Hirst on Bobbitt

Paul Hirst
7 November 2002

Paul Hirst reviews Philip Bobbitt’s book “The Shield of Achilles”.

The Shield of Achilles is the most thought provoking book on the future of war and the international system to have appeared for some considerable time. It both challenges and occupies the space between the two dominant current positions on international politics that threaten to undermine both global governance and security.

On the one hand, there is the narrow nationalist agenda of the ultra-conservative elements in the Bush administration in the United States. This position is simultaneously unilateralist and interventionist, but it acts only on the most self-serving construction of American interests. If it were not an oxymoron it could best be called an imperial isolationism. In the end, this policy will damage both the USA and the West generally; for it makes no wider appeal and yet imposes sacrifices on others.

On the other hand, liberal internationalists seek to achieve global governance by going beyond the nation state. This second group believe that peace is the normal condition and war an aberration. They think peace can be ensured by the growth of an international law superior to states, and by peace enforcement orchestrated by the United Nations (UN); and that the international system needs to be democratised and made more inclusive, with the great powers acting through the UN or not at all. But this position ignores the real inequalities of wealth and power. It thus lets the great powers off the hook; they have no higher obligation to ensure peace and order on their own and are thus freed to pursue narrow self-interest.

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Bobbitt’s book also reminds us that, for all its apparent insularity, books of this quality and seriousness about foreign affairs are only written in the USA. The USA is the architect and guardian of the current international order, and it does continue to produce a real intellectual debate on the future of foreign policy.

Bobbitt’s book has three real strengths. Firstly, it links history, strategy and international law. Since the formation of the modern state and the international system in the 16th and 17th centuries, the world order has been shaped by a series of epochal wars and the major peace treaties that have followed them. International order emerges from a combination of military victories and the consequent forms of international law that regulate the affairs of the society of states. War and peace, law and order are inseparable features of the society of states, and wars are shaped by the historical visions of possible regimes and the international goals of the leading actors. History explains the goals and the political will that lead to definite strategies. This will not end. The society of states will continue, augmented by other actors. We shall never have a supra-state international order. Equally, pure international anarchy has never existed – states have never been absolutely ‘sovereign’, their attributes and policies defined independently of the society of states.

Secondly, it shows how, at each stage in the evolution of the state system, new forms of military power, new regimes of government and new constitutional settlements for the international system have interacted. Military history, political history and the history of international law need to be rigorously integrated in a way that they have seldom been. Military revolutions and revolutions in constitutional ideas, both domestic and international, drive the system.

Thirdly, against much fashionable rhetoric about globalisation leading to the ‘death of the state’, Bobbitt recognises that the continued survival of the state is a necessary part of any viable international system. The market, both domestically and internationally, needs to be undergirded by both military force and law. A global economy needs law, transparent common rules, and order, a peace based on durable force, to make it work. Economic liberal fundamentalists and liberal internationalists are both wrong. The market cannot survive by itself and law above the state will fail if it is not based on what norms the most powerful states will actually follow and enforce. Bobbitt argues it is not the state per se but the nation state that is in decline, a regime whose primary role was to ensure the domestic welfare of its citizens. It is being replaced by the market state. This state uses the private sector wherever possible as the means to its ends, and aims to ensure the maximisation of opportunities, both domestically and internationally, for its citizens.

The market transforms but does not displace political power. The international system is based on a fundamental inequality in the military, economic and cultural power of states. This needs to be recognised if the society of market states is to be preserved. The USA, as the most powerful state, needs to be ready for the possible conflicts and challenges that may disrupt the current international system and economy – ranging from the possible future hostility of Russia and China, or their collapse into anarchy, to supra-national terrorism, to economic conflict between the different varieties of the market state. To do this, the USA needs to configure its forces to the technological drivers of the revolution in military affairs, to be prepared for various kinds of conflict, but also to rebuild a viable constitutional and legal order for the society of states. The USA needs to stand for wider principles in the society of states if it is to defend its own interest. It is the sole true international power and is responsible for the current world order. This order is based on the principles of the Peace of Paris of 1990, which finally concluded World War Two – that is, democratic government, market economics and human rights. This cannot be done on a pure ‘America First’ basis.

