During the uniquely non-hegemonic global system that developed during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a somewhat hierarchical division still existed. The nations with the most power could be regarded as the “core” of the system, and would consist of China and India. As the most powerful nations in this system, they had some ability to shape the process, though it was very limited when compared to today’s global society. Less powerful than those nations were the cities and states in the Middle East. From Egypt and Aden to Baghdad and Basra, these areas could, to a certain extent, give terms to the undeveloped areas around them, and the less developed areas that also participated in the exchange. Personally, I would feel inclined to put southern Europe (particularly the active trading Italian city-states) in this category. They were more involved than the areas to their north, and were on, from time to time, an equal footing with some of the Arab states they traded with. Certainly Italy was more powerful and important on the world stage than Flanders and France. The periphery of the system, the least powerful areas, that had to, to the extent possible, shift priorities based on the dictates of the more powerful players, was centered mainly in Europe. Most of the continent was still considered a backwater, and merely joined the already established trade between China, India, and the Middle East. Flemish textiles and other manufacturing became important, but the region still had no power over other regions, beyond that any city held some power over the surrounding countryside.
This system that occurred during the Pax Mongolica was unlike anything that came before it, and anything that has happened since. This system incorporated virtually the entire known world to the participants (and even more, in some cases) and a larger section of the world than had ever been involved in trade. Unlike any system we have seen since, there was no hegemonic group dictating terms to the rest of society. The collapse of this system, from the in fighting in the Mongolian Empire to the isolationist turn taken by China, combined with the utter decimation of the Plague, established the type of system that would emerge from this era. With everything else collapsing, Europe was seemingly the “last one standing” and was able to leap ahead of other regions and other nations by the time the “new world order” was shaped. The way this is explained, and the sheer luck identified in Abu-Lughod’s description of the Northwestern European section of the world’s rises and falls, shows clearly that Europe was never “destined” to achieve its status above all else, but that it did so not through its own talents, but through chance.
But how does this system described by Janet Abu-Lughod differ from that which we see today? Today we see a hegemonic system where the most powerful nations dictate terms to the rest of the world, and that is how it is, regardless of the needs of the other areas. This type of system has even spread down to the semi-periphery. In fact, that term could almost be replaced by “regional core,” as those nations act as the dominant force in their region. The current core is made up of “the West.” This consists mainly of the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and Japan (the last three only to a certain extent). China and the Russian Federation can also be considered to be core nations. The behavior of these core nations has been increasingly hegemonic, as evidenced by the behavior and intervention by the West in a number of nations, current American actions in the Middle East, and Russia and China’s interventions into central and southeast Asia, respectively. Certain regional cores, or semi-periphery states, are quickly rising and may soon join or even replace current core nations. A nation like India, with its large population that is now beginning to mobilize itself to full capacity, or Brazil or South Africa, both large, resource rich nations that already wield considerable power in their regions. Examples of the dominance of these states can be seen in the negotiations of disputes. Currently the EU or the United States is often called on to settle an issue (for example, the EU’s negotiation of a settlement to the war fought between Georgia and Russia, or the role of the US in Israel-Palestine negotiations). This is also seen at the regional level, as South Africa is called in to negotiate a power sharing deal in Zimbabwe. The periphery concept has remained the same, though its local has shifted. The nations of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia remain mostly subservient to larger powers, yet with good governance and an investment in infrastructure, they may soon rise. How the world, and its relatively new hegemonic establishment, will cope with the rise of new core nations, new regional dominators, and the attempts of the undeveloped world to develop.