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Any set of rules that forbids the use of American force in virtually all contexts in which the United States is likely to find itself moved by moral considerations in the current era will forfeit its claim on our moral sense.
-Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History

If it's rare to find a book that's both as brilliant as its fans insist and as flawed as its critics contend, there's no question that Philip Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles is a rare book indeed. The paperback version that I read is a text of 823 pages, plus Forward (by Michael Howard) plus Prologue plus Appendices plus extended poetic frontispiece (from Homer's Illiad, whence the book's title and numerous poetic interludes to follow). It is, as you can tell by length alone, an ambitious work. That's not necessarily a bad thing and personally I enjoyed nearly all of it. However, it would undeniably be a better book if it had been scaled back and its argument brought into sharper focus. At its very core is an expansion upon Francis Fukuyama's thesis of the End of History that is especially good and which everyone interested in geopolitics would benefit from reckoning with. Mr. Bobbitt outlined this thesis in an interview with his publisher that suggested a narrower text was once envisioned, AUTHOR Q & A: A Conversation with Philip Bobbitt (Random House):
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.
We'll find some fault with even this condensed version of his argument, but this much everyone should take away from the book.

Mr. Bobbitt says in his Prologue that he originally planned two volumes, but went with one, and it is in turn divided into three parts. The overarching theme is that a new constitutional order is emerging within and among the states of the world, one based on the market-state. Rearranging the order in which Mr. Bobbitt presents his material, he charts an evolution of constitutional orders that have characterized the international society of states: the princely state (beginning in the late 15th century and based on a territory ruled by a prince, rather than defined by the power of the prince as an individual), the kingly state (beginning with the Peace of Westphalia, "a domain of absolute authority that made the king the personification of the state"), the territorial state (of the 18th century, defined by geographical continuity and extent, by agreed borders), the state-nation (of the 19th century, which "sought popular allegiance on grounds that State would exalt the nation"), the nation-state (of the 20th century, which "promised to improve material welfare of its people), and now the market-state (which "promises to maximize the opportunity of its people, tending to privatize many state activities and making representative government more responsive to the market"). This is essentially (and somewhat oddly) all background to the opening of the book, in which he develops the idea that the wars of the 20th century were actually one Long War, fought between various iterations of the nation-state--fascism, communism, and parliamentarianism--with the last obviously emerging triumphant:
[T]he fundamental constitutional problem of the Long War has been answered. Government by consent, freely given and periodically capable of being withdrawn, is what legitimates the nation-state. Government under law--no government that is above the law--provides the means by which states are legitimated.
Obviously had he pulled the book back from publication after 9-11 he could have expanded on this notion and added Islamicism as the final challenger to parliamentarianism on this continuum. The failure to reckon with Islam is a weakness of the text, but perhaps an understandable one from a 1990s perspective. Less forgivable, especially given the author's profession of faith at the front of the book, is the failure to reckon with the differences within parliamentarianism, specifically the necessity of an Abrahamic foundation. This gap leads him to wildly overestimate the importance of the European Union, whose secularism is already shunting it to the margins of world affairs and precipitating its decline, and likely the durability of the mere market-state. Indeed, one could, without too much effort, extend the Long War analogy back to the end of the 18th Century and argue that the real struggle is between various rational egalitarianisms growing out of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution vs. the faith-based republicanism of the Anglosphere.

Despite these quarrels though, the basic framework Mr. Bobbitt provides is compelling and the fact that it can bear greater weight seems an argument in its favor rather than against it. Meanwhile, there are so many other ideas crammed in around this framework and the whole is so thought provoking that it really ought to be considered required reading for any informed citizen.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Philip Bobbitt Links:

    -Philip C Bobbitt: A. W. Walker Centennial Chair (University of Texas Law School)
    -Philip Bobbitt (Wikipedia)
    -EXCERPT: From Shield of Achilles: Africa's Plight � The 2050 Scenario (Philip Bobbitt, January 10, 2004, The Globalist)
    -CYBERCAST: Philip Bobbitt and Sir Michael Howard discuss Bobbitt's book "The Shield of Achilles: War, Law and the Course of History" (Library of Congress, March 19, 2003)
-ESSAY: Putin’s Real Fear: Ukraine’s Constitutional Order (Philip Bobbitt and Viola Gienger, March 24, 2022, JustSecurity))
    -ESSAY: Get Ready for the Next Long War: Virtual states are a new, elusive threat (Philip Bobbitt, September 1, 2002, TIME)
    -ESSAY: Better than empire (Philip Bobbitt, March 12 2004, Financial Times)
    -ESSAY: Getting down on our knees would not have kept us safe: War on Iraq exposed us to new danger, but it was the right thing to do (Philip Bobbitt, March 20, 2004, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: How to ruin a milestone constitution: Iraq will learn that there can be no representation without taxation (Philip Bobbitt, August 25, 2005, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Facing Jihad, Recalling the Blitz (Philip Bobbitt, July 10, 2005, The New York Times)
    -ESSAY: Euro Visions (Philip Bobbitt, May 26, 2005, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Bush, an optimistic view (Philip Bobbitt, November 6, 2004, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: How proof became a burden: Saddam's intentions had to be part of the spooks' judgment call (Philip Bobbitt, October 8, 2004, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Being Clear About Present Dangers (Philip Bobbitt, August 11, 2004, New York Times)
    -ESSAY: When the United States Left the World (Philip Bobbitt, April 12, 2004, The Globalist)
    -ESSAY: Getting down on our knees would not have kept us safe: War on Iraq exposed us to new danger, but it was the right thing to do (Philip Bobbitt, March 20, 2004, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Seeing the Futures (Philip Bobbitt, December 8, 2003, The New York Times)
    -ESSAY: Playing by the rules: President Bush is a great leader but a poor politician (Philip Bobbitt, November 16, 2003, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: What's in it for US?: America will defend human rights successfully only when its own key interests are threatened (Philip Bobbitt, June 7, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Spooks and Spin Doctors: The secret services and the media are mutating, with each becoming more like the other (Philip Bobbitt, July 2, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Today's War Is Against Tomorrow's Iraq (Philip Bobbitt, March 10, 2003, The New York Times)
    -ESSAY: Is Regime Change in Iraq Necessary? (Philip Bobbitt vs. Robert Skidelsky, February 2003, The Prospect)
    -ESSAY: Marketing the Future of the State (Philip Bobbitt, January 17, 2003, The New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: Why the US and the UK are Right to Target Iraq (Philip Bobbitt, January 10, 2003, The Times of London)
    -ESSAY: Everybody, from the archbishop of canterbury to the home secretary, is talking about the market state. What does it really mean? (Philip Bobbitt, Jan 13, 2003, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: The Archbishop is Right: The Nation-State is Dying (Philip Bobbitt, December 27, 2002, The Times of London)
    -ESSAY: Blair, the pioneer of a new order: the nation state is dying (Philip Bobbitt, Sept 30, 2002, New Statesman)
-ESSAY: Philip Bobbitt's favourite books on international affairs (Philip Bobbitt, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Abraham and Isaac (Philip Bobbitt, From "Snakes: An Anthology of Serpent Tales" edited by Willee Lewis)
    -REVIEW: of CIVILIZATION AND ITS ENEMIES The Next Stage of History. By Lee Harris and Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (Philip Bobbitt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ROOSEVELT'S SECRET WAR F. D. R. and World War II Espionage By Joseph E. Persico (Philip Bobbitt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Philip Bobbitt reviews Alistair Cooke: Letter from America 1946-2004 ed by Colin Webb (Philip Bobbitt, Daily Telegraph)
    -AWARD: Shield of Achilles Wins Grand Prize at Hamilton Awards
    -ARCHIVES: Philip Bobbitt (The Globalist)
    -ARCHIVES: Philip Bobbitt (Open Democracy)
    -ARCHIVES: "Philip Bobbitt (Find Articles)
    -ESSAY: Professor Philip Bobbitt Named One of Britain's Top 100 Public Intellectuals by Prospect Magazine
    -INTERVIEW: AUTHOR Q & A: A Conversation with Philip Bobbitt, author of THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES (Random House)
    -INTERVIEW: Philip Bobbitt: The Thought Leader Interview: The constitutional scholar and national security expert defines a new era of market statehood (Art Kleiner, Strategy + Business)
    -PROFILE:The last days of New York?: Philip Bobbitt, military historian and Bill Clinton's former head of intelligence, has a new vision of hell - New York shattered by weapons of mass destruction and inhabited by a few bands of people living among the ruins. And he fears it could happen soon (Andrew Billen, 6/24/02, Times of London)
    -PROFILE: War and the State: Former White House Advisor Describes New World Order (University of TexasMarch 2003)
    -INTERVIEW: Professor Philip Bobbitt Discusses the Future of the U.S. Regarding Wars (Weekend Edition Sunday: August 18, 2002)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: A Crucial Document for a New Iraq (Madeleine Brand, Day to Day, August 24, 2005)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Iraqi Election a Test of Bush's -- and U.S. -- Policy (Liane Hansen, January 30, 2005, Weekend Edition)
    -INTERVIEW: The New Battle for Global Consensus (NPQ, Fall 2002)
    -INTERVIEW: Bobbitt on Bobbitt (Open Democracy)
    -INTERVIEW: Technology is Killing Democracy (Paul O'Donnell, June 2004, Wired)
    -INTERVIEW: with Philip Bobbitt (Breakfast with Frost, 9 June, 2002, BBC)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles: : War, Peace, and the Course of History by Philip Bobbitt (John Keegan, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Max Hastings, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Edward Rothstein, The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Michael Knox Beran, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Peter Conrad, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (ROGER GATHMAN, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Frederic Raphael, The Sunday Times)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (David Runciman, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Peter Jay, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (William Shawcross, The Evening Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (GOPAL BALAKRISHNAN, New Left Review)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Paul W. Schroeder, The National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Adam Roberts, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Paul Kennedy, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (Peter Nicholls, Peace Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Shield of Achilles (fsmitha)
   -REVIEW: The modern Prince : Philip Bobbitt seems too keen to smooth over Machiavelli’s hard edges : a review of The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that He Made, by Philip Bobbitt (Francis Fukuyama, Financial Times)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: Current Problems of European Democracy: Western democracies need to remember their founding principles. (Pierre Manent, July 16, 2024, Modern Age)