The most problematic claim Bobbitt makes is that an epochal long war between 1914 and 1990 has just ended in the Peace of Paris. The issue of that war was which of the three competing systems of social organisation – fascism, communism and parliamentarism – would prevail. Victory means that the policies that enabled the West to prevail in the long war can no longer guide it. Democracy is now widespread and the nation state has been superseded. This is an extreme version of the argument that the West needs to re-think its strategy after victory in the cold war.

The long war only makes sense if, as Bobbitt claims, Germany was a fascist power before World War One – bent on world domination and controlled by an authoritarian regime. This is grossly to simplify the complexities and ambiguities of German policy from 1906–1914; Bethman-Hollweg or Wilhelm II are unlikely Nazis. The contest between the three ideologies in the 1920s and 1930s was real, but it was completely and contingently connected to the conflict of states. It is difficult to imagine the success of Nazism without the Great Crash of 1929, and without Hitler German objectives could have been accommodated by appeasement. Equally, Stalin’s Russia was an internationally conservative rather than a truly expansionist and aggressive power – its post 1945 annexations were essentially defensive.

The three allies during World War Two were contingent belligerents. Had not Germany attacked Russia and declared war on the USA, they might have been destroyed or contained piecemeal. This contingency applies as much to the UK and USA as to the USSR; they were rivals as much as potential allies. The British Empire was fundamentally threatened by American policy. American victory was close to complete in 1945. Both Russia and the UK were economically prostrate and neither had the atomic bomb. The USA was able, with British compliance, to impose its version of a liberal international order after 1945 and make it stick. Russia was not a genuine competitor for world order, but an outsider power that could be contained.

Why was 1945 so different from 1914? Firstly, Japan and Nazi Germany were destroyed as states and could be rebuilt in the Western image, whereas the defeated and disappointed powers in 1918 were left to their own devices. Secondly, hegemony was not fully settled in 1918. Britain’s hegemony was over, a fact that became obvious when it conceded naval parity at Washington in 1922, but the USA was not ready to assume a new hegemony. Thirdly, the reconstruction of the international economy in 1918 was premised on the illusion that the institutions of the belle époque could be rebuilt, Gold Standard and all.

The USA triumphed in 1945 because it was both the greatest power and the sole possessor of an enforceable vision of a possible international economic order. It offered membership and benefits to other states. The USA both underwrote the Bretton Woods system and invested heavily in the economic success of its allies and former enemies. The Soviets and Nazis were not real competitors in this respect; their ideologies had no place for a genuine inter-state order based on an acceptable economic settlement. For them, other states were mere vassals, to be exploited and plundered. Thus, it is better to think of a thirty years war between 1914–1945 than a long war. The cold war was a separate struggle, predicated on American victory.

Between 1815–1914, the British dictated the terms of the international system because of their economic, financial and naval power, and the rivalry of the European powers was subsidiary to this. Only when the European powers moved from cooperation to conflict did the coexistence of the two systems, a liberal world economy and a continental balance of power, become impossible. 1945 enabled the USA to re-create an open world economy on new foundations and to marginalise the one rival in great power politics through a strategy of containment. Thus, 1945 is the decisive break, not 1990, and it leaves the USA confronted with the need to bear the burdens of the system it has created and from which it has benefited by a truly hegemonic policy – one that combines force and assistance as Truman, Marshall and Kennan did after 1945.

The next most problematic aspect of the book is the concept of the market state. This is the last of a long series of transformations in the book connected to epochal wars. To my mind, Bobbitt’s account of the development of the state involves too many distinctions without fundamental differences; thus he distinguishes between the princely and kingly state, the territorial state, the state-nation and the nation state. Since the 17th century, the basic form of government has been the sovereign territorial state, that is, the exclusive ruler of a distinctive domain. Such sovereignty was a mixture of external recognition, states that were organised and behaved in a way acceptable to other members of the international system, and the capacity to prevail over lesser powers within and to exclude trans-territorial political actors.

