It now seems clear that the modern state reached the zenith of its power during the middle third of the twentieth century. Driven by a series of great wars, revolutions, and technological changes, states mobilized unprecedented numbers of men and resources, and enjoyed a remarkable degree of loyalty from their peoples. The western model of states based upon rational thought--whose offshoots included Communism--spread to nearly every corner of the globe and seemed to be wiping out any fundamental challenges to itself. Religious authority was in retreat even in most of the Islamic world for the first two thirds of the twentieth century. During the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to strengthen states in all the nations that belonged to their alliances. States also assumed responsibility for the health of their nation's economies.
The world rejoiced when perhaps the most highly organized state of all, the USSR, declined and then suddenly collapsed in the early 1990s. Francis Fukuyama boldly proclaimed the end of history and political conflict. But now, almost a quarter of a century later, the Soviet collapse strikes me as a kind of canary in a global coal mine, a symbol of things to come. States have weakened, militarily and otherwise, in much of the world over the last two decades. Conscription survives in only a few countries with major security threats, such as Israel, the two Koreas, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Taxation has fallen drastically in most of the world, and global financial giants make governments tremble. The United States routinely carries out drone strikes that violent the most fundamental sovereignty of foreign govrnments and pay no respect to the lives and property of their citizens. Globalization has taken national economies out of the control of political authorities. With the exception of North Korea, even surviving Communist states exert far less control over their people and economy than they used to. And religious authority has made an astonishing comeback, not only in much of the Muslim world--including Turkey, once a secular bastion--but even here in the United States.
This development is not entirely unwelcome; it has had many good consequences. The aggressor states of the twentieth century unleashed wars that killed tens of millions of people, and despite China's new round of saber-rattling over maritime rights, no one seems in the least likely to start such a war any time soon. The casualties in civil wars in places like Iraq and Syria still horrify us, but they do not compare in the least even to those in the opening conflicts of the Second World War, such as the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese war. We now fear terrorists that can kill hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, not armies that could kill hundreds of thousands, occupy whole nations, and redraw the map. Yet our new environment undoubtedly presents dangers of its own--and states are making them worse.
The Second World War was an ideological fight to the death, but when it was over, the United States and the Soviet Union in effect accepted each other as the two leading nations of the world, especially after Stalin's death and the Cuban missile crisis. They competed for influence around the globe and spied upon each other, but they did very little to undermine one another's societies and governments. The third world was their main battleground. Today, on the hand weaker states are trying to increase one another's weakness in various ways. The Chinese hack into our computers; the United States has spied upon world leaders all over the globe. Russia is continually trying to intervene in the affairs of other former Soviet states, such as Ukraine. The Middle East has become the site of a wide-ranging religious war between Sunnis and Shi'ites, waged without regard to national sovereignty or traditional rules of diplomacy. Russia has also given asylum to Edward Snowden, an American who has embarrassed his own country to an extraordinary extent, and who has in so doing become a hero to millions of people around the world who distrust states, including many right here in the United States. Snowden exemplifies another trend, the use of contractors, rather than lifetime civil servants, to do important government work. An American Assistant Secretary of State visits Ukraine and meets openly with the leaders of protesters in a political crisis, an unheard of development in earlier eras. On the other hand, Secretary of State Kerry's recognition that a deal with Syria over chemical weapons made more sense than air strikes was a welcome exception to this trend--it acknowledged the authority of the Syrian state in an attempt to make its civil war less violent. The same applies, of course, to the potential nuclear agreement with Iran--although here in the United States the pro-Israel lobby is working to make the project fail.
The weakness of states reflects profound intellectual changes as well. Nationalism is now almost the exclusive province of xenophobic extreme right groups, rather than an encouragement to make one's own country a better place, as it was in Kennedy's America or de Gaulle's France. Religion has trumped citizenship in large parts of the world, and has threatened to do so in some parts of the United States. In the western world, at least, the academy has lost interest in the great dramas of citizenship and statehood. For more than half a century we have taken the remarkable civic achievements of our parents and grandparents for granted. They have decayed as a result.
Here in the United States last week's news was actually relatively encouraging. The budget deal signals an enormous power shift within the Republican Party and suggests that its attempt to dismantle the federal government--now finishing its third year--could soon be abandoned. Yet that will leave us with a status quo in which the federal government, to say nothing of the states, remains a shadow of its former self with respect to its power to promote the general welfare, much less play a major role in planning our economy. In any case, the trends I have been discussing are far too profound to be reversed merely by a couple of elections or a budget deal. They represent a turning point in western and world history, and I expect future generations to be dealing with their impact long after we have left the scene.