War, States, and Technology

by Thomas Schaeubli

Anyone would agree that technology is an important aspect on the battle field and that technological advancements today are rapid and fundamental. I’d like to highlight in this post that advancements in military technology do not just change the way we fight, but also the way our world is organized.

From the Middle Ages on, the European state system was driven by two developments, namely the external and internal consolidation of the states as we know them today.

Europe, 1708

The external, territorial shape of states came into being as some rulers started to eliminate their rivals and established their sovereignty over an increasing territory. Simply spoken, they conquered who they could and stopped when they met an equal. Ultimately, the European state system took the shape it still more or less has today.

Internally, rulers incrementally deepened the way they administered the territory they ruled. They started as regional war lords, giving no respect to local people. Later, more and more societal groups became involved in national politics, and the state offered ever more services to its people. Finally, the people themselves were the rulers, being democratically elected politicians.

Rulers were incentivised to expand their power by the competitive character of the international system. To guarantee their survival, they expanded and consolidated their rule. Because no-one protects them, they acquired an ever increasing amount of power, until the European state system stabilised in the form it pretty much still has today.


The fundamental driving force behind the development of the states has to be seen in new technologies of warfare. When knights ruled the battlefields, many individuals could allow to hire some of them – out came the fragmented world of the Middle Ages. With pikes and bows, more men were needed, and less rulers could afford to success in the struggle. A first round of competitors, so to speak, was eliminated. After the invention of fire-weapons, only the rulers of national societies could mobilize enough fighters. Ultimately, the totalitarian wars of the Twenty-first century could only be fought by totalitarian societies.

To mobilise ever more troops, upcoming nationalist trends were instrumentalised and states became nations. To gratify the increasing masses on duty, rulers were forced to bargain with them. The result were social security systems, the inclusions of societal groups in domestic politics, and ultimately universal suffrage.


In sum, looking to protect themselves and to consolidate their power, rulers unintentionally created the state system as we know it. They established how states are organized internally, how they interact, and how they understand international security.

Thus, however directly or indirectly, technology is the fundamental explanatory variable behind our state system and its interaction. The organizational structure of Europe, and ultimately the world, can be attributed to developments in weapon systems. Sure this argument is strongly simplified, but it is not without merits.

Global Hawk

That said, it becomes clear that much thought and consideration should be given not just to how technology changes battle fields, but how it changes politics, too. The increasing precision of today’s weapons, the fact that ever less human are needed in future battles – how will these aspects change the way the international political arena will be organized? Will non-state actors be empowered? Will technology free human resources to both fight and prosper? Will it increase the gap between the high-tech haves and the have-nots?

Much of the discussion about the changing nature of international politics is rooted in lofty, philosophical thinking that has few appeal to many of us. The understanding of technology as a main driving force behind the political organization of mankind should give incentives to a fresh group of people to think about these topics. What is needed is knowledge of both technological advancements and historical facts. What is possible is nothing less than to gain a glimpse into our future.

This entry was posted in English, General Knowledge, Security Policy, Technology, Thomas Schaeubli.

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