A Conversation with Philip Bobbitt, author of THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES
Q: What is the premise of your book?
A: My book is about preparing for an uncertain future, a true understanding of which depends on appreciating the global dynamic of the last six centuries, when revolutions in warfare and revolutions in government came together.
I examine the modern state: how it began in response to revolutionary changes in warfare and how it has periodically recreated itself constitutionally in response to such changes. I explore how political upheavals that bring about constitutional changes have revolutionized warfare. I begin with the Muslim siege of Constantinople and the fall of its high walls to artillery attacks, a fall that sparked the Renaissance as the inheritors of Greek culture fled to Italy.
I conclude with a look at the potential outcomes in the 21st century of the dynamic between constitutional struggle and strategic change.
Q: How does a professor become Director of Intelligence at the National Security Council?
A: Before taking that job in 1997, I had served in various other posts in the government, beginning in 1979 when the Counsel to President Carter appointed me as his Associate Counsel for intelligence and international security. We were the chief spokesmen for SALT II ratification and I was later given many assignments in the intelligence and security arena, including work on the CIA Charter that governs covert action; a review of U.S. nuclear targeting plans; and the unexpected task of working on the release of our hostages in Iran.
In 1987, I was Legal Counsel to the Senate Iran-Contra Committee, which of course involved an immersion in intelligence materials as well as other fascinating documents (like presidential diaries).
Q: How did you come to write this book?
A: In 1990-91, I was serving in the State Department as the Counselor on International Law and was asked to give a series of lectures at St. Mary’s Law School. The Gulf War had broken out in August, and so I discussed the intersection between law and strategy, two fields in which I had taught and written, but which I had kept—as most people do—scrupulously apart.
Q: Can you explain the title?
A: A description of the shield of the warrior Achilles takes up almost two hundred lines of the Iliad. This shield was created by the armorer of the gods and depicts several scenes of ancient Greek life: battles, of course, but also religious ceremonies, wedding feasts, athletic games, agriculture and dance, as well as law courts. The Shield of Achilles is also a poem by W. H. Auden that juxtaposes these scenes with gritty descriptions of 20th century warfare—public executions, concentration camps, refugees.
For me, and I hope for readers, the title shows the inextricable link between warfare and culture.
Q: I know that at one point the subtitle was The Long War and the Market-State. What do these phrases mean?
A: The “Long War” is a term for the conflict that began in 1914 with the First World War and concluded in 1990 with the end of the Cold War. The Long War embraces the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam and the Cold War.
The Long War can be understood as a single conflict fought over the constitutional issue of what form of the nation-state—fascist, communist or parliamentary—would succeed the imperial states of the 19th century.
The “market-state” is the latest constitutional order, one that is just emerging in a struggle for primacy with the dominant constitutional order of the 20th century, the nation-state. Whereas the nation-state based its legitimacy on a promise to better the material well-being of the nation, the market-state promises to maximize the opportunity of each individual citizen.
Q: What is changing in the wake of the Long War, as the market-state emerges?
A: As we move from the nation-state to the market-state, deterrence and assured retaliation cannot provide strategic stability because threats to the state today are ubiquitous and easy to disguise. We cannot deter various novel forms of mass destruction because of the indeterminate sources of such attacks. The strategy of nuclear weapons cannot protect the critical infrastructures—including the virtual infrastructure of public confidence and security—of the new market-state. This will not eliminate reliance on weapons of mass destruction, however. It might even bring about conditions that make their use more likely.
We can devise doctrines and institutions that are capable of providing common goods for the new society of market-states. These common goods include organizing expeditionary forces to destroy terror networks, developing shared missile defense systems, providing security guarantees as a means of averting weapons proliferation, resisting the regionalization of trade, and creating markets in education, environmental protection, and public health. (Failing to do so, we will set the stage for a cataclysmic war in the early decades of this century.)
Q: You argue that the Long War is an “epochal war” that, like earlier such wars, is leading to a constitutional transformation. Does America’s current (and highly unconventional) war fit this prediction?
A: Very much so. The current conflict is one of several possible wars of the market-states as they seek to open up societies to trade in commerce, ideas, and immigration which excite hostility in those groups that want to use law to enforce religious or ethnic orthodoxy.
Q: Is the current war unique or is it a reversion to a period of stateless brigands and mercenaries that preceded the era of the modern state?
