The Age of Fragmentation

Eugen Kosyk’s interview with Dr. Martin van Creveld, one of the world’s leading experts on military history and strategy

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An interview with Martin van Creveld

An interview by Eugen Kosyk

Some of the theoretical developments of the past and predictions about the future world order are coming true today. The state apparatus is too rigid and inert to meet the needs of citizens. Most of its institutions have ceased to function at the appropriate level: the army is no longer needed for war, the police does not protect citizens, and pensions do not ensure well-being.

Historian and theorist Dr. Martin van Creveld, professor emeritus of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, is one of the world's leading experts on military history and strategy. He has written twenty five books on various aspects of strategy, military history, the history of the state, and feminism. Two more books, dealing with the history of equality and of conscience respectively, are forthcoming. In this interview, he shared some of his original thoughts on the future of the state and governance.
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Today we see that mistrust of the state is growing. Can technology change this situation in future?

Over the last fifty years or so two technologies have been most successful and powerful in changing the world: transportation and communication. What they have in common is that they cross national borders. In some ways they make those borders irrelevant. Of course, you can say, as North Korea does, ‘I’m cutting myself from the world, I’m going to do everything on my own.’ However, doing so comes at a very high price. As I wrote in my book, The Rise and Fall of the State, normally the more any country uses the aforesaid technologies, the higher its per capita income is and the higher the standard of living its people enjoy.

But that is not all. Another interesting development is taking place. Certain companies, such as Google, have decided that they no longer need the state. They are going to build their own headquarters at sea in exterritorial waters. As a result they will no longer be subject to the laws of any state.

The technological forces that are pushing for change are very powerful. Some countries will no doubt try to delay their impact, but doing so will almost entail a return to the Stone Age.

Over the last fifty years or so two technologies have been most successful and powerful in changing the world: transportation and communication

What do you think about direct democracy? Where could it lead?

In Switzerland for example, they just had a plebiscite. The Swiss are always complaining about the federal government trying to expand its power. There seems to be a struggle between two opposite tendencies. One, coming from below, points towards more plebiscites and more direct democracy, which could be assisted by electronic technology. The other, coming from the federal governments, points towards centralization. My guess would be that direct democracy is going to win this struggle. And that it will help them become even more successful than they already are.

Can one imagine the future as consisting of something similar to cities-​states as they were in Ancient Greece?

Look at Singapore. Very few countries have been as successful as Singapore in last fifty years. I can hardly think of any; perhaps Israel, but in a different way. That is a smashing success. I will not be surprised if others say ‘look at this, we want to do the same’. We certainly live in an age of fragmentation. In which, in other words, political units, instead of growing larger and larger, will become smaller.

When UN Headquarters was built back in 1948 the organization had about 60 members. Now it has three times as many and there is not enough room for all their flags! Hardly a day passes without some new separatist movement raising its standards. This seems to be the prevailing trend of our age. Because it allows, and hopefully will continue to allow, direct democracy and local government to flourish. On the other hand, since at least some states will not agree to let go of their own free will, this trend may also increase the danger of war; as, for example, happened in the former Yugoslavia.

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During the Middle Ages down to the Renaissance inclusive, much of Europe consisted of city-​states. Some of them formed leagues, such as the Hansa, which were not organized on national lines but around the commercial interest of the ruling classes. Map: The Extent of the Hansa about 1400 /​map: Wikipedia​.org

Can separatist movements work in the opposite direction, causing some countries to become more authoritarian so as to prevent these movements?

To prevent separatism, states will have to become more totalitarian. The question is – can they do it? Will they succeed? I suppose that some will and some will not. This again will raise tensions between those who succeed and those who did not.

How do you see relations between these new governmental entities?

They will look much more like feudal structures than the modern state does. There are many parts of the world where some sort of feudal system prevailed for centuries on end. As the state loses its ability to protect its citizens, they will naturally turn to grandees, great local people who can protect them. In return for that protection they will have to pay in the form of loss of freedom and also in the form of taxes. We are going in that direction. A close analogy is the Roman Empire after about 330 B.C. The external threat joined the one coming from the inside. Many modern countries, Russia included, seem to be in a similar situation today.

Certain companies, such as Google, have decided that they no longer need the state. They are going to build their own headquarters at sea in exterritorial waters 

If the role of cities is changing. What do you think about relations between cities and states in future?

I will give you a very recent example. The other day I read that Tel-​Aviv was going to impose new taxes on its citizens in order to pay for the new civil guard. Some 25 years ago, I gave a talk to a meeting of municipal leaders here in Israel. I told them that, in the future, the rise of terrorism, and even more so people’s fear of its rise, would almost certainly compel cities to set up their own militias, their own police forces, and even their own armies. It was a very unsuccessful meeting and they looked at me as if I were mad. But now it is happening. Many cities and towns feel that state is no longer protecting them the way it should. So they set up their own police forces. Everywhere police forces, including also private police forces, are becoming stronger and acquiring more weapons. The day may come when they can start challenging states. It won’t be half-​surprising.

