Looking around the world, it's tempting to think that national borders have seldom been less secure. Some 50,000 Central American children have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border over the past several months; Russia annexed Crimea this spring, while the national status of much of Ukraine remains in doubt; eastern Syria and vast swaths of Iraq have collapsed into one another; and an increasingly aggressive China is embroiled in a number of territorial disputes with its neighbors. There's something palpably unnerving about watching borders disintegrate; it feels as though a solid entity—the nation-state—is melting into the air.
But as Harvard history professor Charles S. Maier's sweeping new book, Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood (Belknap Press, 2014), reminds us, the modern nation-state—defined in a loose sense by territorial integrity, highly developed governing structures, and technological prowess—is itself a historical anomaly, one that did not really begin to take form until the mid-19th century. And, as he demonstrates, the processes by which modern states came into existence were not always savory.
Maier begins his immensely ambitious treatise with a story from June 25, 1876, when the United States Army deployed "seven hundred cavalry against an alliance of Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne communities." Were the American soldiers, Maier asks, "really confident that these hills and river valleys were their country's own? What might such an assertion signify?" For their part, the "Native Americans have their own economic relationship to these lands," he writes, adding that "perhaps neither side really comprehends why the other must claim such a vast landscape." The Native Americans won that battle, which we now know as Custer's Last Stand. But "in the long run," notes Maier, "the victors of that day [became] losers." The state won out in the end.
Unlike Hobbes's 1651 Leviathan, Maier's book is primarily a work of history, not philosophy. And like another big book released in the past year—Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century—Leviathan 2.0 draws on a wealth of examples spanning multiple continents. Indeed, despite the opening case he's chosen, Maier does not single out the United States as unique insofar as its development as a nation-state coincided with the subjugation of tribes. Similar events played out, he writes, in the Ottoman Empire, the Caucasus highlands of Central Asia, and the African savannas.
Of course, it wasn't only the subjugation of nomads that gave rise to the modern state. Broader "wars of national reconstruction"—think the Franco-Prussian War or our own Civil War—played a part by establishing the borders that we still see on the map today. "Technological transformation was a critical input" as well, Maier maintains, describing the importance of developments such as railroads. "The railroad influenced political organization … by reinforcing the credibility of the nation-state as a cohesive arena of collective decision-making," he writes.
Maier also observes the remarkable fact that states around the world constituted themselves almost simultaneously in the period from 1850 to 1880. "No doubt the process was infectious," he asserts, also noting the increased mobility of goods, people, and ideas in this period. Very few countries were operating in a vacuum, and developments in one country inevitably influenced those in another. The book runs up through the mid-20th century, when the modern state overstepped its bounds in places such as Nazi Germany, Mao's China, and the Soviet Union.
While not a work of policy, Maier's book is an opportunity for policymakers to contemplate the nature of the modern state—and where it might be going from here. What, after all, is the purpose of the modern state in our ever more globalized world? It's a question many seem to be asking; most European states, for instance, have voluntarily given up important aspects of their national sovereignty in pursuit of transnational models of governance (although there is now a significant pushback in many European countries against those trends). Put differently and more pessimistically: Is the collapse of the Syria-Iraq border one last gasp of an older world, or is it a harbinger of things to come? What will Leviathan 3.0 look like—if it exists at all?
This article appears in the July 26, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Past and Future of Borders.