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How COIN is Premodern

Ann Marlowe

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 its 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), its 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

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