The Century of Steel

Imagine a world in which there is no central structure, imagine a world where both the United States and China have fallen from a state of global hegemony to struggling to maintain any internal resemblance of order. This could occur independently of the other nation’s collapse or in tandem with it. What would the world look like? Would another world order emerge or would complete anarchy befall the world writ large? If there isn’t the time or conditions for another unipolar nation to fill this void, in part or in full, we must look for a more divided and unstable world structure. This core concept can be understood as non-polarity, where states cannot order themselves according to any traditional structure. Out of this concept, we could be entering a world of widespread turmoil and interstate violence. This can be understood as the Century of Steel (CoS), a term to help describe and articulate what we could be going through.

In order to understand the CoS, we first must look at Italian politics in the postwar years. The Years of Lead refers to a period of widespread social and political instability and violence in Italy. This period saw terrorism and assassinations become normalised from the 1960s to 1980s, the outcome of which saw government forces triumph and various far-right and far-left organisations disbanded. Notable and symbolic examples of this period include the Bologna Bombing in 1980 and the assassination of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro. A lengthy explanation of this period can be found here.

Now, imagine a globalised version of the Italian Years of Lead taking place through a deglobalising world. Widespread interstate turmoil across nearly all regions of the world could occur. Following this, in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, we have seen the rise of old tensions occur once more from across the Eurasian Steppe and the Middle East. From the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine to the thinning of the Palestinian herd by Israel. The outcomes of this will look like Russia beating Ukraine, with them annexing half the country, followed by Israel becoming a pariah within the Middle East again, ending decades of peace efforts. With the collapse of the current ‘rules-based’ world order and the potential joint collapse of both major superpowers in the not-so-distant future, another avenue of what could happen needs to be explored. 

One of the most underrated academics currently working is that of Yi Fuxian, who has contributed considerably to the topic of demography, especially within the context of the Asia-Pacific. In a recent Diplomat article, Yi argued that any conflict will only exacerbate the ongoing demographic issues between the aforementioned warring nations. As noted with the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, both nations have seen their respective fertility rates drop substantially. Likewise, if war were to break out between China and Taiwan (both nations are in considerably worse demographic situations), this would have disastrous consequences for both nations, regardless of the outcome of the conflict.

“If a Taiwan war breaks out, it will hasten these trends, leading to global instability and even the collapse of the U.S.-led world order… Time is not on the side of China or Taiwan, nor on the side of the United States. The three parties need to show sufficient wisdom and courage to achieve permanent peace across the Taiwan Strait – and avoid dropping off a demographic cliff.”

-Yi Fuxian, The Demographic Costs of a War Over Taiwan, The Diplomat (10/04/2024)

With most of the world now residing in a ‘post-fertile’ world, being below replacement level, there are fewer ‘new’ people entering into this increasingly conflictual world. What a lot of nations have now in terms of manpower is all they will have for many years to come, and when it goes, it goes. If you choose to spend it on conflict, you must accept the fact you will most likely not have anyone to replace them, creating various problems down the line. Moreover, the potential conflicts will only further perpetuate the conditions that caused states to fall into such a demographic rut in the first place.

If we are indeed becoming truly deglobalised, we could see the emergence of a new epoch. Just as the Cold War defined much of the 20th Century, the CoS may define much of the 21st. A ‘century’ of no centralised control being exerted within the world, incapable of regulating and mediating beyond a very narrow and constricted sphere of influence. This will only compound the ongoing issues being faced across the planet. We are entering very dangerous and complex times ahead for every single individual in the world and more conflicts will most likely arise in the following years as a result.

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