Philip C. Bobbitt

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History

A Terrifying Triumph: A controversial new volume of
modern history provides an alarming glimpse of our future

by William Shawcross
The Evening Standard (London), June 24, 2002

It is tempting to call Philip Bobbitt's huge magnum opus majestic. But that is only half the truth. It is also argumentative, opinionated, brilliant and will be very controversial, as he no doubt hopes. Not surprising that Sir Michael Howard, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and writer of the foreword to the book, calls it "one of the most important works on international relations published during the last 50 years". It is a triumph, though a terrifying one. As Michael Howard says, Bobbitt's vision is rather bleak. Bobbitt sees the last century as the century of what he calls the Long War which was fought to determine whether states would be run by totalitarian methods – communism or fascism – or liberal democratic notions. Eventually, after the expenditure of enormous treasure and pain, the democrats won, when first the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union collapsed. The next victory will be even harder.

Bobbitt argues that the basic building block of the world, the nation state, which has served it for over six centuries, and has enabled the world's peoples both to wage war and to conduct peace, is past its sellby-date.

Instead we are moving towards an increasingly interdependent global system of market states.

One main purpose of the nation state was to improve the material welfare of its citizens – whereas the market state's raison d'etre, argues Bobbitt, will be to maximise opportunities for its individuals.

Regulation may decrease (not much sign of that in the EU) and there will be greater reliance on the market. But there will also be pressure for greater executive power and secrecy.

The nation state is changing, driven by new technologies in weapons of mass-destruction, split-second computing power, new global communications.

In the face of these changes, traditional doctrines of deterrence will no longer work because threats to the state will become both more easily disguised and more easily dispersed. Nuclear weapons, for example, will not protect the critical infrastructures of the new market state. As 11 September showed, modern societies are increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attacks while at the same the computerised wizardry of the modern world makes such attacks all the easier for terrorists to mount.

To protect ourselves, we need to organise expeditionary forces to destroy terror networks. The success of the US-British effort in Afghanistan is uncertain if only because part of the nature of al Qaeda is that it can melt away, reform and regroup elsewhere. Bobbitt describes al Qaeda as "a sort of virtual state, with a consistent source of finance, a recognised hierarchy of officials, foreign alliances, an army, published laws, even a rudimentary welfare system. It has declared war on the US for much the same reason that Japan did in 1941: because we appear to frustrate its ambitions to regional hegemony."

Bobbitt is harsh about the media and its disruptive power in modern democracies. (The leaders of New Labour will concur with him.) He says the media has taken over the role of political parties of the Left as the critic of naturally Rightwing governments, and now the media competes directly with governments, although it is "completely untrained in this task – ethically or politically.

Much the same can be said for the leadership of the great multinational corporations (of whom the media form a subset.) Nor can these institutions expect much guidance from the political class that has enslaved itself to the market via its reliance on campaign contributions".

He thinks the media's accusation that President Clinton used the terrorist threat to divert attention from his domestic problems (ie, Monica Lewinsky) was "both wrong and irresponsible". It served to obscure the fact that the threat was very real.

If the Long War took the best part of a century to win, the next one may turn out yet more arduous. War, somewhere, sometime, is always inevitable and the nature of war and states is always interlinked. The development of guns and railways shaped states as well as warfare.

With breathtaking sweep, Bobbitt, the former Senior Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council, shows how the process has worked from the 16th century to today.

He argues that the current revolution in military affairs results from the combination of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, international telecommunications and the power of rapid computing.

These three produced the modern market state.

WHAT will happen next? He does not offer much cheer.

Advances in biogenetics are one answer. The dispersal of these techniques to hospitals and the like "will inevitably have the consequence of proliferating actual weapons to those who wish to destroy the market state."

Controls will have to be much more intrusive and these, too, will undermine the basis of the market state.

Since 11 September the US has been at war; others must, if they are to survive, collaborate with it. All of us are threatened by a virtual state "because a virtual state is the neighbour of all". So much for the cant of European officials who whinge about the US acting "unilaterally".

We are in this together – though we depend on the United States far more than it depends on us. Bobbitt's history and prediction is not comfortable, but it is awe-inspiring.