How war created the nation state and yet could destroy it

With each new peace treaty, the idea of the nation state slowly materialised. Now, in its parliamentarian form, it reigns supreme but in a post-9/11 world it faces increased competition.

Treaty of utrecht
The deputies of the Dutch provinces offer Willem van Oranje the treaty of the Union of Utrecht, 1579. Credit: Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay was originally published under the title ‘War and Statehood’ in War: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation in 2015.

The relationship between war and state formation is a timely subject for inquiry. Is the Islamic State really a ‘state’? For that matter, is the war on terror really a ‘war’? And does the answer to one of these questions bear on the answer to the other?

One potentially fruitful way to approach these vexing contemporary questions is to go back in time, back to when the first modern states were being formed in the cauldron of warfare. In 1493, the city of Constantinople was besieged by Muslim forces led by Mehmet II. Within Constantinople’s high, impregnable walls was sheltered the residue of classical culture. Although we think of the Roman Empire as having ended in the seventh century, in fact it flourished in the eastern Mediterranean – flourished, that is, until those walls began to crumble under a bombardment by a new and more powerful cannon invented by Mehmet’s engineers. Mehmet’s cannon was powerful, but too unwieldy for anything other than a long, static siege. When Charles VIII led French forces into Italy in 1494, however, he brought with him more powerful, lightweight artillery that could be drawn by horses and oxen. At a single stroke, everything changed. High stone curtains, moats, rectangular bastions: all were made obsolete and the security of the fortified — but weak and rich — cities of Italy suddenly became far more precarious. This development was not lost on contemporary commentators. Machiavelli wrote about it and so did Guicciardini. Machiavelli recognised that what these cities needed were new fortifications, lower stone walls, farther out from the city centre, on which the besieged defenders could place their own cannon to keep the invading forces at bay; larger armies for defence against the greater forces that France and Spain could field; more enduring treaties (hitherto the obligations of the treaty ceased if one of the signatories died); more reliable intelligence and diplomatic representation (the first permanent legations date from this time, replacing the emissaries who travelled to negotiate a marriage or an agreement and quickly returned); a much larger bureaucracy to raise revenue for these reforms and to manage the more complex logistics which the reforms made possible; new and more lethal technological inventions, of which the fertile mind of Leonardo was one source. In other words, Machiavelli recognised, what Florence and the other vulnerable cities needed was state, a classical concept with which Machiavelli and his contemporaries were familiar, but which had fallen into desuetude with the end of the Roman Republic.

Thus was born the idea of the modern, neoclassical state. The personal rule of feudal princes and medieval cities, of ecclesiastical universality and vertical political particularity, was steadily replaced. This new form of political organisation was recognised by the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555, which introduced the famous conceptcuius regio, eius religio: he who rules, his religion prevails. This was the constitutional backdrop for the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis of 1559, which ended the first modern epochal war, the various conflicts we know as the wars of the Habsburg and the Valois, which had begun with the French invasion of Italy. The first modern states emerged over a period that was ended by the next epochal war in Europe, which we know as the Thirty Years War. This conflict ended with the Peace of Westphalia that recognised a new constitutional order of secular, absolute sovereigns, the rise of standing armies and the use of gunpowder. These states, of which Thomas Hobbes wrote, dominated a period of about 80 years. Their principal capitals were in Madrid and Paris and the famous remark of Louis XIV — l’état c’est moi — captured their constitutional ethos. The next constitutional order arose in the aftermath of Louis’ wars and was enshrined by the Treaty of Utrecht. The Dutch, British, French and Prussian states were pre-eminent for over a century, having established an aristocratic model of governance and a strategic model of limited wars. These ‘cabinet wars’ were fought by highly professionalised forces that were only defeated finally by the mass armies of peasants and proletarians marshalled by Napoleon and led by members of the middle class.

At this time — the end of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth — a new constitutional order appeared, the imperial state that united nationalism and statehood. This union supercharged the state, vastly increasing its resources and bringing about a revolution in strategy as well as government. Imperial states exalted their own nationalism but crushed it wherever they conquered. This constitutional order spread across the globe until national groups began to push back against the empires that held them subject. They were aided in that struggle by the appearance of the new constitutional order, the industrial nation state which first appeared in the United States and in Germany in the 1860s and 1870s. Like its predecessors, the constitutional order of the industrial nation state challenged the inter-national order. That order had been dominated, since the Congress of Vienna, by imperial states that could not compete in the twentieth century with the more aggressive form, which rejected the Vienna settlement. This more aggressive form of the state brought with it a strategic revolution we know as ‘total war’: an attack on the nation — the civilian basis for the state — instead of attacking armed forces alone. For much of the twentieth century, beginning in 1914, three ideological forms of the industrial nation state sought hegemony: parliamentarianism, communism and fascism.

