- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES: WAR, PEACE, AND THE COURSE OF HISTORY
By Philip Bobbitt
Knopf, $40, 919 pages
REVIEWED BY VICTOR DAVIS HANSON


Sometimes skilled historians, legal scholars, and policy experts write a comprehensive history that incorporates literature, art, politics, and philosophy into a unified, all-encompassing thesis. Drawing on all their own prior practical and professional experience they seek no less than to explain the very nature of the way things are.
Philip Bobbitt, a professor of law at the University of Texas and a veteran of government service, has attempted such a substantial undertaking a brave effort to prove that we are now witnessing the very end of the "nation-state." He believes our system of government is an entity that no longer functions well in a global, market-driven economy without borders characterized by rogue nations, terrorists, nuclear proliferation, and powerful international organizations.
Mr. Bobbitt's 900-page book reveals all the strengths and weaknesses of such a bold enterprise. As with an Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee, we encounter a labyrinth of organization: there are "Books" (two), "Parts" (six), and "Chapters" (27), replete with a "Foreword" (by Sir Michael Howard), "Preface," "Introductions" (two), "Conclusions" (two), an "Afterword," and an after-Afterword (on September 11). The narrative itself is further broken up by Roman numerals and titled subsections and adorned by poetry, quotations, and counterfactual speculations.
Reviewers and editors usually wish that academics would not attempt such things. The final product itself often a decade's worth of dedicated work is likely to reveal a sort of obsession on the part of the author that can prove overwhelming to the reader.
Also characteristic of such universal histories is the requisite apocalyptic tone. Thus the Homeric image on "The Shield of Achilles" (the book jacket is taken from from Sir James Thornhill's 1710 painting) one city at peace, juxtaposed with a city at war looms often in the narrative. Part Hegel, part new-wave Future Shock and Paradigm Shift, Mr. Bobbitt warns us that the choice is ours: Either we restructure our politics to the breakneck changes in our midst or face the consequences of something like a series of September 11s and worse to come.
Mr. Bobbitt, in impressive detail, traces the past nature of war and its historic relationship with political revolutions, strategies, and constitutions as part of a larger warning that we in America are on the threshold of crises of whose extent we are unaware. "Now it happens that we are living in one of those relatively rare periods in which the future is unlikely to be very much like the past. Indeed the three certainties I just mentioned about national security that it is national (not international), that it is public (not private), and that it seeks victory (and not stalemate) these three lessons of the past are all about to be turned upside down by the new Age of indeterminacy into which we are plunging."
The core of his argument is that the wars of the 20th century should be seen as a continuum: They were fought by nation states to foster the present global dominance of parliamentary democracy. Fascism, communism, and other autocratic alternatives failed, as democratic nation states best served the economic needs of the citizens, mobilized resources for war, and spread education and social services throughout the population.
But by the end of the 20th century we are seeing the end of this once triumphant nation state, which is soon to be replaced by what Mr. Bobbitt calls the "market-state." Because of the very success of Western capitalism and liberalism in an era of global communications, no one nation's affairs are now immune from any other's as we have seen in everything from the rise of the European Union and Japan, Inc., to CNN, Al-Jazeera, NAFTA, and the moral pretensions of the United Nations.
Issues like affirmative action and abortion are universal. Public safety is endangered not by jets and tanks, but by stealthy terrorist cells that rely on borderless international banking and a variety of different hosts.
Global businessmen and privileged citizens who are acquainted with the Internet often have more social affinity with those similarly educated across borders than they do with their own poorer compatriots of the same race and language in their very midsts.
Toxic repercussions from leaky nuclear reactors, poor HIV prophylaxis, computer viruses, genetically altered species, and the torching of rain forests are no longer confined to one locale or a single nation. Private international businesses will increasingly provide people health care, education, and training, regardless of citizenship, better than can national governments.
