The Future of States and Wars: On State-Strengthening Wars, Part III

I conclude here my look at Martin Van Creveld’s analysis of the relationships between states and war in The Rise and Decline of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).


Van Creveld’s views on the rise of the American (federal) state are quite interesting. The American Revolution saw the rise of "a nascent abstract state; or, to be precise, states" (p. 284). The post-revolutionary system was "created almost ex nihilo," which gave it "an artificial quality" (p. 285). This is true enough as regards the central government, which was seen – especially in the South – as having primarily instrumental value. It was not always possessed of mystical qualities of sovereignty and a world mission to boot.

The contest between the several states and the federal government – the states’ common agent, as we used to say – ended in the victory of the feds, who showed the Southern states the costs of "rebellion" (not the word I would have used). Meanwhile, the transportation revolution, accelerated by conscious state subsidy of railroads, and largely free internal markets contributed to the rapid economic progress which soon made the United States the most prosperous country in the world. This massive economic base made the US federal government potentially the most powerful member of the tribe of states, even if (at first) it taxed civil society rather lightly.

Having secured the unity of its territory by force in 1861-1865, the American state was ready by century’s end to take up its own form of imperialism. Van Creveld rightly highlights the reformist Progressivism of US empire-builders. Further, the US leadership, once it took up the course of empire, enjoyed a geographical advantage denied to rival powers because America "occupies the position of a global island. Any attempt to invade it across the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean was, and remains, sheer lunacy" (p. 290).


Thus, Van Creveld writes, US wars, from 1898 on, have not been thrust upon US leaders by the actions of powerful, threatening neighbors, as was the case within the European state system. I would add that American policy-makers, in effect, chose their enemies and battles on the grounds of felt future commercial or ideological threats. From the late 1890s, US leaders drawn from the fabled (largely) northeastern elite, which held key positions in government, banking, and big business, sought global neo-mercantilist economic overlordship. In their minds, an American-dominated world order would continue the good work of the declining British empire by bringing English law, Christianity, and economic progress to less-favored parts of the globe, whether people there wanted those things or not.

Christianity, of course, fell off the shortlist a while back. No matter. The US elite’s definition of American goals was all-embracing and necessitated a rather broad notion of "defense." I have discussed these matters before and shall not dwell on the Open Door and the rest of it here.

If Van Creveld slights the development of a markedly imperial US outlook and policy, he is still very good on their outcomes. State growth in the US owes something to New Deal domestic measures, but "in the event, it was World War II and the subsequent Cold War which really ushered in the age of Big Government" (p.291). He notes the debates over the Military-Industrial Complex and the "imperial presidency." I pass by, for lack of space, Van Creveld’s interesting summary of British imperial history, Latin America, and European colonialism in Africa and Asia.


War had afforded states a role "as an emotionally unifying factor," but "states can develop a strong appeal to the emotions only so long as they prepare for, and wage, war" (pp. 336-337). It was that great American contribution to science and moral theory, the atomic bomb, which – combined with long-range bombers, and later, ballistic missiles – changed the game forever. By the early 1980s, the US had some 30,000 nuclear warheads, the Soviets 20,000. Any foreseeable "exchange" of the things would kill millions of people in a disaster surpassing the two world wars combined.

As Van Creveld writes, "industrial, urban and demographic targets" – that is, cities – could not be protected like nuclear launching sites (p. 340). Nukes were only good as threat, as deterrence, and much ink was spilled spelling out how to make one’s prospective enemy believe one might really use them. It was a cosmic game of chicken, involving successive doctrines of deterrence, "mutually assured destruction," "decapitation," and so forth.

Under such circumstances, people might well begin to wonder if the state was doing a very good job of "protecting" them. The major states themselves became rather cautious in practice: "‘war-fighting’ was dead," Van Creveld says (p. 343). Thus, development of new non-nuclear weapons systems stretches out to maximize costs and time, because "in most cases, the threat – which would have made rapid mass production necessary and incidentally led to a dramatic drop in per unit costs – no longer exists" (p. 346).

In other words, no major power really plans now for major war on the order of the two Global Bloodbaths of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. "Minor" wars like those in Vietnam and Afghanistan nearly bankrupted the great powers conducting them. Van Creveld notes that no military campaign since 1945 has required armies to advance more than 300 miles into enemy territory. Napoleon, Guderian, and Patton must be feeling very unappreciated.

