long-running, low-intensity state of conflict, not the total war both countries have braced for. It may flash over at times; a Chinese blockade of Taiwan is one possible scenario. But even those clashes will be modest by modern standards and followed by long periods of recovery. More often, battles will be fought in cyberspace, in economic arenas, in the “gray zone” just short of war.

Heath's advice to policymakers: Be immediately skeptical of any recommendation that refers to the Cold War or the world wars to explain U.S.–China dynamics. The world doesn't work that way anymore.

“The neomedieval era is here to stay,” he and his coauthors wrote. The trends they documented “are structural,” they added, “and return to the conditions of the industrial nation-state is impossible…. The sooner U.S. decisionmakers and planners recognize and accept the reality of the neomedieval era, the sooner appropriate and effective strategies and plans can be developed.”

Russia is learning all of this the hard way.

It rolled its tanks and troops into Ukraine as if it were fighting a conventional, industrial-age war. Then it bogged down. Since then, it has struggled to carry out even a partial mobilization. It has gone to ever-greater lengths to avoid any sense of sacrifice at home. Instead, it has bolstered its battered army with mercenaries and militia, some loyal to criminal warlords. It has targeted civilian areas, hoping to break Ukraine's will to fight, rather than attempt any more knockout blows with armored columns. And it has brought back that most medieval of tactics, the siege.

“You're not seeing these epic battles, the set-piece battles, that were common in the world wars and before, large formations fighting it out over a couple of days and then the battle being over,” Heath said. “It's just a long series of skirmishes, artillery duels, minor incursions, and sieges. Even the methods seem medieval.”

He believes future historians will look back at the Russian war as a turning point, the end of one chapter and the start of another. But, in a way, it picks up the story where it left off two centuries ago. “The novelty here isn't the arrival of a new medieval age,” he said. “The novelty is really the last 200 years in the West. The neomedieval state we're entering now is going to be much closer to the norm for most of human experience.”

Doug Irving