What are we to make of this looming Apocalypse? Mr. Bobbitt argues the United States must rethink its military preparations and strategy, change its views about international cooperation and perhaps its own legal framework in order to view economic transformation and disruption abroad as national security issues at home. He is no naive internationalist who believes that we should place our trust in European-style collectivism. Rather Mr. Bobbitt argues that fundamental changes are occurring so quickly in technology and ideologies that to catch up we have no choice but to redefine the very concept of being American in entirely new ways if we wish to have the flexibility to master, rather than be consumed, by these upheavals.
So we must rethink "national interest" and thus impose certain protocols of behavior on international corporations and global organizations, many of which are not American. Our new commonalities won't be always geopolitical or cultural much less religious, racial or historical but will rather hinge on shared commitments to market economics, liberality, and pursuit of profit and economic security.
Once such transnational affinity and mutual interdependence are recognized, we can engage in mutual assistance that would be thought antithetical to the sovereignty of the old nation state the sharing of military technology and secrets, alliances with foreign private corporations, acknowledgment that our domestic drug policy affects those beyond our borders, and the welcoming of foreign input into our internal political debates.
Mr. Bobbitt is surely prescient in describing the symptoms of the world's current problems; he is equally adroit in charting their potentially devastating consequences on a blinkered America. But I am not sure that in "The Shield of Achilles" he makes the case that the existing "nation state" organization of the United States is in any way inadequate for the challenges ahead. Indeed, the peculiar nature of Mr. Bobbitt's beloved American Constitution may, in and of itself, offer the best hope for both domestic and international peace.
Almost all the pathologies Mr. Bobbitt describes from terrorism to plague to accidents occur outside the United States and have not proved amenable to even the most well intentioned Westernized international agencies, multinational corporations, or even ad hoc regional cooperation. Thus it seems the diagnosis of the problem and its cure are rather simple. The degree to which a nation state adopts democracy, capitalism, secular rationalism, and freedom determines it potential pathology upon the world scene.
Russia once posed horrific challenges to the general peace; now after a decade of freedom, even its most glaring environmental disasters are being addressed in a manner unthinkable under communism. Eastern Europe, overnight, went from a social, political, and environmental miasma to a potentially humane region that is dealing with a vast array of problems.
Most people today die of starvation, disease, and random killing in two general areas Africa and the Islamic world. Both places are short on consensual government, capitalism, and the rule of law. For all our differences with Europe, Australia, Canada, much of South America, and Japan, the shared commitment to democracy and freedom has meant that such an odd group of diverse nation states is nevertheless addressing peacefully critical questions from fishing rights, to drug eradication, to resource and trade disputes without altering their traditional Westernized sense of autonomy or their own nationhood.
The problems that Mr. Bobbitt so skillfully chronicles may not need radical new solutions as much as time honored old solutions unfortunately still in short supply.
And there is the question of morality as well. We should be reminded that in our present crises, the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly with voting members like Syria, Libya, and Zimbabwe have done little to stop terrorism. The EU could not prevent a quarter million dying in Bosnia and Kosovo. International inspectors had no luck with Saddam Hussein. Only an American federal attorney can deal with Enron. Of the truly dangerous regimes in the world Iran, Iraq, North Korea and their lesser emulators such as Libya, Cuba, Vietnam all display hostility to the liberal values of the European nation state and are kept from attacking their neighbors mostly by the conventional forces of the United States.
Indeed, what is truly curious is not the radical revolution in science and culture that again Mr. Bobbitt so deftly and comprehensively describes computers, global communications and transportation, nuclear proliferation, and random terrorism but how the United States, through its reactionary 18th-century Constitution, unwieldly Congress, and traditional carriers, jets, and subs, has been able to keep the peace and protect its citizens without creating new consortiums or altering its existing political framework. All that may change. But for now Mr. Bobbitt's often brilliant catalog of the current global chaos perhaps remains just that an astute diagnosis.

Victor Davis Hanson is author most recently of "Carnage and Culture" (Doubleday 2001).



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