How could collective security be provided in a fragmented future world, where no one follows the common rules and there are no big ideologies and countries left?

As you know, the Middle Ages were full of wars. I very much doubt whether such a thing as ‘collective security’ will be possible at all. You might even take this point further; you might argue that the whole point of this process is precisely to enable people to go to war against each other again. I think that, in their heart of hearts, many people in advanced countries miss war. They want to fight, but cannot do so owing to the threat posed by nuclear weapons. A new, more fragmented, world might enable them to fight each other again. Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? wrote that the most important function of the big states, Leviathans, is to make war inside themselves impossible. But not everybody likes that situation.

What will be the main cause of future armed conflict?

Well, the most disruptive force nowadays appears to be ethnic. As we know, in many European countries non-​Europeans are on the rise. In Russia about 28 percent of the population is not Slavic. There thus exists plenty of room for future conflict. Ongoing demographic trends point in the same direction. The Muslims have many more children than the established populations do. These processes will develop at different speed in different countries, generating friction and armed conflict between some of them.

Concerning relations between Slavic and Islamic cultures in Russia. Russia seems to be losing its Slavic allies. The outcome could be ethnic conflicts. What do you think about this situation?

I have written once or twice that what Putin is doing in Ukraine is a tremendous gamble. If it succeeds – OK. But if it does not succeed it may lead to disintegration of the Russian Federation just as the war in Afghanistan contributed very greatly to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. I know that every time I talk about men and women, about gender and about sex, people start sniggering. Yet I am convinced that these factors form a central part of the processes we just discussed. In 1921 – 1922 Russia, having just gone through World War I and the Civil War, was in a terrible mess. Millions of dead, devastation as far as the eye could see. Lenin and his associates wanted to rebuild the country. Not having capital, the one resource they could draw on was unemployed women. So they started building Soviet industry on the blood of Soviet women. As part of the effort, they adopted a certain kind of feminism. In many ways they made women equal with men. Equal in work, marriage, divorce, education, the right to choose a profession, and much more.

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Liberated woman – build up socialism!’ Soviet poster by Strakhov-​Braslavsky, 1926

It worked in the sense that, during the 1930s, women formed a growing percentage of the industrial workforce. Millions of Soviet women went to universities and entered almost all professions. But there was a price to pay. In 1900, the average Russian woman had up to eight children in her lifetime of whom about five reached adulthood. Then the birth rate started falling. A typical Russian family, particularly in towns, came to consist of a husband, a wife, one child and a babushka. However, the decline in fertility was not distributed evenly across the Soviet Union. Some areas suffered much more than others did. The more modern and urban a particular region, the more the birth rate went down. The districts in which it did not go down nearly as much were the outlying Muslim ones, because they were far away and relatively backward. This brought about a change in demographic balance between Slavs and non-​Slavs.

Private police forces are becoming stronger and acquiring more weapons. They may start challenging states

You can find more about this topic in my book ‘The Privileged Sex’. Brezhnev during his last years in power woke up to this problem. He and his successors understood that what they had done was literally going to destroy the Soviet Union. So they tried to put the wheel back. They sent a few women back home and launched a propaganda campaign to make women have more children. However, it was too late. Exactly the same happened in Yugoslavia ten years later. If we ignore these problems, we are going to miss a very important part of the story.

In one of your interviews, you said that the men like to wage war and women love warriors – what do you mean by that?

Let me explain how I see things. In a certain way, we are all Hegelians. Being Hegelians means that we believe in causes. X happened because of cause Y. History is a story of causes that led to outcomes. This is one way of looking at things. But it also diminishes the importance of what people actually want to do.

I’ll give you an analogy. Imagine a heavy goods train climbing a mountain. There are two locomotives. The locomotive in the rear is the cause, but the locomotive in front is what people want to do. I believe that the Hegelian way of looking at things has gone too far in ignoring what people want to do. One of the most important things men want to do is to fight each other. Because it is the supreme way in which they can prove themselves and the best way in which they can earn glory and booty. It is also the best way in which men can assert themselves in the eyes of women. Women need protection because they are not as strong as men and because they have children. They look up to those who defend them and open their arms to them. I think that, without taking into account both the differences and similarities between the sexes, you are not going to understand anything about these things either. Did I hear you laughing?

No, no, I am serious…

It is a very uncommon point of view. Do you know that I have a website? There is one article called ‘He and She.’ Look it up. This is what I think.