America first: the case to answer

Philip Bobbitt Paul Hirst
7 November 2002

Opposition to the Bush administration’s strategy on Iraq is growing both inside America and around the world. Criticism of its pre-emptive approach tends to be scornful of its intellectual framework and strategic thinking. But a serious case has been made for the exercise of American power - notably by Philip Bobbitt, author of “The Shield of Achilles”, who was Senior Director for Strategic Planning at the National Security Council in Clinton’s White House. openDemocracy met with Philip Bobbitt and Paul Hirst, author of “Globalisation in Question”, to hear them debate the justifications for America’s independence from international constraint, and wider issues of world politics and economic development emerging from the end of the cold war. This encounter provides the starting point for openDemocracy’s debate on American power & the world. Bobbitt’s epic study “The Shield of Achilles” was written before 11 September 2001, but it anticipates the rise of terrorism and al-Qaida. He has provided openDemocracy with a summary of his argument, while Paul Hirst assesses the merits of the book.


The dialogue

Paul Hirst: 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. As I’ve said in my review, it challenges the two dominant current positions on international politics: namely, the narrow nationalist agenda of the ultra-conservative elements in the Bush administration on the one hand and, on the other, the position of liberal internationalists who seek to go beyond the nation state with global governance.

In my view, Philip’s book has three special strengths, which I assess in my review. First, it links history, strategy and international law – he sees how war and peace are related to systems of law and order as in the international system. 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. Thirdly, against much fashionable rhetoric about globalisation leading to the ‘death of the state’, Philip recognises that the continued existence of the state is a necessary part of any viable international system.

I take issue with two of his central hypotheses: the concept of a ‘long war’ between 1914 and 1990, and the notion of the ‘market state’. What is more, I think The Shield of Achilles misses two major challenges for the 21st century: global warming, and the persistence of global inequality.

The international system today is not doing what the achievements after 1945 did for the defeated powers. Germany and Japan allied themselves with the United States and were transformed economically and politically under American tutelage. Since they were, and remain, the next two largest economies to the US that really did matter for international stability, and of course America’s European allies. Some other client states, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have also become successful.


What we’re seeing now is very different. Large parts of the world simply are not going forwards in this way. One could argue about the relative positions of China, India and Russia, but none of them, in my opinion, are going to turn into the equivalent partners, in the international system, of Germany or Japan.

Instead, they will remain slightly awkward members of the system, and a large part of the world will be very poor, very violent, and very disorganised. This poses formidable problems for the maintenance of a relatively just and liberal international economic system, and for a system of great power hegemony. Added to this is the question of military technology, which I’ve written about in openDemocracy. In the long run, for the US to maintain superiority in the face of the new possibilities of the military revolution, it will have to achieve a monopoly of space weapons, and to be prepared to use space for conventional purposes to a degree even greater than it does now. This is deeply problematic, because it involves trying to impose military hegemony in space, which will lead to much conflict.

Finally, there is the challenge of global warming, which no international order has ever had to face. Many people argue that the nation state is finished because global warming is a challenge the nation state cannot meet. Well, I don’t see anything that’s going to be able to deal with it. International organisations are not going to be able to deal with it either.

So, we have, potentially, a much more turbulent environment in the coming decades. The two elements necessary to any viable international system – a balance between the great powers, and the maintenance of the liberal economic order – will come into conflict. US hegemony will decline and all powers will seize and seek to control essential resources, such as water, food, land and oil, by non-market methods.


Philip Bobbitt: First, I want to say that this is a very valuable, subtle and interesting analysis. Paul Hirst has outlined a pessimistic view. He has talked about the growing gap in wealth between different parts of the world, and the simultaneous vulnerability that even the most powerful military states face.

To take one example, my country, the US, has more than a million men under arms. Our intelligence budget alone is greater than the combined defence budget of Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and Libya. And yet we were not able to protect ourselves from one attack by less than two dozen, very poorly armed fanatics, dealing us a greater wound than any single attack, including Pearl Harbour…I agree, this vulnerability is likely to increase.

But I am an optimist. The global warming problem that Paul rightly draws attention to is in many ways more susceptible to what I call ‘market state’ methods than to ‘nation state’ methods. If the Third World is going to develop, and if global warming is to be prevented, then they are going to have to use nuclear power stations to generate energy. That is the only way to make these two things happen at the same time. And it will come about, I think, because there will be market incentives to do so. This will be a market-driven way of protecting the planet and the market will find ways of making nuclear power relatively safe, continuing with a system of coercive nation states. The alternative will result, I think, either in warfare or a global system that resembles pre-Mandela South Africa – a kind of apartheid writ large.

