Martin van Creveld in 10 Great Quotes

Martin van Creveld is one of the foremost theorists on the rise and decline of the state.  Van Creveld is not a libertarian, but his work greatly influences libertarian thought about revolutionary struggle, fourth-generation warfare, polycentric law, and non-state security. Van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State (1999) presented an evolutionary history of the stat, defined by its geographical monopoly on legitimated violence and adjudication, and predicted that new communications technologies would allow private actors to assume roles, such as security and legal services, historically monopolized by states. 


Van Creveld demonstrates how non-state actors can and have replaced state functions.  His answers are brutally honest, arguing that the decline of the state is not only possible, but possibly inevitable.  Van Creveld is neither utopian nor dystopian, arguing that the decline of the state holds both negative and positive possibilities.  Because of this brutal honesty, van Creveld’s work should be on the reading list for every libertarian, anarchist, or or volunaryist. 

1. 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. (Interview given in 2002 concerning Israeli prospects during the Second Intifada).

2.  A world without war is not in the cards. (The Culture of War, 2002).

3. Except when war is waged in a desert, noncombatants, also known as civilians or ‘the people,’ constitute the great majority of those affected.

4. The enemy resembles us. Therefore, he needs to be approached not as an assembly of ‘targets’ to be destroyed one by one; but as a living, intelligent entity capable of acting and reacting.

5. Iran is the real victor in Iraq, and the world must now learn to live with a nuclear Iran the way we learned to live with a nuclear Soviet Union and a nuclear China…. We Israelis have what it takes to deter an Iranian attack. We are in no danger at all of having an Iranian nuclear weapon dropped on us…. thanks to the Iranian threat, we are getting weapons from the U.S. and Germany. (2007. Van Creveld was an outspoken critic of the US invasion of Iraq).

6. Finally, the unprecedented development of electronic information services seems to mark another step toward the coming collapse of the state. Traditionally no state has ever been able to completely control the thoughts of all its citizens; With the advent of computer networks and the consequent democratization of access to information, the battle between freedom and control was irretrievably lost by the latter, much to the regret of numerous governments.” “Contrary to the fears of George Orwell in 1984, modern technology, in the form of nuclear weapons on the one hand and unprecedented means for communication and transportation on the other, has not resulted in the establishment of unshakable totalitarian dictatorships. The net effect has been to make governments lose power in favor of organizations that are not sovereign and are not states.

7. There cannot be a society without this experience of membership. For it is this that enables me to regard the interests and needs of strangers as my concern; that enables me to recognize the authority of decisions and laws.” “Take away the experience of membership and the ground of the social contract disappears: social obligations become temporary, troubled, and defeasible, and the idea that one might be called upon to lay down one’s life for a collection of strangers begins to border on the absurd.

8. Born out of civil war, originally the state was merely a machine for imposing peace and quiet. During the later years of the eighteenth century, though, it met with nationalism. In the hands of such people as the Swiss Baltheassar and the German Herder, nationalism started as a harmless nostalgia for one’s native customs which seemed about to be swept away by the universalism of the enlightenment; it was a cultural movement, not a political one. Later, though, it was usurped by the state which used it in order to fill in its own moral emptiness. Thus employed and, some would say, perverted, nationalism changed its spots, taking on a virulent, chauvinistic, and aggressive character. By providing a goal and a flag-it is with the aid of colored ribbons that men are led, as Napoleon said-nationalism enabled the state to assimilate the people. Channeling and focusing the latter’s energies, it harnessed them to its own ends.

9. While many states are either imploding or coming together, all of them face increasing competition from other forms of organization. Some of those organizations are private, others are public.In the future, and to a growing extent, more and more these organizations can be expected to emancipate themselves from state control and to play an independent role.

10. Democracies owe their existence to national loyalties – the loyalties that are supposedly shared by government and opposition, by all political parties, and by the electorate as a whole. Yet everywhere the idea of the nation is under attack – either despised as an atavistic form of social unity, or even condemned as a cause of war and conflict, to be broken down and replaced by more enlightened and more universal forms of jurisdiction. But what, exactly, is supposed to replace the nation and the nation state?