By Lee Chor Pharn
What comes after Westphalia?
The nation-state rose from the unique path Western Europe took after the Thirty Years War ended in 1648. This defined a particular notion of national sovereignty that then geographically spread from the peninsula of Europe through colonialism to reshape the world. The alternative to nation-states are theocracies, empires, tribes bound by blood, race, ideology, religion wrapped up in the peculiarities of geography. After three and a half centuries of adapting to the West, these instincts are re-establishing themselves in the old civilisations of China, India, Russia and the Islamic world, pushing back against the universalist logic of the West.
This is not a reversion to some fantasy in the computer game Civilisations, or a retreat into fragmented kingdoms of overlapping mandalas. To borrow an analogy from computer science, we already see the emergence of three major civilisation-stacks emerging in Europe, USA and China with a slightly smaller one in India. Unlike the past, however, each civilisation-stack must remain connected with the others, the world remains globalised and increasingly administrative.
And there are new players that each civilisation-stack needs to reckon with.
The first is Nature, as the ongoing pandemic has laid out with clarity. Nature has been increasingly de-sacralised since the scientific revolution, and treated as a passive-something-out-there that one could blithely take resources from, or add to a corporate balance sheet without consequences. That period is plainly over as Nature is striking back.
This is a sharp change in how we have seen Nature in recent years, which is now mainly through the lens of climate change, where human activity and technological progress was the problem. One popular solution is to reduce the overall human footprint through degrowth models or decentralised, downscaled living. Instead, the pandemic has proven Nature to be dangerous, and it is a small step to Nature needing to be tamed again through geo-engineering, terra-forming the skies and land, and re-designing viruses and other life forms.
The second is encapsulated in an unfortunate, ugly neologism — Phygital — where software that has been eating the world for the past decade has now eaten the public and birthed gamecults and new religions like QAnon. For now, the public is made of people, but soon it will include synthetic beings, human-machine hybrids, robots and algorithms with agency.
The Promethean era separated human life from the animal kingdom with the technology of fire. This was followed by a long interregnum and then the First Axial Age, where humans in the Hellenistic, Abrahamic, Indic and Sinic worlds explored fundamental questions of what it meant to be human. This exploration laid the foundations of civilisations. With the technologies of AI and CRISPR, we are already in a new Promethean era with new human-x-beings. We stand on the threshold of a Second Axial Age. What is a good life for a new type of intelligence that may be immortal?
Humans have a difficult relationship with intelligence. In human history, intelligence has been used as a fig leaf for domination and destruction. To determine someone’s level of intelligence in our societies is not just to determine what they can do, but also what we can do to them. Throughout history, those deemed less intelligent have been colonised, enslaved, sterilised and murdered. What does it feel like if or when natural humans are not automatically at the top of this chain? No wonder AI pushes all our buttons.
The Chinese political scientist Ren Jiantao laments that while China is undergoing a double transition from pre-modern to modern and from modern to post-modern, there is severe under imagination of the post-modern era. It cannot be about replacing the governance structures of the West with Chinese ones. Put in another way, Eastphalia cannot be just a near cousin of Westphalia.
Westphalia defined the relationship between monarch/church/public. What comes after Westphalia is solving for the civilisation-tack/nature/phygital equilibrium. The coming collision and conflict between these post-Westphalian forces will define an emergent global order.
Lee Chor Pharn is Principal Foresight Analyst at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.