Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Rise and Decline of the State

With this post, I begin a review of the book by Martin Van Creveld: “The Rise and Decline of the State.”  Best to start with his opening statement in the Preface:

The state, which since the middle of the seventeenth century has been the most important and most characteristics of all modern institutions, is in decline.

Plenty of bloggers like me make such outlandish statements; so, who is Martin Van Creveld?

Van Creveld was born in the Netherlands in the city of Rotterdam to a Jewish family.  His parents, Leon and Margaret, were staunch Zionists who had managed to evade the Nazis during World War II.  One of Creveld's uncles and several cousins were killed in the Holocaust.  In 1950, the family immigrated to Israel, and Creveld grew up in Ramat Gan.  He was drafted to the Israel Defense Forces and served in logistics, but was soon granted an early discharge for medical reasons due to his cleft palate.  From 1964 to 1969, he studied history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and earned an MA.  From 1969 to 1971, he studied history at the London School of Economics and received a PhD.  His doctoral dissertation on Hitler's strategy in the Balkans during the early years of World War II was later published into a book. After completing his PhD in 1971, van Creveld returned to Israel and began teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He became a professor in 1988. In 2007, he retired from teaching at Hebrew University, and began teaching at Tel Aviv University's Security Studies Program.

Two of his books are required reading for United States Army officers (The Transformation of War and Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton); there are only two other books written by non-American authors on the required reading list – the well-known books by Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, respectively.  Not bad company.

Van Creveld has interesting views on current affairs:

In a TV interview in 2002, he expressed doubts as to the ability of the Israeli army to defeat the Palestinians:

They [Israeli soldiers] are very brave people... they are idealists... they want to serve their country and they want to prove themselves. The problem is that you cannot prove yourself against someone who is much weaker than yourself. They are in a lose-lose situation. If you are strong and fighting the weak, then if you kill your opponent then you are a scoundrel... if you let him kill you, then you are an idiot….Now the Israeli army has not by any means been the worst of the lot. It has not done what for instance the Americans did in Vietnam... it did not use napalm, it did not kill millions of people. So everything is relative, but by definition, to return to what I said earlier, if you are strong and you are fighting the weak, then anything you do is criminal.

On a less comforting note:

In a September 2003 interview in Elsevier, a Dutch weekly, on Israel and the dangers it faces from Iran, the Palestinians and world opinion van Creveld stated:

We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force…. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.

A frank assessment in a world gone MAD:

In the 21 August 2004 edition of the International Herald Tribune van Creveld wrote, "Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy."

Van Creveld has stated that the Israeli government has "vastly exaggerated the threat that a nuclear Iran poses to its security, as well as Israel's capacity to halt it."

And a comment that moves him high on my list:

In 2005, van Creveld made headlines when he said in an interview that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 BC [sic] sent his legions into Germany and lost them", a reference to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.  His analysis included harsh criticism of the Bush Administration, comparing the war to the Vietnam war.  Moreover, he said that "Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial."

So much for the author; returning to this book:

From Western Europe to Africa, either voluntarily or involuntarily, many existing states are either combining into larger communities or falling apart…Regardless of whether they fall apart or combine, already now many of their functions are being taken over by a variety of organizations which, whatever their precise nature, are not states.

Needless to say, these developments affect each and every individuals now living on this planet.  In some places they will proceed peacefully, but in others they are likely to result in – indeed are already leading to – upheavals as profound, and possibly as bloody, as those that propelled humanity out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world.  Whether the direction of change is desirable as some hope, or undesirable, as others fear, remains to be seen.

We are living through this battle – centralizing forces against decentralizing forces.  It remains my view that the peak of centralization occurred at the end of the Second World War (with the US government being the primary tool for establishing world government) and lasted, perhaps, until the fall of the Soviet Union.  Since then, there have been some wins and some losses (from the viewpoint of those favoring decentralization); I would argue, on balance, that decentralization is winning.

