Intellectually I am a child of the modern historical profession, founded in the 19th century by Germans led by Leopold von Ranke. It focused on the development of the modern state, an entity based upon reason, and upon relations among states. It was within that tradition that I, in my thirties, wrote Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler, which in effect studied the development of the state by examining the nature of international politics in four distinct eras. It concluded, first of all, that historians had systematically exaggerated the strength of European states in the years 1559-1659; that the era of Louis XIV (1661-1715) had seen states secure effective control of violence for the first time; that in the era of the French Revolution, the rationalism of the Enlightenment had become an excuse for the consolidation and expansion of states; and lastly, that the two world wars in Europe had been driven by conflicts between nationalities and worldwide, imperialistic ambitions. I concluded that book in the early stages of the Second World War, arguing that after 1941 it was fought on a world, not a European scale, and that traditional European politics had thereby come to an end. I found relatively little to add to that conclusion when Harvard Press published a second edition in the 1990s after the collapse of Communism. Now I wish I had gone much further.
I am convinced now that the Second World War had an even broader significance: it brought the power of the modern state to a peak from which it has been in an accelerating decline over the whole of my adult lifetime. The Cold War brought the entire industrialized world into either the American or Soviet spheres of influence, and nuclear weapons, among other factors, ensured that there would be no great war between the two spheres. But the Vietnam War discredited certain key military aspects of modern states, led by the draft, which ended in the US in 1973 and has gradually disappeared from other states ever since. A remarkable long-term decline in the size of armies began. This is hardly an entirely negative development. No one anymore fights wars with draftee armies that inflict casualties by the millions, and that cannot be regarded as a bad thing. Civilization, however, depends upon a certain measure of effective authority. The real nature of emerging changes became clear in the 1990s. First of all, the collapse of Communism led to the emergence of plutocracies and kleptocracies in most of the former Soviet Union, led by Russia itself. Simultaneously, by the late 1990s, the United States was undoing the New Deal-era tax structure and tradition of regulation of the economy. (Modern Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which have survived, belong to the Great Society, not the New Deal.) Since the turn of the century the Republican Party has embarked upon an all-out assault on modern government, both at the state and federal level. President Obama is now laboring to stop that assault in its tracks. But the decline of the state has been even more spectacular in huge swathes of the less developed world, and especially, of course, among Muslim nations
In the early modern era, and then in the nineteenth principles came to the Muslim world in two ways. The Ottoman empire was a bureaucratic despotism, much of whose key personnel were drawn from the Janissaries, the Christian male babies kidnapped in their childhood and trained for military and civil leadership with no loyalty to anything but the state. I have never read extensively about how that empire functioned, but it successfully governed Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations for more than 350 years, and remained a match for Russian and Austrian armies for about two centuries. By the nineteenth century it was in relative decline, but, like Japan and even China, it sought to arrest that decline by borrowing from the West. The Young Turks who seized power in the empire in the early twentieth century and created modern Turkey were westernizers who banned traditional dress and separated church and state. Meanwhile, European imperialism spread European concepts and institutions in other areas, including India, where British influence grew steadily for two centuries; Egypt, which the British occupied in 1881; and the new entities of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine after the First World War. The French did something similar in North Africa from Tunisia westward. All of this area, the first post-independence generation of leaders were westerners. Their influence, however, now seems to be disappearing.
Given that so much of the Third World became independent from 50 to 65 years ago, it is not surprising that, as Strauss and Howe would have predicted, so much of it is now in crisis. Iraq, where the United States forcibly eliminated a totalitarian state on the European model, quickly sank into civil war and is now gradually disintegrating. The end of the old order in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt has landed all three nations in various stages of turmoil and chaos. The government of Mali lost control of much of its territory to Muslim extremists. Syria is now in the midst of a brutal civil war with little or no chance of a peaceful resolution. Turmoil could spread to the Persian Gulf states, like Bahrain, and even to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is in quite an advanced state of disintegration.
Like the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the French intervention in Mali represented a brief revival of nineteenth-century style imperialism. However one sees the moral rights and wrongs of this, however, there is no possibility that such interventions could provide a long-term solution to the anarchy that threatens the region. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the populations of these areas, relative to those of European states, were quite small; now they are much, much larger. Iraq had less than two million people when the British occupied it in the early 1920s, and about 25 million when the United States moved in in 2003. Egypt has a larger population than any European country. Even Mali now has nearly 15 million people, Tunisia has 10 million, and Syria more than 20 million. Nations of such size must organize themselves.
What can the United States and the West do? Their best course of action, it seems to me, is to focus upon themselves, and to keep the ideals of modern western civilization--including the idea of the state as planner and regulator of key aspects of the economy--alive. That is the only way to give the ideas of religious freedom, civil equality, a fair system of justice, and social services alive. Developments in western universities over the last forty years have also critically weakened the western intellectual tradition, while the entertainment industry, which has a worldwide reach, has also foresaken most of our cultural tradition. The evidence is mounting that the influence of the Enlightenment definitely peaked sometime in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The question now is whether its disintegration will go as far as it did at the end of the ancient world.