One of the clichés of the last five years is that the idea of the population as the center of gravity in warfare is a new one. But it could just as well be said that it’s a premodern concept. Conquering territory only makes sense in the relatively recent context of nation-states whose wealth resides in land and natural resources. Both before and after the nation-state, wealth resides in people.
In North America before Western invasion, tribes notoriously had no concept of private ownership of land. And in under-populated times and places in premodern Europe, it made little sense to conquer land when it was productive labor that was the important resource.
In times when land was in superabundant supply and people alone had political value, there was no point whatsoever in defining the territory of a state or of staking out its precise boundaries. Rulers were less concerned to claim land as a whole than to dominate the people who could work and develop the scattered oases of settlement and industry.
Celebrated acquirers of territory through violence like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan and the Mongols were much more concerned with subjugating and gaining tribute from peoples than they were with possessing their conquered lands. The Greek city-states of antiquity fought just as much for the right to obtain tribute as for lebensraum (though they did seek space for colonies when population pressures made farming uneconomic).
In our own time, land has diminishing importance. While it could be argued that some states are too remote from world population centers to be as successful as they might be (e.g., Australia, New Zealand), it’s hard to say that there is a size that makes a country too small. Tiny but immensely successful city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong are cases in point. They would have been unthinkable in the 17th or 18th centuries — but not in the context of, say, the ancient Greek city-states.
Richard Rosecrance raised a similar idea in 1996 in an influential Foreign Affairs article, “The Rise of the Virtual State.” Rosecrance wrote, “Less developed countries, still producing goods that are derived from land, continue to covet territory. In economies where capital, labor, and information are mobile and have risen to predominance, no land fetish remains. Developed countries would rather plumb the world market than acquire territory. The virtual state — a state that has downsized its territorially based production capability — is the logical consequence of this emancipation from the land.”
I would add that Athens and Syracuse and the power centers of the ancient Mediterranean — and medieval entrepôts like Venice and various “free cities” — were also “virtual states.”
What can we learn from this history? That when we analyze a historical war — much less enter into a new war, we should not assume that it is “for territory” or “for the loyalty of the population.” The answer may be surprising.