The Magazine

War Matters

Philip Bobbitt's big book.

Aug 26, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 47 • By FRED SIEGEL
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This market-state will be a looser, more libertarian arrangement. But, Bobbitt goes on, the nuclear innovations of the Long War and the borderless world of markets will make it increasingly difficult for the market-state to fulfill its responsibilities. That, he insists, will produce a crisis of legitimation, and he lays out a series of scenarios as to how this crisis will play out. "If the pattern of earlier eras is to be repeated," Bobbitt warns, "then we await a new, epochal war with state-shattering consequences."

In the course of making his case, Bobbitt delivers fascinating mini-chapters. There's one, for instance, on Castlereagh, the Napoleonic-era British foreign minister who "sought to introduce a benign, shared hegemony based on a mutual recognition of rights underpinned by law."

But for all its virtues, the book is wildly repetitive. Where was Bobbitt's editor at Knopf? The first half of "The Shield of Achilles" treats epochal wars, the second, the epochal peace agreements that ended those wars--which means Bobbitt goes over the same ground twice. The book is so sprawling that what's said in one section is contradicted in another. Early on, for instance, Bobbitt insists, consistent with his larger argument, that the revival of German militarism after 1919 wasn't a failure of treaty-making so much as an expression of unresolved German aspirations for power and domination. But six hundred pages down the road, he adopts the conventional notion that the problem was in the treaty itself. Bobbitt sometimes gets tangled up in his own categories, which require him to turn Bismarck into a fascist and Lenin into the leader of a nation-state while conflating the nationalism of Lincoln and Louis Napoleon.

"The Shield of Achilles" was largely written before September 11, and, despite some efforts to include Islamic fascism in closing sections, the treatment of the Arab world is weak. He makes the mistake of seeing al Qaeda as a "virtual state" when it's an offshoot of both Muslim and communist "brotherhoods." Bobbitt's most convincingly plausible scenario deals with nuclear proliferation. He worries that nuclear competition on the Korean peninsula will first produce Japanese H-bombs, and then South Korean calls for an American nuclear guarantee against Japan, which the United States will be unwilling to provide. It's in this context that a Star Wars program becomes significant: Without it, the threat of American force loses its credibility, and regional conflicts in East Asia could easily spill over into a catastrophic war.

The problems Bobbitt identifies are real, but nuclear proliferation aside, his scenarios are questionable. Caught up in his own formula, he seeks to replicate the earlier conflict between communism, fascism, and parliamentarianism with a new three-cornered conflict between the Washington-entrepreneurial, Berlin-managerial, and Tokyo-mercantile models for the future. Oddly enough, he describes each as a version of the minimalist market-state potentially capable of imposing itself on the others. But this comes at a time when Europe prefers to import Islamic immigrant radicalism rather than modify its cradle-to-grave spending, and at a moment when Tokyo, rather than moving towards dominance, is so stagnant that it fears being overtaken economically by China within twenty years. Bobbitt similarly misses the vitality of the American nation-state. Europe may be post-heroic, Europe may want to share sovereignty, but the United States does not. And this transatlantic tension will only grow as Europe responds to further Islamic terror by paying more protection money.

Worse yet, Bobbitt misconceives the market-state. He argues both that the market-state "exists to maximize the opportunities enjoyed by all members of society" and that the tight relation between government and citizen characteristic of the nation-state will be loosened considerably.

But market matters dominate state policy only in the absence of war. Thus the long peace of the nineteenth century allowed the British to rule an empire with a limited government. But as Randolph Bourne noted, "war is the health of the state," so that both the class and national wars of the twentieth century generated vastly expanded government. If Bobbitt is right about the rosy future of war, there is little reason to think that the state will shrink profoundly in the coming years.

Nonetheless, the reader will come away from "The Shield of Achilles" with a heightened sense of how the modern state has been shaped by war, and how in turn what Bobbitt calls the "inner and outer faces" of a state relate to each other.