If history is a stage where
grand gestures are made and large events occur, then some actors
may find themselves more often at the center of the drama. History,
it seems, “happens” to them more.
Photo: Matthew Fuller
Philip Bobbitt, the A.W. Walker Centennial Chair in Law at The
University of Texas at Austin, is one of those individuals.
With the manuscript for his current book almost completed, Philip
Bobbitt was settled in seat 11H in a plane on a runway at JFK airport
on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, bound for Geneva. Like many other
witnesses to the event that has become synonymous with that date,
he speculated as to the cause of the billowing smoke coming from
one of the Twin Towers as he peered from his airplane window. It
could have been a fire that broke out in one of the offices or possibly
a radio station’s traffic helicopter that had spun out of
control and collided with the building. In moments all doubt as
to the source of calamity was erased. When an orange fireball erupted
from the second tower, Bobbitt realized that some of his worst fears
and most somber predictions were coming true.
The manuscript he had labored over for 10 years was proving to
be uncannily prescient. In “The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace
and the Course of History,” Bobbitt describes a new world
order, one in which the rules of war and the nature of nation-states
have been significantly altered.
A former adviser at the White House, U.S. Senate and State Department
in both Democratic and Republican administrations, as well as director
for intelligence, and then for strategic planning, in the National
Security Council, Bobbitt brings the weight of experience to his
predictions and analyses. Having taught at several universities,
including Oxford and King’s College, London, and written books
on topics as diverse as nuclear strategy and constitutional law,
he also possesses the insight and erudition of a scholar.
Although Bobbitt's epic 900-page book travels over 500 years of
history and even advances predictions for the future, a handful
of major, uniting points serve as a nexus for the remarkable work.
Within one ambitious tome are three major treatises: a history of
diplomacy from 1500 to 1900, a theory of the history of the state
and an analysis of globalization.
According to Bobbitt, the major military conflicts from 1914 until
1990 may be viewed as one cohesive coalitional conflict that spanned
several decades. Bobbitt refers to this period as “the Long
This extended struggle—which included the first world war,
the Bolshevik revolution, the Spanish civil war, the second world
war, the wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War—was fought
in order to determine one major, fundamental constitutional question:
would the nation-state of the 20th century take the form of fascism,
communism or parliamentarianism?
Victory went to parliamentary liberal democracy in 1990 after the
collapse of Soviet communism.
Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History”
by Philip Bobbitt, Knopf, 2002.
Instead of an era of universal peace, however, victory was closely
followed by the advent of new and different upheavals and conflicts,
along with developments in technology and commerce that highlighted
the fact that the preeminence of the nation-state might be obsolete.
The inability of the 20th century nation-state to handle new millennium
challenges has been emphasized, according to Bobbitt, by events
such as the Sept. 11 tragedy.
Accustomed to responding to war with a handful of known, well-defined
adversaries, the nation-state is not equipped to combat international
terrorism, for example. Entities such as Al Qaeda, according to
Bobbitt, are diffuse but well-organized “virtual states”
with no physical location or geographic boundaries.
“The attack on New York City on Sept. 11 was not important
to Americans simply because it happened to this country, as many
Europeans believe,” says Bobbitt. “First of all the
sheer magnitude of the attack was greater than previous terrorist
attacks, and the nature of the perpetrators was different—they
were not members of our state trying to gain power here or win a
seat at the table—they were not like the Irish Republican
Army, for example. The attackers are not located in a particular
place—they are scattered throughout more than 100 nations—and
the weapons used by Al Qaeda attackers were quite different. Using
jet transport as a fuel bomb is a novel approach.”
According to Bobbitt, governments are struggling to develop security
policies that will offer protection in an age when terrorists have
weapons of mass destruction and access to international telecommunications
and rapid computation. The adversaries of a state are no longer
drawn exclusively from other, similarly organized states. The rules
of the game, Bobbitt avers, must change.
Although the entity that is called the “nation-state”
is not going to accommodate a new world order and its threats and
demands, the state itself is not in danger of going away. Bobbitt
describes the next evolution as a market-state, whose primary purpose
is the maximization of economic opportunity for its citizens. Unlike
the nation-state, it cannot, however, offer assurance of security
from threat and attack.
If Bobbitt’s thought-provoking and prophetic book had been
published 10 years ago, it might not have resonated so profoundly
with such a diverse body of readers. It could have been relegated
to the shelves of academics and a few well-informed and curious
politicos, a book ahead of its time.
“After the Sept. 11 tragedy, I think that more people have
learned to appreciate the perils of a new environment,” says
Bobbitt. “In the book I point out that we cannot eradicate
war, but we can try to shape it in such a way that it’s not
so destructive, with so many innocent lives lost.”
Photo: Wyatt McSpadden
Unfortunately, “The Shield of Achilles” in many ways
represented a confluence of fact and fiction when it was released
in the spring of 2002, with the Sept. 11 tragedy confirming many
of Bobbitt’s forecasts.
The book has been well and widely reviewed, with its ideas and
predictions sparking a particularly lively discourse in the British
press. It was named one of the best books of 2002 by The Times of
London and The Economist, as well as syndicated American columnists
James Hoagland and Molly Ivins. The Archbishop of Canterbury cited
it as his inspiration and the focal point for his inaugural address
last December. Essays and editorials by Bobbitt about the topic
of war, international affairs and his book can be found in every
venue from The New York Times and The Times of London to Time magazine
and the National Journal.
In addition to praise in print, the book’s publication is
going to be celebrated at a symposium sponsored by The University
of Texas at Austin’s School of Law. The event will be held
March 20-22, and Anne Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton University’s
Woodrow Wilson School, will deliver a lecture entitled “The
New World Order.”
Since the publication of his book, Bobbitt also has been appointed
to a commission of leading U.S. politicians, policymakers and statesmen
to study how the U.S. government can be reconstituted in the event
of catastrophic loss. Bobbitt joins an influential group, including
former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and former Congressmen
Alan Simpson and Tom Foley.
“As far as I know, this is the first time an independent
commission has been assembled for this purpose,” says Bobbitt.
“ We’ve got a good, varied set of people in the group—Newt
Gingrich from the right and Leon Panetta from the liberal side—and
the problems we’re tackling are very important. Regarding
the Supreme Court, for example, there are no provisions for replacement
if several or all of the members are lost at once. And if we lost
250 Congressmen at once right now, the Congress would not be able
Bobbitt’s direct involvement in national affairs and his
depth of knowledge on topics like war and law make him “the
man of the moment” in many respects. As more and more of the
speculations found in “The Shield of Achilles” turn
into newspaper headlines, a closing thought in his book gains in
force: “Now it happens that we are living in one of those
relatively rare periods in which the future is unlikely to be very
much like the past.”
Excerpts from “The Shield of Achilles”