The Shield of Achilles

War, Peace, and the Course of History

This is a review of The Shield of Achilles, by Philip Bobbitt.

Bobbitt is a constitutional law expert, and this very long book (usually described as “magisterial”) formulates a theory of the evolution of the modern state as proceeding through periodic “epochal wars” which redefine the constitutional order. As each new form of the state is legitimized, the seeds are planted for the growth of the form which will come to replace it. Thus he describes a kind of historical cycle, to join many others which have been postulated.

Bobbitt traces the emergence of the modern state to Renaissance Italy and the philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli. He then describes an evolutionary sequence from the first “Princely states” of the Renaissance to the nation state of the 20th century. Each time the state transforms, it is because after a constitutional order is legitimized by victory in the epochal war, the very factors which led to that victory proceed to undermine and delegitimize it as future events unfold. In the case of the “nation state” order, Bobbitt identifies its legitimization with the West’s Cold War victory, the culmination of a Long War against first Fascism, and then Communism, both constitutional orders competing with the Liberal Democratic Western order. It was advancements in high-speed computing and telecommunications which eventually secured this victory.

In the 21st century, these very advancements have empowered individuals, diminished the state’s ability to influence the economy, and generated new security threats which are immune to the nation state’s conventional means of deterrence. Now delegitimized, the familiar nation state of the 20th century is giving way to what Bobbitt calls the “market state.” A key difference between the two orders is that whereas the nation state serves the welfare of the nation through public services and social safety nets, the market state maximizes economic opportunity for its citizens, while protecting them from environmental degradation and network-infiltrating dangers such as infectious disease and terrorism. The state’s role has evolved from managing the system for the benefit of the people, in competition with other states with different ideologies (the Cold War status quo), to protecting the system’s perimeters while allowing the people to manage themselves in a loosely controlled consumer marketplace of global extent (the Washington Consensus and the “End of History.”)

There is even more to this work, as it covers not just constitutional orders but also theories about international law, which necessarily transform in accordance with the evolving forms of the state. Bobbitt identifies a boundary or membrane between the realm of law, which orders society within the state’s purview, and that of strategy, which orders the interactions among states. The victory which legitimizes an order of the state amounts to the successful application of strategy, but with it comes an alteration of the international milieu, which renders that strategy untenable. In competing for the new strategy which ensures survival and dominance, states must necessarily evolve their own internal orders.

So, for example, the nation state strategy of massive conventional armed forces became obsolete in an era of WMDs (which can take out massed forces) and advanced computers (which make smaller forces much more effective). The United States responded by switching to a volunteer armed force, and developing theories of network-centric warfare.

Bobbitt sees the 21st century War on Terror as the epochal war driving the transition from nation state to market state. Presumably one of the Great Power civilizations will discover a successful strategic response to the security threat created by network-exploiting “bad actors,” one which has eluded the world so far. Whichever power does so will determine the ideal model for the market state.

The Shield of Achilles was followed by the equally magisterial Terror and Consent, which elaborates on the interplay between strategy and law in the case of the challenge of combating global networked terrorism. Bobbit has no regular column or web site that I know of, but here is a recent interview. Bobbitt’s opinion is always worth seeking, because of his erudition and legal expertise, as the world order continues to transform radically.

Year: 2002
Author: Philip Bobbitt (Boomer Generation, born 1948)


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