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The United States still reigns supreme economically and militarily. Nevertheless, American power is increasingly stymied by these new and unpredictable forces.
Yet the postmodern version of Late Antiquity has just begun.
Amid this panorama of global unraveling and new forms of sovereignty (a phenomenon that St. Augustine experienced 1,600 years ago), tribes suddenly matter. Yes, tribes. They were the solution to checking the violence and undermining the religious extremists with their death cults in Iraq. They have been the dominating reality in Afghanistan. And when those reptilian regimes in North Africa and the Near East foundered, it was not democracies that immediately emerged, but tribes.
In St. Augustine’s world of imperial collapse, these ancient ties offered respite from disorder. But modernity was supposed to free us from the cloistered shackles of kinship. But the crumbling of central authority suggests that modernity is but a passing phase. Today, tribes with four-wheel-drive vehicles, satellite phones, plastic explosives and shoulder-fired missiles help close the distance between Late Antiquity and the early 21st century.
St. Augustine’s North Africa, now with its degraded urban conurbations of cracked brick and sheet metal, will see its population increase from 208 million to 316 million by 2050, putting pressure on both natural and man-made resources. As these millions move to the cities in search of jobs and connections, the political order will assuredly shift. Whatever arises may not be the states as they appear on today’s map. Indeed, what we consider modernity itself may already be behind us. The headlines between now and then will be loud and hysterical — as they are today in Syria — even as the fundamental shifts will at first be obscure.
For history is not only about convulsions, but about the ground shifting slowly under our feet.
In “The City of God,” St. Augustine revealed that it is the devout — those in search of grace — who have no reason to fear the future. And as the tribes of old now slowly come undone in the unstoppable meat grinder of developing-world urbanization, religion will be more necessary than ever as a replacement. Alas, extremist Islam (as well as evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism in the West) may make perfect sense for our age, even as its nemesis may not be democracy but new forms of military authority.
Late Antiquity is useful to the degree that it makes us humble about what awaits us.
Robert D. Kaplan’s most recent book is “The Revenge of Geography.” He wrote this article for Foreign Policy magazine.
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