This competition had no sooner been resolved in the 1990s than the international order led by the parliamentary democracies began to unravel. In fact, the very innovations by which parliamentarianism had triumphed — the development of a global system of trade and finance, the creation of weapons of mass destruction and the information revolution made possible by the invention of the internet and the world wide web — began to threaten the state by exposing novel vulnerabilities. Neither the warfare, nor the representative democratic practices for which the parliamentary states were prepared, now seemed sufficient to meet these new challenges. The evolution of the state I have just described has been driven by the relationship between strategy and law — a relationship that was long neglected by historians, in favour of economic and ideological determinism. In each of its key developmental periods, the state was forced to innovate in order to maintain itself in the face of strategic and constitutional challenges. Sometimes, these challenges arose with innovations in warfare, such as the gunpowder revolution that crushed the princely states of the sixteenth century; and sometimes, the innovations were political, such as occurred in the American and French revolutions, which brought with them changes in the nature of strategy and warfare that threatened the aristocratic territorial states that had dominated the eighteenth century. In each of these periods, the constitutional order that became pre-eminent also changed the international order of the society of states. This change was reflected in the constitutions written for that society — at Augsburg, at Westphalia, at Utrecht and Vienna, Versailles and San Francisco.

The peace treaties written at these great conferences, which ended the epochal wars that preceded them, are really the constitutions of the society of states. Many people think that we are now at a pivotal time in the evolution of the state, and some also believe that 9/11 was a turning point. If they are right, I think I know why: for 500 years it has taken the resources of the state to destroy a state. Only states could raise vast revenues, create and sustain huge armies in the field, sometimes for decades, develop evermore lethal technologies and maintain international alliances. That is still largely true. But 9/11 foreshadowed a time when proto-states like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State will be able to marshal resources of such lethality that they threaten not the existence of the societies they attack, but the viability of the political and social institutions of those societies. I should hasten to add that the emergence of such threats does not mean that the state will fade away or collapse. On the contrary, as in the past, the state will innovate, developing new constitutional orders and new methods of warfare and strategy. I and others have speculated that one such new order will be the informational market state. This state will place less reliance on law to enforce the moral goals of the nation; it will use, rather than attempt to defy, the market to achieve its political goals; it will be more hospitable to pluralism and to nationalism.

Market states will be less tolerant of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, age and so on, but more tolerant of wealth differences. Poverty is to be alleviated by ensuring that the poor obtain education and training to allow them to participate fully in the labour market and in the larger culture. The function of representation by which elected officials create and enforce law will be augmented by reliance on such market vehicles as referendums, voter initiatives, the recall of officials and polls. Many ordinary police functions will be outsourced and prisons privatised. Industrial practices will be deregulated; equally importantly, so will women’s reproduction. Sovereign wealth funds will replace state owned enterprises.

We already see much of this in parliamentary democracies (along with vociferous negative reactions to these developments).The society of industrial nation states treated war as a pathology of the state. That is why it outlawed war, first in the Kellogg Briand Pact and later in the United Nations Charter. The making of aggressive war was to be considered a war crime, as Nazi German generals learned at Nuremberg. If market states are less eager to rely on regulation domestically, it may well be they will bring this attitude to global problems also. Rather than abolishing war, market states may reason that warfare, like other market operations, is a matter of making choices. For the present, two important such choices confront us. First, will wars be chronic, cataclysmic, or critical? Chronic warfare is the sort of conflict we see in the wars on terror. Although it is commonly said that such wars cannot be won, in fact this is mainly a matter of carefully defining the war aim. There is no reason, in principle, that the war aim of protecting the human rights of civilians is unachievable. It simply means that has to be achieved over and over again. Cataclysmic warfare — the warfare among great states with overwhelming arsenals — is perhaps more remote now than at any moment in my lifetime. Nevertheless, it would be most unwise to tear down the force structures by which deterrence has been maintained. There will always be fashionable madmen who will want to settle great conflicts by taking great gambles. It will be up to us to find the money and the political will to make such gambles absurd. Critical warfare — the use of cyber weapons to disable the critical infrastructure of another society — is not much understood yet. We don’t have the experience or the doctrines to guide us in answering questions, such as the degree to which a state should adopt an offensive posture as a way of protecting its own critical infrastructure. Nor is it clear the degree to which critical warfare will desert the state entirely, partly as a result of the backlash against state surveillance and be prosecuted by technologically sophisticated but politically attenuated privatised groups. For the time being, states still have by far the largest role in creating and maintaining such capabilities.

Second, we will have to resolve the future part to be played in the international arena by the leading parliamentary state, the United States. Will the US continue to build coalitions, or will it prefer ‘to lead from behind’, or will it choose to withdraw into a sulky isolationism. In the domestic arena, market states are not very good at developing those public goods that markets are not very good at creating: loyalty, civility, trust in authority, respect for family life, reverence for sacrifice, regard for privacy, admiration for political competence and compassion. Thus, it may also be that In the international sphere, the United States and other parliamentary market states will find it difficult to create the collective goods that have been a hallmark of American leadership in the post-war period. As long as the United States provides precious collective goods that the Europeans or Asians cannot or will not produce for themselves — coalitions for managing humanitarian intervention, anti-proliferation and protective environmental regimes, as well as intelligence consortiums to isolate and eliminate terror — there will be a demand for US leadership. The real question is: when the Americans are called, will they come?


Philip Bobbitt