Yes, I meant ‘Horder’ as in Horde and not ‘Hoarder’.
So in my last post I mentioned in passing how freakish unipolarity actually is as a part of talking about how the people in American foreign policy circles who advocate constant interventions, lest they confront a decline, are actually the ones causing said decline. The once and future restoration of multipolarity, whether it comes in a decade or a century-I know not the time scale- is actually a subject that interests me even more than what I wrote about last time. To talk about it, I am going to do something a bit dangerous in IR-if only because there is a sad lack of historical knowledge in many quarters of the discipline-I am going to make a historical analogy to what I think approximates the future of return to multipolarity and great power behavior. I am going to talk about the Golden Horde.
Now studying this topic is kind of my bread and butter, I did write a book on the influence of nomadic people in Eurasian geopolitics after all. It is, however, a niche topic and after dealing with it explicitly in graduate school and in book adaptation form you are only going to get the summary here. But I have to say that I think the strategies enacted by nomadic people are an interesting pre-modern analogy to what we might see in the future, albeit in an obviously different form.
Previously on this blog I have talked on multiple occasions about my affinity for Neoclassical Realism and regime survival theory. According to scholars such as Beckwith the primary political arrangement of the Eurasian steppes was a type of enlightened despotism with high levels of mutuality and dependency of the ruler with his in-group elite. Depending on the example, this in-group could be anything from family members, military leaders, adopted foreign administrators, and in some cases all of the above. The Mongol Empire was one of those ‘all of the aboves’. More importantly to the theme we will be examining here though, is how it viewed self/other relations on the international stage. In other words, their approach to International Relations. Now, the Empire was large and diverse, and after a couple of generations it split into several increasingly different kingdoms. Though all of these states shared many attributes we will be looking over, it is ideal for brevity to pick the best successor state for looking at the messy world of multipolar relations. This is the Golden Horde, also known as the Kipchak Khanate and the Ulus of Jochi.
When the Mongols invaded Russia to stay they broke all that Basic History Bro received wisdom of never attacking Russia in winter. In a large land filled with poor-to-nonexistent roads which was often forested or swampy in much of the year and where cities lied almost exclusively upon rivers, this made sense. The cold-adapted Mongols used the frozen rivers as highways to hit city after city, which fell to their rapid mobile horseback armies backed by the new acquisitions of Chinese siege techniques and the new (to Russia) technology of gunpowder explosive. It was a remarkable campaign which further added to the laurels of the general Subotai Bahadur’s already amazing reputation, and ensured that Batu, son of Jochi, would have an impressive inheritance.
But Batu Khan was not just some spoiled scion of the Mongol royal family riding the coattails of their greatest general, but rather a keen politician. This was good, for his domain of the empire began with unique challenges and required more autonomy than was yet normal due to its distance and remoteness to Mongol power bases. A small number of nomads now had to control a territory that did not always favor them as well as greatly larger numbers of subject people. Their advantages were in speed and intelligence, not numbers, and their distance from the Mongolian core (and integration already of many other Turkic people into their system as they moved west) meant their position was different.
Batu, like other Mongols, believed in the efficiency of indirect rule. But he would take it further then the rest of them yet had. He allowed all Russian princes who surrendered to keep their lands, and those who never fought against him in the first place could get elevated positions in his hierarchy. Rather than stretch his forces out or occupy places, he relied on the threat of his rapidly moving horsemen to serve as the stick to the carrot that was being integrated into the booming Mongolian trade network. To top it all off the Mongol Empire gave freedom of religion and tax exempted clergy as well as administered a postal service. It offered an attractive package especially when the alternative was punishment expeditions which could result in enslavement or utter destruction.
The Horde constructed a wall of these buffers, many of them willing, to bolster its frontier with the large and then very powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Reaping the taxes of its subjects without the costs of occupation and even being able to ‘offshore’ some of the fighting was a good deal. An empire made by sudden conquest essentially turned to become a remarkably defensive player. Attacks served only to weaken foes or secure pasturage. To put it in World Systems Theory terms, the core exploited the periphery due to their unique military and trade managing advantages. Only in this case the core were the smaller amounts of ‘less advanced’ (by settled societies’ standards) nomadic people and the periphery were the cities and farmers.
Batu and his descendants spend most of their time on the steppe, they even built what became two of the wealthiest cities in the world for that era off of the Volga. Cities of which little remains due to the later campaigns of Timur, though which many records of travelers speak of their immense multicultural settings and wealth.
