Now or never

The Shield of Achilles: war, peace and the course of history

Philip Bobbitt <em>Allen Lane, The Pe

We are at a pivotal point in history, declares Philip Bobbitt in his monumental study of the interrelationship between the history of human conflict and the development of the political and economic orders under which we have lived for the past five centuries. The terrorist attacks of 11 September, he writes in an appendix, offer the United States and her market-orientated allies "an historic opportunity" to reorder the world. Although Bobbitt sees al-Qaeda as a "virtual state" - with its own army, mobile population and welfare system - his qualification of today's enemy as "messianic" would be hardly out of place as a description of much recent American rhetoric, even if his own book aspires to prophecy of endless war rather than a coming kingdom of heaven on earth.

Bobbitt is a distinguished example of that peculiarly American phenomenon: the academic policy-maker. He is a professor of constitutional law and defence-intelligence insider, who spent time as Bill Clinton's director for intelligence at the National Security Council. Which means that his ambition to shape our vision of the future is important, even if its content is often unpersuasive.

He supports the conventional wisdom on the waning of the nation state in favour of what he calls "market states", but emphasises that their viability depends as much on utilising e-technologies for warfare as e-commerce for profit. Unlike the utopian cheerleaders of America's cold war victory for market forces, Bobbitt does not see an era of peace and prosperity dawning as one world of free trade without borders shatters the fetters of the past. But this is not to say that his harshly realistic reading of the nature of the competitive world does not hide its own set of illusions.

Any Oxford historian should envy his range of reference (and his array of research assistants), starting with the lengthy Homeric episode that gives Bobbitt his title, but even while learning from his panoptic survey of thinking about war, politics and law over five centuries, doubts soon surface about where Bobbitt is leading us. What he leaves out is just as revealing as the message.

Bobbitt sees everybody else's nationalism as leading inevitably to war and ethnic cleansing (as in the Balkans), but American nationalism as principled and sincere. Americans are a nation of immigrants who have naturally adopted market-based ways of thinking. This makes Washington the ideal author of rules for a multicultural market order on a global scale. But, for all its status as role model for the future "market states", where the credo is opportunity not welfare, Bobbitt grants the US the right to break its own rules when it comes to neutralising threats from envious states or malevolent "non-state actors" (terrorists).

Sometimes he proposes the creation of "institutions that provide security and prosperity to all"; at other times, he suggests that the US "ought to encourage devolution and democratisation, not so much because they are good in themselves, but because they are the best hedge against the re-emergence of a state with ambitions of world dominion" - in other words, a rival to America's claim to that position.

Despite his historical references, especially to what he sees as imperial Germany's responsibility for launching the epoch of what he calls "the Long War" (1914-90), he is obtuse about contemporary echoes in Washington. Ninety years ago, imperial Germany was awash with defence think-tanks, pro-military NGOs (the army and the Navy League at their head) and various pan-German groups, all clamouring for a boost in military spending and pre-emptive strikes by 1914. Was it not an archetypal terrorist act - the assassinations in Sarajevo - that led to the cry in Berlin of "Now or never"? Soon enough, the punishment of terrorists was subsumed in what one of Bobbitt's favourite sources, Fritz Fischer, called "grasping at world power". What Bobbitt ignores in Fischer's thick volumes is the documentation of the overlapping military strategy and business interests in the run-up to 1914, so reminiscent of the Beltway's defence-industry-funded think-tank elite.

He mentions later German thinkers, such as Carl Schmitt, who combined legalism with grand strategy, but Schmitt's crucial idea of intervention receives only a footnote. Yet in the 1930s, he foresaw not only military intervention, but also blockades and media onslaughts (over the radio) as characteristics of future wars. Schmitt would have understood that bandwidth can be a blunt weapon.

Bobbitt is naively optimistic about the unconquerable diversity allegedly promoted by the computer modem (he even dismisses Big Brother as being rendered obsolete by the internet). The description rings almost Orwellian: the snoopers' international of the US National Security Agency and our own GCHQ plus a dozen other agencies boasts of its ability to monitor any and every e-mail and text message.

The Romans believed that if you want peace, then you prepare for war; but Bobbitt goes much further: war is a necessity, and "its modality can often be chosen". One final, epochal bloodletting will liberate us from "chronically violent nation states". However, to achieve this goal, "it may be that only war on a very great scale could produce the necessary consensus".

Bobbitt could have quoted Nietzsche: it is not the good cause that justifies the war, but the good war that justifies the cause. Interventions may even provide market states with moral legitimacy once they have abandoned domestic welfare as their primary purpose. This is a grim, but not inevitable, prospect. Yet too many western politicians find it seductive.

Mark Almond is lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford. His new book is Uprising! (Mitchell Beazley)

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