Review: The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt

I publish this review without further commentary as it is already long and covers all the bases. This review was published in July 2015. I will say that this book fits in with a number of books recently read and reviewed broadly on the subject of “the world order”, and I link those reviews here. Among this set, Bobbitt’s books stands out because he is the only one to suggest what specifically “comes next”, namely “the corporate State” in various forms.

Richard Haass “The World in Disarray”

Henry Kissinger “The World Order”

Francis Fukuyama “The Origins of Political Order” and “Political Order and Political Decay”

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson: “Why Nations Fail”

Slavoj Zizek Various books all linked here

The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt

This rather long book seems to have been written with multiple goals in mind. First the author wants to connect up evolving military technology, guns and particularly artillery, with the political evolution of states from the renaissance in Italy to modern times. In particular, evolving technology and the tactics that deployed it, fostered certain directions in political evolution primarily for the purposes of being able to afford and utilize the new technology. In between the major wars were peace settlements that ratified and solidified the evolving political forms mostly of the victors. His focus is on this evolution in Europe, but as he approaches modern times he does more and more apply his insights to an interconnected world.

The book is divided into three books. Book I focuses on the link between military history and the evolution of the modern state beginning with the French invasion of Italy in 1494. In book II the primary focus is on the nature of the peace settlements that evolved from the over-arching conflicts of various periods. In book III he sets out to describe in some detail the newest (post 20th century) form of the evolving state.

Beginning with the “princely states” of Italy, the political forms evolved over 5 centuries into “kingly states”, “territorial states”, “state-nations”, “nation-states”, and today, following the “long war” that Bobbitt describes as encompassing most of the 20th century from World War I to the end of the cold war in 1990 (with the collapse of the Soviet Union) the evolution of yet a new form, the “market-state”. In all of this description (taken up in book I). Book II reprises all of this ground, but this time focusing on the peace agreements between the great-war periods and how those agreements reflected the relations (what today we call “international law”) between the newly evolved and evolving political forms of states. Bobbitt gets into quite a bit of detail here (he is a law scholar after all) even to describing the philosophies (in a broad sense) of some of the prominant jurists (or political philosophers) of each period always focusing on how these philosophical beacons interpreted the peace agreements for specific problems emerging between states during the inter-war periods. It is one thing to establish a treaty that provides for general guidelines of behavior. It is another to interpret those guidelines as they apply to specific situations, and then yet another, even after an interpretation is broadly accepted, for evolving polities to act or chose not to act at all. Bobbitt chooses from among the luminaries examples who are both apologists for the newly evolving forms of state, and also a few polemicists. Much of this description evaluates various interpretations of what “international law” consists as compared to law as understood within the boundaries of the state.

As a descriptive work it is an excellent and well balanced read. Bobbitt is sensitive to the fact that thoughout history the political model did not evolve at an equal pace throughout Europe never mind the rest of the world. Some state forms in some locations resisted further evolutionary pressures for some time. In certain places such resistance made sense given what the earlier form encompassed geographically and ethnically, but in every case, eventually and usually by war or more technically the peace settlement after the war these entities either evolved or were broken up into geographic chunks more condusive to that evolution. Bobbitt is also very sensitive to the fact that the way this evolution did work out is not the only way it might have worked out, and this is true of both the nature of the world’s political forms as well as of present interpretations of the relations between entities internationally. I applaud him here for his balance in all of this descriptive work. He takes no interest in how things might otherwise have been, but beginning now, that is at the end of the “long war” from 1914-1990 he does seem to relish his projection of what he takes to be the newest form of large-scale polity, the “market-state”.

As above with his recognition that history might have been otherwise, his explication of the newest turn in the political screw, the evolution of the market-state (the focus of part III), is balanced by a recognition that things might go otherwise but his argument is otherwise persuasive at least as concerns broad brush strokes. As with his historical explication he is more concerned with relations between states than what is internal to the state itself, but he needs (and does) to describe something of the internal as this form is not yet as familiar as the others. He is writing in 2002, 12 years after the end of the cold war. Some of his shorter term projections as concerns the relations between states are down right prescient, while others seem entirely fanciful. Some of his prose in this section seems written almost tongue-in-cheek. But nothing that has happened in the intervening 13 years invalidates his overall vision. As in the previous 5 centuries, the broad outlines of large-scale evolution only become visible over several generations at a minimum. In between there is much room for unanticipated variation even retrogression and Bobbitt knows this well.

But Bobbitt does come off a little intoxicated by what he takes to be the next turn of the political wheel. He describes the over-all demands that will be made by and impinge upon the new “market-state” including some issues that now belong to the global community. Some of these are unique (global environmental issues and weapons of mass destruction in particular nuclear weapons to take two examples) to the modern period because they simply did not exist in the past. The particular problems that emerged between states of the prior period made no mention of genuinely “global issues” because there weren’t any. There weren’t enough people to cause genuinely global environmental issues and communications and transport technology had not yet begun to build serious economic or military dependencies that ran around the entire planet. I have to applaud the author for recognizing that the newly evolving market states are internally more inconsistent than the nation-state they are beginning to replace. He distinguishes three broad forms of market-states, the entrepenurial, the mercantile, and the managerial. The first two are genuinely novel and as such are subject to potentially more radical social disconnections than the third which is much more an amalgamation of the old and new forms, but that very blending causes (or rather is projected to have) inconsistencies of its own. The raison d’etre of the nation-state is the welfare of its citizens taken broadly (I presume) to mean that everyone who makes any effort to participate in the economy and politics of the state gains enough thereby to live something of a healthy and self-determined life. Of course even among the late 20th century society of nation-states some have succeeded at this more than others, but at least the rationale has some metaphysical basis in that individuals having self-interests are real entities. By contrast, markets are oblivious to the cares of individuals except in-so-far as enough of them succeed economically to be consumers and producers and so keep the markets functioning. Bobbitt is aware that given any of the market-state forms (except the managerial whose own internal inconsistencies stem from raised transaction costs imposed on its own market entities) some individuals will be big economic winners while many more will be net losers. Today, 13 years after writing this book, his vision here seems to be among the more prescient. As with the first two parts of the book, Bobbitt tries hard to maintain his balance. He calls [future] history as he sees it evolving and makes no attempt to be either apologist or polemicist.

Turning back to the society of states (ever his theme here) Bobbitt sees no end to conflict (war) of one kind or another. It is not his task in this book to suggest how this might be otherwise, only in this case how it might be channeled into hotter or colder forms. Inherently international markets, even cut-throat markets, function best when the social collectives that are their producers and consumers are not hurling bullets at one another. As such market-states have a greater incentive to keep conflicts between states cooler rather than hotter and this might be helpful globally even if from a perspective internal to any one state many of its citizens are worse off than they were under the older form of nation-state.

All in all a good explication tying military history (particularly European) and international relations together through the peace agreements (and the ways they were interpreted) that intervened between the cycles of political evolution.

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