S+B: How did the nation-state come to dominate the 20th century?
BOBBITT: For most of this century, three different kinds of state were at war with each other to determine which would be legitimate: fascist states like Nazi Germany, communist states like the Soviet Union, or parliamentarian states like the United States and United Kingdom. But the same fundamental idea was pretty much unquestioned by all the great powers: that the state was given power so it could better the material well-being of its people. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt said this; so did Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin. They all agreed on this, though they disagreed on the different ways of accomplishing it.
In this country, we entered into the nation-state constitutional order after 1865, following our Civil War. In Europe, it was pioneered by Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister who organized Germany into a single nation-state in the 1870s. But it really took the destruction of the 19th-century empires in World War I for all the great powers to adopt some version of that constitutional order. That was when the 20th-century nation-state really emerged. And it spent most of this century at war with itself. I think historians will look back on the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the war in Korea, the war in Vietnam, and the Cold War as all part of the same basic conflict, in the same way that historians now group a dozen or so conflicts into the Thirty Years’ War.
S+B: So the 20th century was the first time in human history that the idea had currency that a nation-state exists to basically provide prosperity for its people?
BOBBITT: I won’t go quite that far, because that idea has been present for quite some time. But in the 20th century, for the first time, the basis for the legitimacy of the state rested on that idea in practice. That was a real innovation, a real novelty.
S+B: When “Engine Charlie” Wilson, the CEO of General Motors in the 1950s and President Eisenhower’s secretary of defense, said that “the business of America is business,” he didn’t mean what most people thought he meant: that corporations should dominate the government. He meant that the government was responsible for the economic well-being of its citizens.
BOBBITT: That’s right. Many people think of private enterprise as the enemy of the state. We think of them as locked in battles like — oh, like some of the steel pricing and labor battles that Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy fought against corporate interests. But those were anomalies. Most of the time, the 20th-century corporation was very much a creature of the 20th-century nation-state. They worked hand-in-glove with regulation.
Charlie Wilson’s remark was not out of place. He might have said, “the business of the state is encouraging big business.” Because it was the large corporation, and its attendant labor unions, that worked so closely with that particular form of constitutional order.
S+B: Why did the nation-state’s legitimacy — and the role of government in it — erode with the end of the Cold War?
BOBBITT: This is quite interesting, because that was also the moment of the nation-state’s greatest triumph. We had finally resolved the question over which the Long War was fought: The question of which form of nation-state was most legitimate.
S+B: In other words, the Nazis and Communists — as well as such outliers as South Africa’s apartheid regime — all fell because they couldn’t maintain their legitimacy as providers of wealth to their people.