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from issue no. 10 - 2004

Towards a new Middle Ages?

The erosion of the sovereignty of the nation states. The emergence after 1989 of new forms of control and command covering vast areas of the world. The Rector of the Catholic University explains: «That universalistic demand that ran through and sustained the “society without state” of the christiana respublica is making a comeback». An interview with Lorenzo Ornaghi

by Roberto Rotondo

Lorenzo Ornaghi

Lorenzo Ornaghi

«The world is heading toward a new Middle Ages». At the end of the ’seventies, Hedley Bull, an English political scientist, summed up the trends in the international political order in this image, one that evokes a chaotic context principally featuring insecurity and violence. Bull, who published The anarchic society in 1977, when the international order was still that laid down at Yalta, glimpsed that something new was emerging: from the waning of the sovereignty exerted exclusively by national states, a feature typical of the modern age, to the change in the form of real power; from the technological integration of the world to the resurgence of private international violence. A scenario in many aspects farsighted, when one looks at what has happened since 1989, but also at the current international instability, at economic and financial globalization and the phenomenon of terrorism that threatens to strike everywhere. Bull provided the key to a reading of the present that Professor Lorenzo Ornaghi, Rector of the Catholic University and lecturer in Political Science, without forcing the arguments of the English political scientist, has retrieved and relaunched in one of the preparatory conferences of the 44th Social Weeks of Catholics, taking place in Bologna from 7 to 10 October under the title “Democracy: new scenarios, new powers”.

Professor Ornaghi, according to Bull the waning of sovereignty constructed and exerted by states will not give place to the rise of a world government, to a kind of “superstate” but – and this justifies the formula New Medievalism – to a sort of return to the universal political order existing in the Christian West before the modern age. Could you explain to us what he means?
LORENZO ORNAGHI: According to Bull there is a kind of inverse relationship between the historical epoch overlapping the 12th and the 13th centuries and our own: then the passage was from a universalistic system (in which there was a multiplicity of sources of legitimation, a network system of local authorities that in the end made reference to the two principal powers, the papacy and the empire) to a new system based on the particularism of territorial communities that were to become principalities and then sovereign states. It was the situation that Thomas Aquinas and Marsilius of Padua had before their eyes. Today we see an inverse passage whereby national states are ceding part of their sovereignty to a multitude of subjects with universalistic aspiration. In fact we should keep in mind that the particularism of Europe was never the triumph of particularism in itself, or of the territorial national communities in themselves, but has always had a universalistic vocation, otherwise it would be impossible to explain the way in which the system of European states became the system of international relations as such.
So the sovereignty of national states is dissolving?
ORNAGHI: I wouldn’t pose the question in that way. The passage in the Middle Ages from universal forms to particular forms was gradual and slow. The forms more properly universalistic and particularistic continued to co-exist for a long time. So, according to Bull, now that we are proceeding in the opposite direction, we’re in a phase in which the new forms of universalism will continue to co-exist with particular ones for quite a while. The sovereignty proper to states is not disappearing but more universal forms are certainly reappearing, like, for example, an old entity of which we had lost track a little: the universal empire. Leaving aside ideological and value judgements, when we speak, in fact, about the American empire, we are pointing to an old polity, that of a state, but not only that, because we are pointing to a polity that expands by linking itself to other polities, with relationships sometimes of a client type, in the positive sense, similar to those of the Roman Empire. It’s a polity that expands its system of values and its ideology, that expands with forms of control and command of an economic sort over an area much more vast than the political one proper. Thus we are facing a polity that is different from that typically state one. But think of the process of European integration and of the tendency to regionalism in the field of international politics that covers vast areas of the world, like the Mercosur in Latin America or the Apec in Asia. Of course these processes are not one-way. There are also counter tendencies. For example, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc with the explosion of ethnic entities was not accompanied by the decline of the state form; indeed, there has been a proliferation of new state entities. Anther example: within Europe as it integrates strong local and particular claims are increasing. Furthermore, even the new forms of universalism, whose impetus is given by international organizations, very often become confused or maybe don’t correspond sufficiently to our wishes. And that is because they are moving along the watershed between old and new: they are structured according to an outdated conception of international organization in which the components can only be states, but in their workings they have to take account of interests and expectations that are not only those dictated by the individual governments that compose them.
Some world leaders during the “Action against hunger and poverty” conference held at the United Nations on 20 September 2004

Some world leaders during the “Action against hunger and poverty” conference held at the United Nations on 20 September 2004