With regard to my concept of the ‘market state’, my sense is that Professor Hirst and I are describing the same animal but with a slightly different zoological purpose. He is absolutely right about the persistence of what in his review he refers to as the ‘sovereign territorial state’. This is a nice phrase that captures very well the sort of world we live in. Cultural identity is indeed still predicated on the ‘sovereign territorial state’. You see this every time a World Cup comes on the television! However, I’m trying to imagine a different terminology to resolve problems that he is not really addressing. These are, in part, intellectual problems about the relationship between the revolution in military affairs and changes in the constitutional order over the past five centuries. But they are also attitudinal problems about policy formation in the US and in other countries today. We now have to do something that’s not been done before.

al-Qaida, for example, is not just a criminal gang, it has international political goals, income and followers. In The Shield of Achilles I describe it as a ‘virtual state’. If ‘sovereign territorial state’ is the only term we have, we’d not be able to comprehend the originality of al-Qaida.

Our different views about the ‘long war’ similarly come from different optics. I agree that the wars I describe were mainly wars between great powers, and arose for the reasons that wars have always arisen: desire for aggrandisement, fear of diminution, the ambitions of leaders, the collapse of alliances. This is one way to describe what happened. I’m interested in another way of describing it. I believe that wars I call ‘epochal’ wars begin for all the usual reasons but at some point ignite something deep in the constitutional order of the great powers that are fighting these wars. That’s why they don’t go out; that’s why, like children’s birthday candles, they puff back into flame even though you think you’ve blown them out. I believe that international systems come about as a result of these wars.


Realpolitik and military power

openDemocracy: Some say that poverty and suffering in large parts of the world ‘don’t really matter’ to the West; but that there are some exceptions. It’s claimed that Iraq, for example, presents a military threat, and is significant because it controls the world’s second largest reserves of oil. Paul has talked about his pessimism regarding the ultimate consequences, revolution in military affairs, and the possibility that it may not offer security to the major powers in the longer term. But in the near term, the Bush administration is talking about a pre-emptive military strike against Saddam Hussein’s regime. How do you view Bush’s plan?

Philip Bobbitt: Much of the criticism of the Administration’s plans has arisen from a scepticism of the President’s motives—are they partisan or perhaps economic at bottom? I don’t think it is wise to assess policy in terms of the motivations in the decision-maker’s mind. The policy is wise in itself - or not. The action is either wise or unwise. Furthermore, do not be misled into believing that the United States administration is indifferent to building a coalition against Iraq because the United States so noisily announced we would go ahead alone if necessary. We will get a positive resolution from the UN Security Council, but as a practical political matter, that is only possible if the U.S. declares it may not require such a resolution in the first place.

With respect to the policy of pre-emption, I would simply say that the world has dramatically changed since the end of what I call the long war. A system of deterrence that took us some years to work out – but which, by the time I was writing Democracy and Deterrence in the early 1980s, was very stable and well understood – depends upon knowing who your enemy is and, as they say, where he lives. You have to be able to promise retaliation with such certainty and such devastation that your own security becomes a very important policy priority for your adversary. During the years from the early 1960s onwards the Americans paid a lot of attention to Russian security and vice versa.

The problem now is that you are going to have, to an increasing degree, adversaries whose location you don’t know and against whom you cannot promise decisive retaliation. It is no good relying on deterrence as the sole element to prevent an attack on you. You need something else. If you think Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons, which they could use against another nuclear power such as Israel, or that they could launch against US forces in the area – then that doesn’t seem to me to be a problem. We deterred the Soviet Union. We ought to be able to deter Iraq. But this is not the issue. The issue is whether or not, if an adversary state acquires weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or biological, these will inevitably find their way into the hands of non-state actors – a force that could simply sail them in a small boat into New York harbour. That’s the new problem. And I cannot believe anyone thinks that this possibility is made less likely by Saddam Hussein obtaining such weapons. This is why the US administration is talking about pre-emption. The question is not, ‘After pre-emption, will we be better off than we are now?’ No one can promise that – war is too unpredictable. The question is, ‘After pre-emption, will we be better off than if we had not even tried?’ And the answer depends on the degree to which you think Saddam Hussein is able to acquire and then distribute weapons of mass destruction.

Paul Hirst: It is conceivable that a rogue state, possessing weapons of mass destruction, might need urgent preventative action and the Security Council might be blocked from ordering such action for reasons of power politics. The Security Council is power politics in action, not the fount of all lawful international action. Its legitimisation of any pre-emptive use of force is desirable but not essential. The US, as the most powerful state, cannot always be bound by it in advance.

However, the US needs to uphold certain values and to act as conservatively as possible. It cannot intervene everywhere. It should not act from mixed motives. There are just too many narrow Washington agendas involved in the push for an attack on Iraq now. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction need eliminating, hence it should be forced to accept massive infringements of its sovereignty consistent with the fact that it is a repeat aggressor nation, having attacked Iran and invaded Kuwait. But this can be done methodically. The current state of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programme is not yet such as requires a ‘pre-emptive’ attack. Nor can such a case be made out for immediate action against Iran or North Korea.

