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War and the State: Former White House adviser describes a new world order

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.

Philip Bobbitt
Philip Bobbitt
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.

We are entering a fearful time, a time that will call on all our resources, moral as well as intellectual and material. page 822

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 War.”

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.

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History by Philip Bobbitt, Knopf, 2002
“The 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.”

For five centuries only a state could destroy another state...We are entering a period, however, when very small numbers of persons...can deal lethal blows to any society. page 811

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.”

Philip Bobbitt
Philip Bobbitt
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 to function.”

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.”

Kay Randall

Excerpts from “The Shield of Achilles”
pages 822 and 811

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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