Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 921 pp., $40.
Philip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles is a bad book. It is error strewn, it suffers from grand delusions of theoretical adequacy, and it is unscholarly. This judgment, however, being evidently a minority one, imposes an obligation not only to render the work's aim, thesis and argument fairly before criticizing it, but also to account for the book's evident appeal to the public, as well as to several distinguished historians who have endorsed it.
The former task is not easy, given the book's great length and convoluted development, but is aided by repeated statements of the author's aims and theses. The book, Bobbitt writes in his prologue, concerns the evolution of the modern state, in particular "the relationship between strategy and the legal order as this relationship has shaped and transformed the modern state and the society composed of these states." Wars and the attendant revolutions in military affairs, he argues, have been the engine of change in the constitutional order of states since the Renaissance: "each of the important revolutions in military affairs enabled a political revolution in the fundamental constitutional order of the State."
Bobbit holds that four great epochal wars transformed the dominant constitution of states in previous eras (Habsburg-Valois, the Thirty Years' War, the wars of Louis xiv and the French Revolutionary wars). Now the most recent epochal war, the Long War of 1914-90, has "brought into being a new form of the state-the market-state"-and put "the constitutional order of the nation-state . . . everywhere under siege." Major new developments-human rights as a universal norm, weapons of mass destruction, global and transnational threats, globalization of the economy, and global communications networks penetrating all states and societies-threaten both the sovereignty of individual states and the legitimacy of the international order by making it impossible for nation-states to fulfill their legitimating purpose-namely, to maximize the welfare of their citizens. What Bobbitt calls market-states, however, promise instead to maximize opportunity.
In an instance of the elliptical exposition that characterizes the book throughout, Bobbitt begins the substantive historical defense of this thesis at the end, presenting 1914-90 as a single Long War between fascism, communism and parliamentarianism to decide the dominant constitutional form of the modern nation-state. A brief excursus summarizing the historiographical debate over the revolutions in military affairs in the 15th-18th centuries is followed by three longer chapters covering the history of the state from the Renaissance to 1914. These chapters, together with the one on the Long War, comprise the historical core of the book, called Book i: The State of War, and the basis for its projections about the present and future. With them come five "plates" that depict in simplified form the patterns and correlations the author detects in history and that encapsulate his essential arguments.
Plate 1 lists six distinct constitutional orders of the state since the Renaissance-princely, kingly, territorial, state-nation, nation-state, and (emerging) market-state. Plate 2 links these to Bobbit's five epochal wars that "brought a particular constitutional order to primacy." Plate 3 lists the peace treaties that "end epochal wars [and] ratify a particular constitutional order for the society of states"-Augsburg, Westphalia, Utrecht, Vienna, Versailles and Paris (1990).
The last two plates concern Bobbitt's most crucial theses, those that tie strategic, military and constitutional factors tightly together. Plate 4 illustrates how "each constitutional order asserts a unique basis for legitimacy." In the princely state "the State confers legitimacy on the dynasty", whereas in the kingly state "the dynasty confers legitimacy on the State." The territorial state is legitimated by its claim to manage the country efficiently; the state-nation by its claim to forge the identity of the nation; the nation-state by its promise to better the welfare of its citizens; and the emerging market-state by its promise to maximize the opportunities of its citizens. Plate 5, "Historic, Strategic, and Constitutional Innovations", illustrates how "a constitutional order achieves dominance by best exploiting the strategic and constitutional innovations of its era"; it does this by linking the claimed innovations and dominant political characteristics of each era with their respective military innovations and leading features. For example, the absolutism and secularism characteristic of kingly states is linked to the gunpowder revolution, lengthy sieges and standing armies, while the trade control and aristocratic leadership that feature in the territorial state are tied to professional armies and limited cabinet wars; and so on with the other main types.
This historical basis laid, Bobbitt turns to the current crisis. The challenge to the nation-state from the current revolution in military affairs, and the nation-state's rapid loss of legitimacy, demands deep thought about the concrete transformations this will require of the new market-state in terms of security, politics and welfare. He surveys what he typologizes as the five policy choices now being offered for the United States after the Cold War-new nationalism, new internationalism, new realism, new evangelism (i.e., democratic peace), and new leadership (i.e., permanent American world hegemony)-but argues that none offers the new paradigm needed. Of three possible forms of the market-state (mercantile, entrepreneurial and managerial)-yet another typology-he concludes that the United States will be an entrepreneurial market-state, as it should. He ends Book i with speculation on the likely character of wars in the coming era of the market-state.
Book ii, "States of Peace", is about what Bobbit calls the society of states. It rests on a key assertion: "that international law derives from constitutional law-and thus follows the same periods of stability and revolutionary change charted in Book i." Thus, "contemporary developments in limiting sovereignty are a consequence of the change in the constitutional order to a market-state." This returns us to the grand historical pattern, once again unfolded from the end rather than the beginning. Two long and strange chapters then develop Bobbitt's argument that the nation-state era in world society, founded on the Wilsonian premise of self-determination, has now run aground on its inability to solve central problems presented both by nationhood itself and the new world emerging since the Cold War. The first of these describes Versailles and the entire post-World War I settlement primarily through the personality and activities of Wilson's adviser Colonel Edward M. House. The second links the famous Kitty Genovese incident (a gruesome murder in New York City in 1964, which bystanders did nothing to stop) to the war in Bosnia (culminating in the failure of the un or nato to stop Bosnian Serb atrocities at Srebrenica in July 1995), in order to demonstrate the death of the society of nation-states.
Book ii then returns to earlier history to show how "the great peace settlements of the epochal wars have shaped the constitutional order of the society of states." Brief chapters on the peace settlements of Augsburg, Westphalia, Utrecht and Vienna, and longer ones on Versailles and Paris (1990), summarize the provisions of the treaties and their supposed constitutional impact on the society of states. Accompanying each are short discussions of the interpretations given each settlement by leading jurists and theorists, and in the last section an analysis of various American schools and approaches on the relations between international law and international politics. These discussions are by far the most interesting and instructive parts of the book, demonstrating Bobbitt's expertise and authority in his own field and his ability to construct a tight, coherent narrative and argument. But the relation of these segments to his main argument is unclear.
The final section of Book ii, entitled "The Society of Market States", speculates further on the challenges to the new international order of market states, and the nature of war and peace in the coming age. The bewildering variety of the propositions offered and the absence or impossibility of proof or substantiation would seem to put this section beyond summary or critical evaluation, at least for historians. The author insists, however, that his arguments and prescriptions for the present and future derive from the historical scheme earlier developed and schematized, so even Bobbitt's futurology invites evaluation according to the standards of historical scholarship.
A Reach Too Shallow
As history, Bobbit's work unquestionably presents a broad panorama and offers a bold, arresting and apparently coherent set of theses and arguments relevant to the world today. The historical scheme seems compelling, the analysis of the current crisis cogent, the predictions and scenarios for the future important to consider. The overall recommendation-that America strive for market principles globally and in domestic politics, and continued American military domination and the ability to fight a series of low-level contests as the only way to avoid the next epochal war-offers a program congenial to many Americans today. These qualities, one supposes, have recommended the work to many lay readers and some distinguished scholars. What is wrong with it?
As historical scholarship, a great deal. The book suffers from so many grave defects of an evidential, logical and methodological character as to render it unreliable both for fact and interpretation. Stating such a verdict flatly, while being unable for reasons of space to bring full evidence for it, is uncomfortable. Since it is not possible to comment inclusively on over 900 pages of text in a review of a few thousand words, only a few of the book's technical historical flaws, though they are crucially important, can be discussed.Essay Types: Book Review