As for regime change – Saddam is unspeakable, but this society has only known brutal rule since the old regime was created after World War One. What chance is there that we can create a better one? This is a bitterly divided society and its Sunni core has known no political life or effective opposition for decades. Nation building can only be done when people accept that the task is necessary and that the incoming victors are legitimate agents of change. This happened after World War Two. Germany and Japan had forfeited all right to exist as states, and as their peoples came out of the coma of fascism they saw allied occupation as a benefit. Neither the Iraqi people nor neighbouring peoples in the region are likely to see things that way, unless we are lucky and the Saddam regime comes down like a house of cards and without significant civilian deaths.

You cannot completely separate the character of government from the policies it could pursue when there are such high risks. I am not convinced that the current US administration is wise enough to judge the risks strategically across the Middle East. So I would urge caution not invasions. Where I agree with Philip is that the US, or other powers, need to be ready to take action – without the backing of international law if need be – in circumstances where there are clear, massive violations taking place, as happened at Srebrenica. I’m not in favour of an international system constrained by the type of law that international lawyers are now trying to develop. That is, a global law superior to states, which holds each of them as subordinate to it, and which emerges from the sovereign will of the world community (seen as residing in the United Nations, or international courts). The outcome would only be a system in which nobody is responsible.

Philip Bobbitt: The United Nations is a very valuable institution, and I certainly would not like to see it disintegrated or replaced. It does immense good work, and it is a forum for intensive diplomacy at many levels that the public is unaware of. But as a security guarantor, I agree it is gravely wanting. I wrote my book at the time of Srebrenica. If I were writing it now, I’d say, ‘Look at Palestine. Where is the UN in the most dangerous war in decades, in a very volatile region?’ The answer is, ‘Nowhere’.


Paul Hirst: The question could also be, ‘Where is the United States?’

Philip Bobbitt: For all of our good-heartedness, the US is not, and does not purport to be, the voice of the world community.

Paul Hirst: Of course not. People fail to understand how Philip is right on this. Modern international law is a codification of something that gradually appeared over time. Today, international lawyers tend to see it as a kind of superior law above the state. But what we’re actually talking about is a collection of rules and norms that responsible states try to maintain. Some of the rules have to be absolutely strict, and non-pariah states have abided by those for a long time – at least since 1815. For example, you don’t just walk in and take somebody else’s country when a legitimate regime doesn’t want you to.

Philip Bobbitt: The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was the first time a member of the UN had invaded another member state since 1945.

Paul Hirst: Everybody agreed that invasion was wrong. There are other hard rules such as ‘All nations and all international agencies should act to suppress slavery’. We’ve agreed upon that since the 19th century. Then there are norms of various kinds. The point is, however, ‘Who are the best enforcers?’ In the last instance, the best people to enforce them are, as Philip describes, coalitions of willing states who stand for these values and are not just acting from self-interest. To me, this is much more plausible than the proposals of cosmopolitan theorists, such as David Held and Mary Kaldor, who argue for the superiority of international institutions, and see them as embodying a new kind of superior, global, sovereignty. PB: I endorse what Paul has just said. A global system of international law built on a multi-tiered system, where municipal, township, borough, state and international law all sit on top of each other, would be dysfunctional.

It would discourage things we ought to encourage in the way of humanitarian intervention and the protection of human rights. It would encourage our neglect of the abuses of other states. I think it is notable that China was very disturbed about the Kosovo intervention. Why? They don’t have any particular affection for Milosevic. But they had stacks of international law books to hide behind, to say, ‘Our sovereignty is opaque. What we do to our people is none of your damned business.’


Paul Hirst: And the point is to say, very clearly, that this has never been the case in the international system. Nobody has enjoyed sovereignty in terms of what you might call a ‘the right of property’ in Roman law – with the right to use and abuse state sovereignty as you please. From the very beginning, political entities were only recognised if they were organised like and behaved like states, according to whatever the prevailing concept of the state was. In the 19th century there were strong and clear rules about this. They operated for good and bad. For example, the British said, ‘You try and do slavery on the high seas, Buster, and you’re a dead dog.’

Equally, of course, the bad part was that European elites took the view, generally, that the fundamental principles of this society of states only applied to European states and a few derivatives. It’s what I call the Cetshwayo problem, after the Zulu king. He kept saying, ‘Look! I’m a king! I’m behaving according to the rules. I’m not acting aggressively. Why are you guys invading my country?’ And the answer he got was, ‘Because you’re an uncivilised savage and thus have no standing as a member of the society of states.’