So why is this relevant to the future of multi-polarity? Well, for one thing since at least the Second World War if not the rise of steam powered naval vessels, speed and rapid deployment of multi-functional forces has returned to world political and military calculations in ways not seen since the impressive medieval armies of Inner Eurasia. Indeed, it now far surpasses them. Another factor is the rise of transnational trade and resource extraction networks, which pillage on a scale Chinggis Khan could never have dreamed of, but remain vulnerable to geopolitical breakup just as his did. If Mongolian trade networks suffered with the collapse of the empire, then they must have been partly a product of unipolarity. So too are the shipping lanes and grand trade deals of the United States no- doubt temporary artifacts of its own power. Like the Mongols, the United States uses a smallish elite military capable of immense speed of deployment to keep such a system open. Like anyone, past present or future, this system cannot last forever.
In a non-unipolar world all powers must tread lightly with each other but also have the luxury of being quite brutal with smaller powers in their respective zones of influence. Repeated failures and some extremely expensive successes with things like peacekeeping and anti-guerrilla warfare was made most leery of directly occupying places. And yet in a world with several competing power-poles there will be no one else to do the dirty work of securing economic hegemony for powers towards their own periphery. They will have their own markets, their own needs, and wildly divergent internal structures. Rather than seek to impose these structures on each other or even their ‘vassals’ they will simply seek to support their own regimes however they can at home while getting what they can abroad. When two power-poles enter conflict it might be over proxies or even entirely *through* proxies. Either way, the wonders of modern technology enable plausibly deniable warfare to be fought abroad without necessarily increasing war fatigue at home.
All of this means that special forces and elite columns will matter more than mass armies-at least as long as the conflict remains peripheral and doesn’t break out in total war (always a possibility in any multi-state system). But even a big breakdown bringing back conventional war using today’s (or the future’s) technology would be one prioritizing speed and firepower over numbers, as things currently stand anyway. A Subotaiian force deployment, if I can coin an awkward new phrase, adds on to this levels of utilizing organized crime backchannels and cyber warfare and you have yourself a 21st Century recipe for whatever the new equivalent is of ‘Golden Hordeing’ by living large on the steppe with occasional shows of force abroad.
If this does come to pass, and it already seems to be manifesting in the early stages in regards to Russian policy towards Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Tajikistan, you might see more of the continuation or exploitation of frozen conflicts so that larger powers can project their influence without directly invading anyone. Although increasingly a specialty of the Kremlin, this is hardly unique to Russia these days. From South Pacific islands and Taiwan between the US and China to France in many parts of western Africa and increasingly other powers there as well, it seems the best way of building a protection network is for technologically or logistically advanced nations to insert themselves as arbiters in perpetual conflict zones. Now imagine that without a stabilizing power. So, the princely states between Lithuania and the Golden Horde in the 13th Century seem suddenly relevant.
I do not know if this arrangement, should it come to pass, will be an overall improvement or a downgrade. I can see certain issues and peoples losing out and others gaining. As typical in the humanities it would most likely be a mixed bag with people’s reactions coming from where they are geographically and in terms of economic station. The good news is that there won’t be a drive to impose a uniform socio-economic vision on everyone else (always a quixotic and ultimately disastrous cause which the Mongols were astute enough to avoid except in rhetoric). But, the bad news is of course that there could be more conflict, and that with looming ecological disaster waiting in the wings such division might finally occur right when we need collective policies the most. Of course, one look at human history shows that when the chips are down people turn against each other when resources are on the line most of the time. So one could always hold out hope that the divergence of geopolitical blocs beyond what we have now might create new creative policy dynamism to confront ecological degradation, leading ultimately to a type of ‘survival of the greenest’ which in the end might help in dealing with the problem.
But if history has any lesson-a statement one should always be dubious to make-it is that history has no linear path like the hard sciences. Politics and philosophy is basically the response to conditions which arise from resources, conflicts and deals struck about them and the physical world we live in. It is adaptation, and like natural selection while all branches might die in the end, some will fair better than others in particular moments of crisis. Whatever those adaptations may be, any breakdown in multipolarity is going to go through a phase which is at least Golden Horde-like for the more powerful countries which may exist at that time.
And even in the unlikely event of one unipolarity giving way directly to another through unexpected catastrophic collapse concurrent with canny rise (say USA to China) this has just delayed the inevitable. Unipolarity, as I said, is a freakish occurrence. And much like a supercontinent, it is a temporary arrangement between cycles of greater division. One day great powers (whoever they may be) will find themselves hoarding smaller countries to create their own little NATOs all over the world. Some arrangements may be nice to their clients, others cruel, most a mix of the two, but in a world so used to only one or two true superpowers it is good to occasionally remind people that you can look at Imperial Rome all you want as a glorified example of past and present analogy, but its the various Hordes who people might be studying in the transitional future. It sounds apocalyptic, but for all we know it might be awesome. Or both, whatever. The tides of history know no morality either way. And I just want to examine as many strategically relevant things in the past and present as possible. And listen to Tengger Cavalry of course.
For further reading on these specific topics I recommend Dilip Hiro’s ‘After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World’ and Charles J Halperin’s ‘Russia and the Golden Horde: The Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History.’