Once such a form of exclusive government is established it requires legitimisation, since it imposes on the subject one primary loyalty instead of the competing claims of the various political and social agencies of the Middle Ages. That loyalty was first supplied by religion; overcoming the religious wars enabled states to territorialise their religious constitutions and to exclude competing confessional claims on loyalty. Only then could states be really sovereign and build legitimisation on the basis of religious identification and dynastic loyalty. The model states in that regard were England, the Netherlands and Sweden – all could complete the transition to nation states without fundamental upheaval.

Nation states were constructed from the 18th century onwards out of sovereign territorial states and they remain the dominant form with three varieties: the patriotic republic (France, USA), the ethnic nation (Germany, Poland) and the civic nation (Australia, Canada). These forms seem to me more durable than the notion of the market state. Territoriality and nationalism still dominate the forms of state legitimisation, despite high levels of international trade and cultural interchange. The reasons why territorial forms of government continue to predominate and only they are unlikely to be superseded by international agencies or trans-territorial political forces are fourfold:

  • It is still a fundamental principle of the international system that there be no territory without an effective and exclusive ruler who can bear the responsibility for events arising from within its borders. Without such rulers ‘black holes’ are created that suck in and destroy the prevailing forms of international order through terrorism and crime.

  • It is also the case that an open international economy, a space of exchange between national territories, only works if it is defined and defended by public power, which in the last instance means states. So-called transnational companies realise this and cluster in the G7; over 90% of the FT 500 global companies are based in North America, the EU or Japan.

  • Trans-territorial political agencies have two key defects: they are exclusive and thus weakly legitimate, a fact that limits the political claims of most non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and they find it hard to control members, they have the option of voluntary compliance (most NGOs) and extra-legal compulsion (criminal and terrorist networks).

  • The populations of most states are not economically mobile. They are neither rich enough nor poor enough to move, lacking the skills of the international technocracy or the desperation of economic migrants. Thus they share the national territory as a community of fate.

The notion of a market state comes close to an idealised Clintonite description of the USA: ignoring the existence of an extensive welfare state that benefits the old and the well-to-do but not the poor; the pervasive bureaucratic and legalistic regulation; the massive state spending on subsidies to agriculture and to high-tech industries in the form of military R & D and federal grants to universities for research; the restrictive trade policies; and the ability to profit from control of the capital markets and the US dollar as the medium of world trade.

The image of a state that uses private sector methods to promote opportunities for its citizens to create wealth is partial; most states including the USA are still into old-fashioned policies of providing welfare to citizens. They have to be. Indeed, the more internationalised the economy, the greater the need for the state to intervene to protect the national interest abroad and to protect citizens from internationally generated shocks. This has been obvious for a long time in the highly internationalised smaller European states that could not use macro-economic policy as a cushion against external shocks. They all have higher than average levels of public expenditure and extensive welfare provision. Social security enables people to maximise their opportunities just as much as good education; it enables people to adapt and change. Such states are not eliminating welfare. States such as Denmark and the Netherlands have levels of productivity comparable to the USA and as good a record on job creation.

Equally, those developing countries that have industrialised to Western income levels – South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan – have done so by domestic capital formation, not by running policies to attract foreign capital. Those states most committed to attracting foreign capital have suffered the greatest reverses as a result of the instability of foreign markets, such as Indonesia, whereas Malaysia has been able to successfully impose exchange controls because it has concentrated on attracting long-term direct investment. Thus, the nation state in both the developed and developing countries is far from finished.

Bobbitt presents three models of the market state – the entrepreneurial, the mercantile and the managerial – but sees the former, identified with the USA and UK, as the superior option. Yet the entrepreneurial aspects of US capitalism look less and less like a model for all other advanced societies: the US record on productivity in the 1990s is more modest than was once believed; the stockholder value model has led to immense value destruction as a result of the dot.com and telecoms investment boom and the generalised stock-market asset price bubble; US corporate management and governance have been shown wanting by the Enron and World Com scandals; and the high dependence on external lending for domestic capital formation is beginning to unravel. This does not mean US capitalism is incapable of weathering the crisis, merely that there is no reason to take the particular economic institutions and practices of the USA as a model for all successful economies.