Obviously, we can’t have that kind of exception, it’s not based on a distinction worth defending. You have to have the distinction that says, ‘Sorry, you’re not part of the world community because you’re doing something wrong’ – the same reason that a Portuguese slave trader could be seized on the high seas.

openDemocracy: But in the modern era, powerful nation states have repeatedly failed to intervene to curb activities that are clearly wrong. A classic example is the failure by governments in the UK, US and elsewhere to do anything about Saddam after the gas attack on the Kurds at Halabja in 1988. The thinking seems to have been, ‘Dear me, that’s a bad thing, but we’re trading with him.’ The UK, for one, then extended large loans to his regime.

Philip Bobbitt: I absolutely agree with you. Something should have been done about that. It was an outrage of a kind that the West could have challenged. There’s a huge difference, however, between such intervention and the conclusion that we should go to war with China because they’re beastly to Tibet. Start a war with China to make the Tibetans better off? Both the good old-fashioned principle of the just war and the lower, but equally significant, principle of prudence, dictate that this is crazy. But on Halabja, it would have been possible to rein Saddam in very considerably. He was hugely dependent on cutting trade deals with foreign governments. As Paul said, the society of states has repeatedly required states to uphold certain standards for admission to legitimate statehood. These standards have changed, in a kind of punctuated equilibrium, remaining stable for a quite a long period of time, then changing quite abruptly. If we realise how this actual historical process works, we can open ourselves up to thinking about how standards might change now.


Philip Bobbitt: Now, having agreed with much of what Paul has said, I will say something that you will listen to with shock and horror. In Europe and the United States, I often hear that the US, and particularly the current administration, is violating the rule of law because it wants to have its peacekeepers, when attached to UN contingents, obtain a guarantee that they will not be prosecuted for any allegations of war crimes by an international body, without the approval of the US. Now, if you think that international law has been the same since Roman times – if you think it constitutes a global system which is the same for all states – then you will think that that the US is violating the rule of law itself.

But if you see international law historically, as something that has changed dramatically many times, you may say, ‘To encourage the US to pay money and send its young people into battle to protect these values, we’d better find some way to give them an incentive to do so.’ Then, you won’t get a defiance of the rule of law. This approach will become the law itself, and the observation of the rule of law.

Paul Hirst: This is a provocation that passed at least me by, because I agree with you. The Europeans are two-faced about the International Criminal Court. They went along with the action in Kosovo, which broke the international legal rules, as they then stood. Now they’re saying they want to support the Court. My view about the Court is that it could only be based on some quite different version of jurisprudence if it was going to be justifiable. Also, look at the countries that haven’t signed up. It isn’t just the US. Russia hasn’t signed. China hasn’t signed. India hasn’t signed. Now, if the US, Russia, China and India haven’t signed, I do not see this as being a very viable institution.

But even worse, when you look at a number of the countries that have signed up to this institution, they do not exactly make me feel that these are the number one law enforcers of the world, who have set international standards and, indeed, domestic standards. I mean, frankly, the Court is a lot of international lawyers in a hurry, with a lot of governments too afraid to say, ‘No, it isn’t going to work.’ In my view anything that hasn’t got the US, Russia, China and India behind it is a dead dog. openDemocracy: But if the Europeans and others get the International Criminal Court up and running couldn’t that create a dynamic that would ultimately lead these other powers to join. Surely the existence of an International Criminal Court could help to create a climate that would at least deter future outrages?

Philip Bobbitt: You are missing the larger point. The utility of such institutions is quite thoroughly served by the particular Criminal Courts set up by the UN Security Council already. They’re the ones who are trying the guilty in Rwanda. They’re the ones who are trying the criminals who came out of the former state of Yugoslavia. In both cases, the states in the Security Council have control over the jurisdiction and investigations of the Court. It has an admirable goal that can be served by those institutions. If, on the other hand, you say, ‘No, no, I want another institution. I want a more independent global institution. I want an institution that’s responsible to no state or even a set of states, because I believe in this global system of law’ then (a) you won’t get that, because the most powerful states, or many of them, just will not subject themselves to an uncontrolled legal environment of that kind, no matter what paper guarantees they get, and (b) you’ll disincentivise those states from doing the things, and undertaking the other things, that a Criminal Court does not serve, such as timely intervention in places like Bosnia.

The United States and the United Kingdom ought to be the principal producers of collective goods for the society of states in the 21st century. Missile defence and extended deterrence for threatened states; intelligence sharing and even pre-emption against terrorism; a global, forward-looking environmental regime; an international system of health surveillance and disease prevention; and coalitions for humanitarian intervention. These goods cannot be successfully created or consumed by the United States or the United Kingdom alone. But neither can they be marketed to the rest of the world if our leadership and our intentions are not trusted. We must be trustworthy and be seen to be so. At the same time, we must also create a legal environment that encourages as a practical matter the production of such goods by our states, rather than discourages this creativity. The barriers to cooperation in this endeavour are already quite high.

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