First of all an apology to my Faithful Readers for still coming around after I've been dark for over a week. A little work, a little birthday train ride, and pretty soon you have to hack through jungle that's grown up around the ancient site of a blog.
I'll turn from the technical challenges of space piracy to look at some of the possibilities of future power politics, or specifically one of them, neomedievalism.
No, I am not speaking of these guys, nor of their cousins who follow this social system. Neomedievalism in the sense I'm using it here is a genuine academic jargon term. To explain it, and the title of this piece, geekitude follows.
The Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648. Everyone agreed to quit leaping to the defense of their neighbors' persecuted Catholics or Protestants: henceforth, membership in the Kings' Club counted for more than religion did. A king could make his subjects go to whatever church he wanted to - even create one all of his own, as Henry VIII had* - and the other kings wouldn't bother him over it.
In technical terms, kings were recognized as sovereigns. (A couple of republics also got to be sovereigns, like Venice and the Dutch.) A sovereign has a local monopoly of force at home - even the Second Amendment still means it's you versus the Army. Abroad, sovereigns deal only with each other: marrying their sons to each other's daughters, making treaties and breaking them, sending armies and fleets around to nab each other's provinces. Such is the international order that grew out of the Treaty of Westphalia.
Anyone who has played Risk or Diplomacy has enjoyed the pleasures of being a sovereign, in so far as those pleasures relate to foreign affairs. (Regarding domestic pleasures, there's no simulation game that I know of, but the phrase "It's good to be King" conveys them pretty well.)
Some of you, whose geekitude extends in other directions than the formal theory of international affairs, may wonder how exactly all of this differs from barons marrying each other's daughters and besieging each other's castles, or any other variation on those pretty timeless themes. The answer is that barons, though they had their own armed followings, and a recognized right to use them at times, were also answerable to the king - who sometimes came around to make them answer with their heads.
Well, you say, the kings were sovereigns, weren't they? A medieval king could have as many mistresses as Louis XIV, and enjoy their company in a good deal more casual comfort. What a medieval king couldn't do, however, is summon his army and be entirely sure that it would show up - or that part of it wouldn't show up on the other side. This was not a problem for Louis XIV, at least not once he showed everyone who was boss after the Froude.
That is what distinguishes a Westphalian system; it what Louis XIV and a Diplomacy player have in common that Henry II did not. The Diplomacy player has to worry that her ally will stab her in the back; she doesn't have to worry that her own playing pieces will. (Or fight over her hand in marriage, an occupational hazard for reigning queens.)
The international relations of a non-Westphalian system can't be represented by a classical Diplomacy or Risk style game - or by filching from the history of 1750 or 1900 - because the lines between sovereignty and non-sovereignty, and between international and domestic affairs, are blurred. Dukes, or other entities such as Free and Imperial Cities or even trading companies, can have obligations to higher sovereigns, yet also have military forces of their own and considerable latitude in using them.
All of this is interesting, and necessary for understanding the historical past, or fictional worlds modeled on the past. It also has obvious possibilities for a science-fiction future - in fact, variations on it are already well-established SF tropes. Some futures are dominated by corporations that have their own military forces; it may be ambiguous whether they have entirely supplanted national states or merely muscled their way to the table. In interstellar futures, trade federations or associations of Free Traders regularly show up with fighting fleets, whether or not they directly rule planets or have much else on common with states as we know them.
What is odd - not only curious odd, but a bit spooky odd, is that academic scholars in International Affairs felt that they needed a jargon term for this type of international system, and called it neomedievalism. Why are SF tropes being analysed in the solemn pages of the Journal of International Studies, where they probably never heard of Hober Mallow or Nicholas van Rijn?
They're talking about it because of a fair bit of evidence that we live in a post-Westphalian world. Whatever you think of it, what exactly is the Palestinian Authority? It has some of the attributes of a state, but not all of them. In a different way what exactly is the European Union, superceding above familiar France, Germany, and so on? As yet another variation, what exactly is Scotland now, and why have English people taken to displaying the Cross of St. George?
(American states were also just a bit anomalous in the Westphalian system, though the anomaly was resolved for practical purposes in 1865.)
Neomedievalism means lots of things. Some of them are rather admirable, like the global influence of NGOs ("non-governmental organizations") like Human Rights Watch. Some of them are thoroughly repulsive, and probably don't need to be spelled out. What they add up to is the possibility, maybe the likelihood, that the world politics of the 21st century will be essentially different from the familiar model of great-power rivalry.
From an SF point of view this is fascinating, even though it may not be completely fun to live through.
* It was more complicated than that, but the bottom line remains: Without Anne Boleyn's flashing eyes, no Church of England as we know it.