A: I think it is not simply a reversion. States make war, not brigands; and the Al Qaeda network is a sort of virtual state, with a consistent source of finance, a recognized hierarchy of officials, foreign alliances, an army, published laws, even a rudimentary welfare system. It has declared war on the U.S. for much the same reason that Japan did in 1941: because we appear to frustrate its ambitions to regional hegemony.
Q: Why do you think the relationship between law and strategy has been so long and so often ignored?
A: It’s partly sociological: lawyers and military officials inhabit different worlds, with different vocabularies and different objectives. It’s also partly the result of modern disciplinarianism—the division of study into separate subjects, with a premium on specialization.
Q: Was September 11th an intelligence failure?
A: September 11th was a catastrophic intelligence failure. It ranks with Pearl Harbor, which it resembles in some respects, though even more died in New York and Washington than in Hawaii. That is not to say, however, that the intelligence agencies should solely bear the blame; there was insufficient leadership on the issue of terrorism within the executive branch outside those agencies in both administrations. And the media, too, must bear some share of responsibility.
Q: Why the media?
A: Because they promulgated the “Wag the Dog” idea, the notion that there was no significant terrorist threat to the United States, and that the president was responding with force only to distract the public from his domestic political problems. This had the effect of raising the bar for actions against terrorism; it was really irresponsible.
Q: You mentioned Pearl Harbor. How were the September 11th attacks like the attack on Pearl Harbor?
A: Bin Laden’s ambition is to create a regional empire under a Taliban-like legal order, destroying the states of Northern Africa, the near East and Asia—regions he thinks that the West has corrupted. He doesn’t want to seize and convert Omaha or Dallas. Rather he attacks the U.S. because he thinks we can frustrate his regional ambitions. The Japanese had much the same view of the corrupt states of Asia; they saw themselves as a purifying force, and they sought regional domination. They, too, attacked the U.S. not because they wanted to conquer California but because they thought the United States would frustrate their ambitions.
Q: Much of The Shield of Achilles is devoted to possible futures for the world. Is this an example of strategic planning?
A: Not, not really. It’s more a case of scenario planning. This takes given factual contexts and transforms them into different outcomes based on alternative decisions made in coping with developments in those given contexts. The outcomes are then compared in an effort to sensitize observers to the potential significance of what they encounter in the present.
Strategic planning is a matter of extrapolating from the present to determine an optimum strategy. Scenario planning is of most use in periods of profound change when strategic planning is likely to miss novel opportunities (and threats).
Q: Describe some of the popular ideas debunked in THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES?
A: That we unintentionally slithered over the brink into World War I; that the nuclear attack on Hiroshima or at least Nagasaki—the second bomb—was unnecessary, indeed that the whole policy of unconditional surrender was unnecessary; that American involvement in Vietnam was a mistake; that Gorbachev was a democrat in communist clothing or that Bismarck was a parliamentarianist in a cuirassier’s tunic; that the nation-state was born at Westphalia in 1648 or that the state itself is dying now; that the European Union represents a progressive future for Europe or that the United States should enlarge NAFTA to promote free trade.
Q: Is war inevitable?
A. In some form, yes. The state was organized in order to prosecute war; as long as we have states, we will have war.
Q: That sounds either hopeless or a plea for the anarchist movement.
A: You’re partly right about anarchy: only if we were willing to give up the state, which is to say give up a law-governed domestic environment, could we give up war—but of course that would ultimately increase violence, even if it avoided the state-directed activity of war.
But things are not hopeless. We can choose which kind of war to pursue.
Q: What are our choices?
A: I think the main thing is to avoid cataclysmic wars among the great powers, which could take many different forms. The way to avoid such wars is to pursue coalitional wars—wars for humanitarian goals, among which I would count the war against international terrorism.
Q: You criticize proposals that the U.S. ratify the landmines treaty and join the International Criminal Court. Why?
A: They ignore the unique role the United States must play in international affairs. The U.S. has a special opportunity to keep the world safe, and treaties that are quite appropriate for states that do not shoulder such responsibilities are not necessarily appropriate for the United States.
Q: So America is exceptional?
A: Let’s just say that America has an exceptional opportunity right now, and that opportunity can only be discharged successfully with the willing consent and collaboration of others.