The Darker Souls of Our Hegemonic Nature
November 16, 2017 | Corruption and mockery of ancient institutions. A deranged and perverse shadow of a ‘grand’ old party. Hopelessness after an era of hope and change. A string of seemingly never-ending failures. Sound familiar? That means you’ve either played the Dark Souls series or that you have paid too much attention to the Trump Administration.
What follows is spoilers-filled, so be warned.
Hegemony is the Light
For those out of the proverbial gaming loop, the Dark Souls series is a series of notoriously difficult video games that are set in a dying world, devoid of light and a perverted shadow of its former self. In each game, the player is generally tasked with either ‘rekindling’ the flame of that society and extending the light or snuffing it out and embracing darkness and depravity.
The themes in Dark Souls can be used as a prism for understanding the world around us, much like how other works of art have been used in the past. For the purposes of this article, the latest Dark Souls installment—Dark Souls III—works well as a metaphor for the domestic and foreign challenges the U.S. faces today.
But first, here is a layout of recent U.S. history from a foreign policy perspective. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has arguably been the sole superpower, burdened with the responsibility of being the so-called ‘benevolent’ hegemon in an anarchic international system. However, all hegemons face the prospect of inevitable decline and an eventual challenge of a rival. It is a thermodynamic law that all closed systems face the inescapable rise of entropy—chaos. For the international system, the breakdown of order and the increase in entropy has a release valve: hegemonic wars. Whether they be the the Thirty Years’ War, the World Wars, or perhaps even the bloodless Cold War, these wars of supremacy create new global orders in their ashes.
In the past, international relations scholars argue that these hegemonic wars erupt, serving as a creatively destructive force, crowning new kings or reinvigorating old ones. The idea being is that to preserve, restore, or recreate an order, catastrophic, hegemonic wars often play a part. There is just one problem in today’s era: nuclear weapons. Any “hope”—perverse as it sounds—of hegemonic war to reinvigorate the system is dashed with the prospect of world-ending weapons.
Old Orders: “Prepare to Die”
The unipolar Liberal International Economic Order (LIEO) that the U.S. created after WWII and has upheld in the absence of its old rival is under threat. The world is increasingly flat, power is more diffuse, state rivals like China have risen and non-state actors erode any semblance of old order. Domestically, national cohesion has deteriorated, with asymmetrical political polarization leading the U.S. Right to increasingly obscene heights and U.S. Leftists and Liberals squabbling amongst themselves. Perhaps the words of IR scholar Randall Schweller sum up this period most accurately, “We are entering the age of entropy, a chaotic period where most anything can happen and … where remnants of the past, present, and future coexist simultaneously.”
This scenario is akin to that found in Dark Souls III. In it, the Kingdom of Lothric has fallen into disarray as the light of their civilization has faltered. In epochs past, whenever the light risked extinguishment, a ‘Lord of Cinder’ would sacrifice their power to rekindle the flame and the age of light would continue. At the onset of the game, not one of the Lords of Cinder have answered the call to rekindle the flame and it is left for the player—an ‘Ashen One’—to rekindle the flame and avert the end of the age of light.
In many ways, the U.S. today and its LIEO is akin to the Kingdom of Lothric and its age of light—Pax Americana. While in previous times there have been rivals to challenge and causes that unite us, today the world is a more disordered place. Old institutions and leaders, our ‘Lords of Cinder’—whether they be the media or our political parties—have not answered the call to rekindle the flame. Much of the media has been complicit in the dissolution of order, from being unwittingly complicit in Russian attacks on our society or knowingly encouraging the worst impulses of the U.S. Right. The political parties have either descended into infighting or are complicit as outsiders have made a mockery of their office. However, unlike the video game, it does not seem an ‘Ashen One’ is in sight to restore order. President Trump does not count—no matter how many times alt-righters call him God Emperor or “Daddy.”
The Infinite Jest of a Messiah Complex
That is the unfortunate reality we live in. As much as it would be nice to have a messiah to sacrifice their political life to save us all, we do not live in a world where such people exist. Perhaps we are doomed to fall into an age of darkness, where old institutions have crumbled and new, diffuse, and disordered powers reign. That reality is not hard to imagine. This reality is a multi-polar system in which states have lost global influence and non-state actors are increasingly powerful. It is a world where epistemological truths are replaced by alternative facts, post-modernist mockeries and tribal doublespeak. For some, this could be a better world. For others—and arguably many Americans—this may not be.
There is an escape found in Dark Souls: the implication that the ages of light and darkness are merely part of a cycle. Although each individual age can be extended, inevitably they will give way to the next. Much like in human history, ages of order have fallen into disorder and back again, so too may this just be one dark blip in U.S. history. There could be hope on the horizon. New release valves for the pent-up, chaotic energy in the system could be found. New technologies and tools to combat the hybrid warfare of United States’ rivals could be implemented. Indeed, the age of nuclear deterrence and hegemonic theories of war and order could very well be outmoded in the coming century. We could be on the verge of a new cycle of our own.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.