States of War

How the Nation-State Made Modern Conflict

Abu Ali, an 84-year-old whom activists say is the oldest Free Syrian Army fighter in Deir al-Zor, Syria, runs to avoid snipers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, October 2013. Kalil Ashawi / Courtesy Reuters

To explain recent conflicts in countries such as Syria or Sudan, observers have been quick to point their fingers at proximate causes specific to our times: the power vacuum created by the end of the Cold War offered opportunities for rebels to fill the void; the recent globalization of trade flooded the developing world with cheap arms; rising global consumer demand generated new struggles over oil and minerals; jihadist groups spread using networks of fighters trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet such explanations miss a bigger picture. If we extend the time horizon beyond the Cold War to include the entire modern period -- from the American and French revolutions to today -- we can see repeating patterns of war and conflict. These patterns are related to the formation and development of independent nation-states.

Until the eighteenth century, empires, dynastic kingdoms, tribal confederacies, and city-states governed most of the world. This changed when nationalists introduced the notion that every “people” deserved its own government. They argued that ethnic likes should rule over likes. In other words, Slovaks should be governed by Slovaks, not the House of Hapsburg; and Americans by Americans, not the British crown. Over the past two centuries, in wave after wave of nation-state formation, this new principle of political legitimacy transformed the world.

In most places, two distinct phases of conflict accompanied this transition: first, violence related to the creation of the nation-state itself, and second, an often bloody struggle over which ethnic or national groups would hold power in the newly established state, and over where the country’s final borders would settle.


Roughly a third of present-day countries have fought violent wars of independence that united, if only temporarily, the diverse inhabitants of colonial or imperial provinces against their overlords. But many of the resulting nation-states endured even worse violence after independence was won because the like-over-like principle bred further conflict among the victors themselves.

Imperial governments had often recruited members of specific minorities into the

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