From the time “recorded” history began (6,000 BC), all societies on earth have lived in something we call “government,” including aboriginals, tribes, and indigenous groups. “Anarchy,” being “without authority,” is impossible for any form of society and normally refers to a temporary breakdown of order, as in civil disturbance, revolution, protest, strike, etc. Whether society is democratic, liberal, conservative, or dictatorship, monarchy, fascist, communist, socialist, or capitalist, it cannot, by definition, exist without some form of “order” from the top down.
These are all descriptions of “internal” or “domestic” societies and exclude, altogether, world society, especially war. Yet even this definition has qualifications. The “nation-state” system, as we know it, is a product of “recent” history (with perspective) and is generally credited with the end of the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia (1648).
The Thirty Years War, in retrospect, ended the “Holy Roman Empire” which had “governed” European society for nearly 1,000 years (since 800 AD). That particular “empire,” in turn, came from the original “Roman” Empire that governed Europe and the Mediterranean for about 400 years. Rome itself represented all prior “imperial” structures that had ruled societies since time began.
Thus, the “state system,” which exists still today, is approximately 375 years old, or about 5% of recorded history.
This perspective, moreover, excludes the number of “colonial” empires that controlled the rest of the globe since Rome. To mention a few of these: British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Austrian, Italian, German, Mongol, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Islamic, Zulu, Aztec, and Inca. All of them, without exception, were “regional” in scope with the largest “maritime” (British) and the largest “land” Mongol (Genghis Khan). All of them, in turn, were “governments,” insofar as they controlled the public policies of those they “ruled.”
Yet, to this day, there has never, (repeat “never”) been anything approximating a “world” governing regime. The closest was the British Empire, which at its peak controlled about 25% of the globe’s area and people. Ironically, this empire came from the world’s oldest democracy, from a small island on the corner of a continent that built over 800 wooden naval vessels to control “foreigners.” These “strangers” included most of North America, all seven oceans and seas, through Gibraltar, middle and southern Africa, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Burma, Malaya, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, parts of China, and islands in the Pacific.
Now all of this is gone, replaced with an illusive “Balance of Power” (BoP), world and Cold wars, an American “superpower,” and an aspiring China that seeks expansion through a “Belt and Road” geopolitical map. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess, but it all reflects global “anarchy” and a continuing BoP that has governed World Politics between and among “nation-states.”
Absent a controlling authority, this sort of political anarchy was best described in 1907 by the British statesman, Eyre Crowe. In a memorandum meant to alert Britain to a threatening Germany, Crowe described the BoP in a historic but positive sense:
“The equilibrium established by such a grouping of forces is technically known as the balance of power, and it has become almost a historic truism to identify England’s secular policy with the maintenance of this balance by throwing her weight now in this scale and now in that, but ever on the side opposed to the political dictatorship of the strongest single State or group at any given time.”
The description “now in this scale and now in that,” by itself, best describes the strategic conduct of how countries have followed the instinctive course of political anarchy embedded within the global “state system.” A sample of these illustrations from U.S. foreign policy may suffice to bring this central point home:
- two consecutive wars with Great Britain (1776, 1812) followed by a “special relationship” that defined and dominated World Politics throughout the Twentieth Century;
- two consecutive wars with Germany (each the most destructive in world history) followed by an alliance that has been in place since 1945;
- war with Imperial Japan, the most destructive in Asian history, that ended with the first and only use of the Atom Bomb, followed by an alliance that has been in place since 1945;
- war with Spain, takeover of her possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans, followed by normal and peaceful relations since 1898;
- refusal to recognize Bolshevik Russia (1917) until 1934, an alliance with Bolshevik Russia in World War II, Cold War against Bolshevik Russia 1945-1991, correct relations with Bolshevik Russia leader Gorbachev (12 summits with both Reagan and Bush 1980s and 90s), good relations with Premiers Yeltsin and Putin (1990s-2017), “cordial” relations under Trump, 2017-2021, virtual “war” with Russia since February 2022.
- Protector of China against foreign occupations, “Open Door Notes” of 1899 to 1945, enemy beginning 1949 including war in Korea (1950-53), allies against Bolshevik Russia with “Shanghai Communique,” 1972, “adversarial” relationship Twenty-first Century over future “World Order.”
- Ally of Iraq in the war with Iran (1980s), war in 1991, occupation in War on Terror, 2003-2011.
What of the future: who will be the next “ally” or “enemy”? Judging from history, the only safe assumption is that “anarchy” will prevail, who or how, as before, is “anyone’s guess.”
PS. That’s an “educated” guess!