FINDS ITS OWN ENEMIES
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.
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.
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.
OF WAR AND DECLINE OF THE STATE
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
STATES IN SEARCH OF A REASON TO EXIST
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
– 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"
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
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.
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