A better term might well be liberal rather than market states. In some ways the international economy has returned to some of the features of the pre-1914 period, with large international flows and the dependence of many governments on the fluctuations of the bond market. In that sense the period from the 1930s to the OPEC crisis of 1973 was unusual. Since the formation of the state system in the 17th century, states have been constrained by financial markets. Those most able to borrow long at low interest rates, such as the UK and the Netherlands, have been most successful at sustaining the cost of their wars and profiting from them.

The final distinctive position Bobbitt advances is that on international law. He is fundamentally hostile to the conception of international law promoted by believers in global governance. The notion of such law as universal – that it applies equally in the same way to all states, that it emerges from the sovereignty of the world community, and that it applies like national law, as superior rules that cover individual delicts – is fundamentally misconceived. The society of states has always had norms; sovereignty was permitted only to those bodies that played by the prevailing rules. Such law amounts to the customs and usages of the society of states not to a superior justice above that society. Sovereignty was never absolute – the great powers intervened to enforce norms, against states that defaulted or that exported chaos.

The difference now is that current conceptions of law aim to limit the powers, whereas the need is to construct ‘coalitions of the willing’, able to enforce international order. International norms have to recognise real differences of wealth and power between states – the USA and Somalia are not equals in the way citizens are equal before domestic law. The UN cannot be a viable source of the will of the international community, a source of ‘sovereignty’ for lawful international action. It has little legitimacy. The General Assembly is dominated by poor and weak states, the Security Council by a random collection of states plus an irrational sub-set of the major powers. A more ‘democratic’ system based on one state/one vote would make decisions intolerable to the established democracies.

However, the members of the society of states that enforce norms must also stand for something greater than mere self-interest, an international order that benefits those subject to it. This can only happen if the basis for such norms is the principles of the Peace of Paris: democracy, markets and human rights. The powers are better protectors of such rights than a chaotic division of labour between the powers, the UN and international lawyers – that way lies Srebrenica. Human rights are better enforced by states acting together than by international courts ruling after the event.

Peace can only be founded on a combination of strategy and law, coupled with a sense of history that makes clear the purposes for which states will fight to preserve peace. War is a necessary part of the order of peace; Kant realised this, his league of states remained capable of self-defence and aware of the costs of war. A ‘perpetual peace’ in which war is banished is inconceivable because it has no place for its own preservation. If conflicts cannot be settled or contained, they will occur on a scale greater than if prudent stewardship of the powers is exercised.

I tend to agree with this and believe the current hubris of international lawyers and cosmopolitans will ruin the enforcement of international norms. Like a failing domestic legal system they will fitfully criminalise those who are either weak or unlucky. However, this means the powers have to be both prudent – it would impose disproportionate suffering to act on certain human rights violations – and also principled. Currently, they fall below the latter standard and, in the case of the Bush administration’s various threats, such as the invasion of Iraq, the former too. Bobbitt offers an outline of the conditions for a viable society of states (p. 802) and for intervention (p. 803); these should be read carefully in the State Department and the White House.

The shield of Achilles on a 5th century BC Athenian vase

This book has many admirable features, much as Achilles’ shield was designed to dazzle, but the hero’s armour did not protect him from a deadly weakness. In the same way, Bobbitt’s book for all its impressive learning and wide scope has a fatal flaw, which may be as dangerous as Achilles’ vulnerable heel to Western policy. The book really flunks two major issues that are crucial to conflict in the 21st century.

The first is global warming. The USA is blind to this issue and is the major cause of the problem. Yet it too will suffer if sea levels rise and the weather becomes turbulent, bringing catastrophic storms, droughts and floods to different areas in unpredictable ways. This will promote resource conflicts and create millions of climatic refugees. It will reinforce the value of territory, putting a premium on farmland and water resources.

The second is the persistence of global inequality. The world is not evening up. Currently, the top 20% of the world’s population receives about 80% of world GDP and the bottom quintile 1%. How do we extend a meaningful and inclusive international order to a world dominated by urban slums and impoverished peasantries?

The danger is that Bobbitt’s sensible suggestions will make the present system more viable until it is overwhelmed by chaotic climatic and social conditions and their consequences for conflict. Drastic action by the major powers and real sacrifices by their peoples now might prevent this – international governance by supra-national agencies cannot and will not. Nation states have been able to motivate their peoples to huge sacrifices in war. We need equal if more complex sacrifices and efforts now.

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