Further, nationalism and other ideological factors have made open wars for territorial aggrandizement seem unacceptable. The number of states has tripled since 1945. At the same time, the League of Nations Charter, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, and the UN Charter, Article 2(4) have all proclaimed the righteousness and permanence of existing national boundaries and the illegitimacy of changing them by force. Naked aggression between advanced powers is "out" and therefore, I would add, such goals must be pursued under pretexts such as humanitarian assistance.

Here, one must supplement Van Creveld’s account with a sidelong glance at the American empire. Even if a vague moral consensus exists which holds that boundaries should be respected, US hegemony alters the picture considerably. The American leadership has perfected informal imperialism and can afford to "respect" existing borders, provided those within them know their place in the Americans’ brave new world. Yet Van Creveld sees the Gulf War as "another step toward the delegitimization of interstate war" (p. 353). And yet it was war of some sort – which still goes on with intermittent bombings and a starvation blockade directed against the Iraqi people. Better to say that the empire wishes to delegitimize wars that it has not authorized.


Given the absence since 1945 of major war, the state, which had "towered over civil society" because of its role as supreme aggressor/protector, "turned its still considerable energies inward" (p. 354). In most western countries this led to immense expansion of welfare programs and bureaucratic social engineering. Western states had, after all, virtually nationalized their economies to stay in the pointless bloodletting we call World War I. World War II saw more of the same. Soon, railroads, chemicals, steel, health care, and mining were state-run enterprises, depending on the country.

America saw an upward curve of "reform" from JFK and LBJ through Nixon, who actually expanded and consolidated his predecessors’ measures. Social spending easily topped military spending. Most modern states came to absorb 40-50% of GNP – but "only" 36% in the US, as our homegrown socialists often lament. Van Creveld notes that state expansion in the social field ran up against economic law: "the greater the benefits offered, the larger the numbers of those entitled" (p. 362-363).

Modest tax revolts brought wimpy conservative governments to power in much of the west in the 1970s and ’80s. Nixon had famously proclaimed himself a Keynesian. Now, politicians postured as monetarists and supply-siders and made gestures in the direction of free markets and lower taxes. Here, Van Creveld’s analysis needs a little fine-tuning as regards the various schools of free-market thinking. His account also slights the continued good health of state-sponsored cartels, whether under strict European corporatism or the more "pluralistic" US corporatism.

Nonetheless, from the UK to New Zealand, state-held industries were denationalized, marginal programs were cut in modest ways, and the usual suspects in press and academe cried out that wicked reactionaries smoking big cigars and driving expensive cars – with which they yearned to run down homeless persons – had brought back laissez faire. No such luck. The Soviet collapse helped to discredit the idea of salvation through state planning, but it must be said that bad US advice has made the so-called transition to capitalism unnecessarily rough. Here readers might consult Jude Wanniski’s numerous polemics against the IMF.


Changing military technologies which favor small bands of partisans, the partial "rollback" of states and their declining prestige, and the new information technologies suggest to Van Creveld that we are entering an era of small-scale conflict. There will be many struggles but few major wars. Private security firms and mercenaries may play a larger role. He suggests that "[w]hat is needed are police forces" (p. 400) and has, perhaps, a utopian view of the UN.

States – increasingly decoupled from their military origins and role – are becoming less and less convincing as providers of security. Over the long haul, their prestige and power will decline. In the meantime, they "are demanding more and more while offering less and less" and "have developed a disturbing habit of meddling in the most minute details of people’s lives" (p. 410).


So the future, as always, is uncertain, as the Austrian economists say. The broad outlines seem clear enough. But the decline of states generally does not reassure me all that much, especially in the short run. For there is one state, after all, that does not see itself as in decline – even if public indifference to the coming election is a symptom of the things of which Van Creveld writes – and that state seeks to rule the world. It uses the UN as a flag of convenience, keeps NATO in place as an instrument of domination despite the disappearance of NATO’s mission, and tolerates other states and regional organizations only insofar as they understand and faithfully carry out orders from Washington.

It is the "decline" of that state as an abstract, immortal legal person that would allow the peoples of the world – not least the American people – to flourish and solve their local problems at local levels. The decline of that state to tolerable levels may yet be a long way off.

For insight into the larger logic of our situation, I can recommend Van Creveld’s book very highly, despite the few disagreements noted above. Would that more historians had his sense of what the real issues and problems are.