If the notion of a trend towards a new medieval structure of which Bull speaks is well-founded, what political order is taking shape?
ORNAGHI: What Bull speaks of is a multilateral ordering of the world. But let’s be careful, because even this is an exemplary case of how the transformations of politics, of international politics also, very often precede thought and our ability of explaining them. We, in fact, glimpse some irreversible transformations or some future orientations, but we are fatally constrained to employ the tools that we have to explain them with, hence models that are at times obsolete. So, when we talk of multilateralism we are using an old category that doesn’t truly get hold of the problem. The multilateralism we’re heading for is not that of some decades ago, that was based on the formal, and very often fictitious, assumption of the parity of all states. Fictitious because the stronger guaranteed an umbrella of protection to its allies and in exchange demanded loyalty and obedience. The multilateral order that is taking shape is different. In it, participation in overall security, for example, will be an element of direct responsibility for a great many different subjects, not only for governments. These new international regimes – in which the role of States is important, but in which NGOs, churches and pressure groups coming from the civil society in different countries all have their place - will be able to perform important work in various specific areas of policy, and it will probably be from their consolidation that an important contribution will be made to the solution of the question of global insecurity.
Insecurity at international level has been one of the most debated topics in recent times. And one of the themes on which Bull dwelt most…
ORNAGHI: It was more or less starting in 1989 that the question of the global insecurity began to appear insistently, fed by an escalation in violence that found its most obvious confirmation in 11 September 2001, even if, probably, it wasn’t a true and proper turning point. It was in fact from the rapid dissolution of the Soviet bloc that the transition from a bipolar system to a unipolar system begun to suggest the images – perhaps only in appearance different – of a new imperial power, of a new international disorder or of a coming “clash of civilizations”, as Huntington defined it. It remains a fact that starting from 1989, with the collapse of one of the two poles in the opposition, even the dynamic relationship between peace through balance and hegemonic peace lost its proper basis, with the result that the international organizations, designed during the Cold War to limit and regulate international conflict, find themselves, on the one hand, incapable of acting in the new context and, on the other, the object of “revisionist” pressures from part of the new hegemonic power.
“Clash of civilizations”, a much used phrase... President Ciampi has suggested it be abolished.
ORNAGHI: There is a, let’s say “cultural”, aspect and one of civilization in seriously dealing with the topic of peace and the security of states, but not on the line of the clash described by Huntington. Let me explain: recent events have shown us that the vulnerability, psychological also, of every community is very much greater than in the past. Today the system of security is a topic that has close relevance for us and that will become ever more important in our lives. But how is security guaranteed? We feel secure either when we think we are so strong that the other can’t even try to do us harm, or when we conceive that the system of rules under construction is a system that be respected by the other also. To conceive respect for the rules, however, requires that on the other side there are a number, at least minimal, of shared values. So in that sense, yes, there is an aspect of “civilization” at the basis of the problem of security.
The Rome mosque. Ornaghi says: «Universalism, the effort to expand without crushing the values of others, is a feature Europe has always had within itself»

The Rome mosque. Ornaghi says: «Universalism, the effort to expand without crushing the values of others, is a feature Europe has always had within itself»

Must we conclude that the only way to agree is to export democracy as some people suggest? An idea that is creating quite a lot of trouble at the international level…
ORNAGHI: We have to understand what we mean by “export”. Anyone who follows the universalism line finds himself wondering what the notion of extending rights is, or what the extending of the notion of citizenship is. And one sees that there is no abstract notion of democracy valid for all, as there is no abstract notion of rights under all skies and at every latitude. This universalism, this effort to expand without crushing the values of others, it is a feature that Europe has always had within itself, having inherited it from the Roman and Christian civilization. And it is a fundamental contribution to post-modernity. It is the contribution of those who, on the basis of a long history, think they possess universal values that are not in contradiction with particular values. The universalism of Christian thought, in fact, can contribute a great deal more to post-modernity than an abstract and generic late-rationalist schema which can lead to the imposition on others of a given system of thought. Because if all is relative – my values as yours – social peace lies on another plane, that of the right of the strongest. But if we are convinced that there are common founding values, we shall find agreement on maintaining these values, on respect for difference and on seeking shared rules to guarantee the security of all. The American political scientist Amitai Etzioni has also recently observed that the cause of the many failed attempts at bringing democracy to developing countries is an underlying cultural problem. By proposing, in fact, a wholly secularized conception of democracy, in which religious identities and the professions of faith are only marginal appendices to the dynamics of society, the West has ended up by getting rid of one of the dimensions constitutive of the associated life, and has instead indicated, as possible model to follow, precisely that which, in some European countries, bases collaboration between corporate public bodies and associative non-state forms on “subsidiarity”. The “subsidiarity” model referred to by Etzioni, with its valorization of local communities and of associative bonds, recalls – differently from Bull who claimed the new Middle Ages would be a basically chaotic scenario – that universalist demand that ran through and supported the “society without state” of the christiana respublica.
A fear, one that emerges from the program of the Social Weeks as well, is that the so-called strong powers are capable of emptying out the very concept of democracy.
ORNAGHI: The strong powers have always existed. In every situation there is always one power stronger than the others, to the extent that, as human history teaches us, the problem is not the cancelling of power but equilibrium, the limitation of the abiding presence of strong powers with the likewise abiding presence of counterweights, of rules, of powers of another nature, that in some way balance them. But the novelty of these strong powers, today, is that they are powers of an economic-financial nature, that set themselves in the global system in terms radically different than those of the late nineteenth century. The strong powers of communications, the strong powers of technology, are history already experienced, but what is new is their capacity to act on a global scale. They have transversality, a non-localizability, that makes them both in perception and reality much more powerful and difficult to balance if one remains only on a particularist level. Today democracy is much more than being able to decide who is the custodian of the internal processes of a country. A system is democratic if it ensures that international pressures don’t destroy internal processes and, in parallel, if it shapes internal processes so that their development is ever more alert to the outside.
Despite the awareness that strong powers exist on a global scale we are still led to attribute the fate of the world to the capacities of political power. Especially if it’s a matter of the president of the only remaining global power. In other words, does the world go where the US president leads it or is it the latter who must choose on the base of where the world is going?
ORNAGHI: Hard to answer. Political history is always made up of a set of so many events that it’s impossible to reduce everything to a single will and need. Not least because power involves great risks even for the strong powers, that often prefer not to be as exposed as the traditional powers were. The world of strong powers maybe even wants to have it over the president of the United States, but it doesn’t at all want to take on his responsibilities.

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