As the conflict with the so-called Islamic State (IS) swings back and forth, one thing is increasingly clear: Even if Iraq survives the fight intact, there is no chance it will ever return to the pre-war status quo where the government in Baghdad controls the entire nation. Neither the Kurds nor Sunni Arabs will trust the Shiite-dominated central government to protect them. The newly empowered Shiite militia leaders also will cling to their autonomy from Baghdad. If Iraq holds together at all, it will have a titular national government in the capital while regional potentates actually run the place. Local authorities may express fealty to the national government, but Baghdad will exercise little real authority outside the city itself.
Iraq is not the only country headed in this direction. Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen are on the same track. Others may soon follow. To any student of history, this should sound familiar: In a long arc from the Sahel to Afghanistan, the world is seeing the re-emergence of feudalism.
Neo-feudalism will have profound effects on the global security system, since the latter’s norms, laws, practices and procedures are based on sovereign nations that control their territory and are held responsible for what happens there. When a state loses control over part of its territory to secessionist movements or insurgencies under the current system, it is considered a temporary development. Other nations, including the United States, expect that eventually the national government will regain control. Under these conditions, security equals statecraft: National governments negotiate with each other, ally with each other and occasionally go to war with each other.