There are certainly more nation-states – yes, states, however any move toward “more” is a move toward decentralization.  The conflicts we have seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall appear to be nothing more than the forces of centralization thrashing about – suffering a deadly wound yet still dangerous enough to cause harm.

It seems to me that technology is on our side – yes, it offers tools for those who desire to control us, but it offers more tools for us to gain liberty.  Generally, when looking across the globe, more people (and a higher percentage of people) have more relative freedom than at any time in the last 100 years or more.

Van Creveld divides his book into six chapters:

Before the state: prehistory to AD 1300: a time of recorded and unrecorded history with no state and little government in the sense we have come to know the word.  So much for the “when has anarchy worked” strawman.

The rise of the state: 1300 to 1648: described by Van Creveld as “the period from approximately 1300 (the Res Publica Christiana at its zenith) to 1648 (the Treaty of Westphalia).”  When this thing called “the state” emerged from the Middle Ages – the time of the binding of culture brought on by the Church through the series of treaties that ended wars between and amongst the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the Dutch Republic.  The Treaty – actually a series of treaties – deserves comment:

The treaties resulted from the big diplomatic congress, thereby initiating a new system of political order in central Europe, later called Westphalian sovereignty, based upon the concept of a sovereign state governed by a sovereign and establishing a prejudice in international affairs against interference in another nation's domestic business.

Obviously a concept no longer respected.

The state as an instrument: 1648 to 1789: this is the period through the French Revolution, a time that witnessed the creation of many of the state’s most characteristic institutions: bureaucracy, armed forces, the gathering of statistics, police and prisons.

The state as an ideal: 1789 to 1945:  Per Van Creveld:

…states…transformed themselves from instruments for imposing law and order into secular gods; and how, having increased their strength out of all proportion by invading their citizens’ minds and picking their pockets, they used that strength to fight each other (1914 – 1945) on such a scale, and with such murderous intensity, as almost to put an end to themselves.

It seems it isn’t only libertarians and anarchists who speak this way about the state.

The timing of the beginning of the end (the Great War) corresponds quite well with the picture painted by Jacques Barzun.

The spread of the state: 1696 to 1975: This chapter describes the spread of this concept of “state” to all corners of the world.

The decline of the state: 1975 – (I know…the lack of an end date is a real pill): collapse, as in Yugoslavia (and I will add, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and many others currently in progress); giving up some portion of sovereignty, as in the European Union.

This is the outline; I will proceed as I have with other books – with one or more follow-on posts as I find it worthwhile. I suspect I will find it worthwhile.


  1. Love it! I have never thanked you yet for all your book reviews; it's an invaluable service to me and I suspect to many others. I am unfortunately a very slow reader and always rather listen to podcasts/narrations or short summaries, and you have greatly enriched my life with your summaries. So thank you again from my heart; please keep going! ;-)

    1. Norbert, you are very kind. And I equally appreciate your contribution via your comments.

  2. If you do a review of Nisbet's History of the Idea of Progress, you will have gone through what I consider to be the best three book recommendations that I have received courtesy of a Gary North article.

    I've been picking my way through Barzun's Dawn to Decadence for a few years now. Its size does not convey its depth.

    Van Creveld's book is still waiting for my completion of Dawn and Progress before I make my way through it so these timely reviews of yours have reintroduced my desire to finish them.

    Great articles as usual.

    1. alaska, Thank you

      I recall North's very excellent review on these three books. I was going to look up his review to find the title of the third (I knew it was Nisbet). Thanks for saving me the search.


  3. I found van Creveld's book a little underwhelming. However his write-up on COIN is very interesting:


  4. I don't agree with van Creveld's notion of the state. To me, the state has been around in various forms for thousands of years. I see the state as being tribal in origin, born of the notion that a person owns his descendants. What van Creveld simply calls "the state" is what I'd call "the modern nation-state".