The Shield of Achilles

Published January 10, 2019

Today I would like to address the subject of national security and international relations. I have previously used this space to recommend an outstanding new book by John P. Carlin with Garrettt M. Graff entitled Dawn of the Code War: America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat (Public Affairs: 2018). It reveals a great deal about what special council Robert Mueller’s team is currently uncovering. This week I would like to expand upon the deeper historical context we find ourselves in by recommending Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (Alfred A. Knopf: 2002) that lays the groundwork for understanding how we got to where we are today. Dr. Bobbitt, professor of constitutional law and the history of nuclear strategy traces the historical precedents of the modern state all the way back to the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1649. After meticulously recounting the evolution of the state-nation into the nation-state during the middle of the Nineteenth Century he turns to the enduring significance of what he calls the “Long War” that began in 1914 and only ended in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The thesis of his book is that the “Long War” that encompassed both the first and second world wars, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War were driven by the competing constitutional ideologies of fascism, communism, and liberal parliamentarianism. In the wake of the demise of first two of these three ideologies we face an entirely new and very challenging political landscape.

Dr. Bobbitt argues that we are today witnessing the transition of the nation-state into an entirely new entity he calls the market-state as exemplified by the United States and the United Kingdom. He summarizes his thesis in these words: “Whereas the nation-state, with its mass free public education, universal franchise, and social security policies, promised to guarantee the welfare of the nation, the market-state promises instead to maximize the opportunity of the people and thus tends to privatize many state activities and to make voting and representative government less influential and more responsive to the market. The United States, a principal innovator in the development of the market-state, must fashion its strategic policies with this fundamental constitutional change in mind.” While I cannot entirely endorse Dr. Bobbitt’s political agenda I nonetheless find his historical scholarship on the history of international relations from 1649 down to the present time quite compelling. He has also diagnosed our current political predicament accurately. I only wish he had included an analysis of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the deeper Confucian perspective concerning the ideal state that informs the Asian perspective. While our future prospects as a species still remain hazy the historical insights provided by these two important works provide needed clarity in assessing our options.

To give a flavor of Dr. Bobbitt’s argument I provide this quotation from page 196: “It is no coincidence that the appearance of the nation-state — in the United States owing to the Civil War, in Europe owing to the unification of Germany — was accompanied by the strategic style of total war. If the nation governed the state, and the nation’s welfare provided for the state’s reason for being, then the enemy’s nation must be destroyed — indeed, that was the way to destroy the state. Whereas Napoleon and the state-nation had reversed this, as for them it was necessary to destroy the state by threatening the state apparatus with annihilation, for the nation-state it was necessary to annihilate the vast resources in men and materiel that a nation could throw into the field, quickly through encirclement (Moltke’s method), or less quickly if necessary through the attrition of economic resources (Sherman’s method). It was only when nuclear weapons made the divided superpowers mutually and mortally vulnerable that the nation-state and the style of total war it dictated were undermined (at least as to these powers and their allies).”