For five centuries, the State has evolved according to epoch-making cycles of war and peace. But now our world has changed irrevocably. What faces us in this era of fear and uncertainty? How do we protect ourselves against war machines that can penetrate the defenses of any state? Visionary and prophetic, The Shield of Achilles looks back at history, at the "Long War" of 1914-1990, and at the future: the death of the nation-state and the birth of a new kind of conflict without precedent.
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September 09, 2003
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Excerpt from The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt
(Book III, lines 111--125)
. . . They therefore as to right belonged,
so were created, nor can justly accuse
their maker, or their making, or their fate,
as if predestination overruled
their will, disposed by absolute decree
or high foreknowledge: they themselves decreed
Their own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,
foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
which had no less proved certain unforeknown.
So without least impulse or shadow of fate,
or aught by me immutably foreseen,
they trespass, authors to themselves in all
both what they judge and what they choose; for so
I formed them free, and free they must remain,
till they enthrall themselves . . .
Law, Strategy, and History
Law, Strategy, History--three ancient ideas whose interrelationship was perhaps far clearer to the ancients than it is to us, for we are inclined to treat these subjects as separate modern disciplines. Within each subject we expect economic or political or perhaps sociological causes to account for developments; we are unlikely to see any necessary relation among these three classical ideas. They do not appear to depend upon each other.
Of course we understand, from the point of view of any one of these three disciplines, how events in one can affect events in another. A war is won, and international law changes, as at the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II and called to account those who had obeyed orders they believed to be lawful. Or a war is lost, with the consequence that a new constitutional structure is imposed, as happened to Japan after World War II. Thus does strategy change law--and we call it history. Or the law of a state changes--as by the French Revolution, for example--and this change brings about the lev�e en masse that enables a Napoleon to conquer Europe through strategic genius; thus does law change strategy, and this too we call history. Or history itself brings new elements into play--a famine drives migration across a continent or technological innovation provides the stirrup--and an empire falls, and with its strategic collapse die also its laws. With all these examples we are familiar, but we understand this interrelationship as the by-product of cause and effect, the mere result of wars, famine, revolution, in which history is simply the record of events, organized according to the usual subject matters. We scarcely see that the perception of cause and effect itself--history--is the distinctive element in the ceaseless, restless dynamic by means of which strategy and law live out their necessary relationship to each other. For law and strategy are not merely made in history--a sequence of events and culminating effects--they are made of history. It is the self-portrayal of a society that enables it to know its own identity. (1) Without this knowledge a society cannot establish its rule by law because every system of laws depends upon the continuity of legitimacy, which is an attribute of identity. Furthermore, without such a self-portrayal, no society can pursue a rational strategy because it is the identity of the society that strategy seeks to promote, protect, and preserve. One might say that without its own history, its self-understanding, no society can have either law or strategy, because it cannot be constituted as an independent entity.
History, strategy, and law make possible legitimate governing institutions. For five centuries, the operation of these institutions has been synonymous with the presence of the modern state, and so we may be inclined to think of the subjects of these disciplines--history, strategic studies, jurisprudence--as mere manifestations of the State. Such a reaction is natural enough with respect to law: some writers, such as Kelsen (2) and Austin, (3) have held that there is no law without the State. And other writers, such as Machiavelli (4) and Bodin, (5) present strategy as an aspect of the State, for it is the State that sets the terms of engagement pursued by generals, that fields their armies and declares their wars or announces their capitulations. It is even plausible to regard history in this way: for this reason, Hegel wrote that history ended at the Battle of Jena, with the birth of the state-nation, for history ends with the creation of an institution that makes the Absolute attainable. (6) These reactions are understandable but they are misguided.
The State exists by virtue of its purposes, and among these are a drive for survival and freedom of action, which is strategy; for authority and legitimacy, which is law; for identity, which is history. To put it differently, there is no state without strategy, law, and history, and, to complicate matters, these three are not merely interrelated elements, they are elements each composed at least partly of the others. The precise nature of this composition defines a particular state and is the result of many choices. States may be militaristic, legalistic, and traditional to varying degrees, but every state is some combination of these elements and can be contrasted with every other state--and with its own predecessors--in these ways.
The legal and strategic choices a society confronts are often only recombinations of choices confronted and resolved in the past, now remade in a present condition of necessity and uncertainty. Law cannot come into being until the state achieves a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Similarly, a society must have a single legitimate government for its strategic designs to be laid; otherwise, the distinction between war and civil war collapses, and strategy degenerates into banditry. Until the governing institutions of a society can claim for themselves the sole right to determine the legitimate use of force at home and abroad, there can be no state. Without law, strategy cannot claim to be a legitimate act of state. Only if law prevails can it confer legitimacy on strategic choices and give them a purpose.* Yet the legitimacy necessary for law and for strategy derives from history, the understanding of past practices that characterizes a particular society.
Today, all major states confront the apparently bewildering task of determining a new set of rules for the use of military force. Commentators in many parts of the world have observed a curious vacillation and fecklessness on the part of the great powers at the very time those powers ought to be most united in their goals, for the Long War that divided them has now ended. Or perhaps it is the end of the Long War that accounts for such widespread confusion. Because the ideological confrontation that once clearly identified the threats to the states of either camp has evaporated, it has left these states uncertain as to how to configure, much less deploy, their armed forces. (7) What seems to characterize the present period is a confusion about how to count the costs and benefits of intervention, preparedness, and alliance. What does the calculus for the use of force yield us when we have done our sums? Only an unconvincing result that cannot silence the insistent question: "What are our forces for?" (8) Because no calculus can tell us that. We are at a moment when our understanding of the very purposes of the State is undergoing historic change. Neither strategy nor law will be unaffected. Until this change is appreciated, we will continue the dithering and the ad hockery, the affectations of cynicism and the placid deceit that so typifies the international behavior of the great powers in this period, a period that ought to be the hour of our greatest coherence and conviction. It is not that the United States did or did not decide to go into Somalia or Bosnia; it's that the United States has made numerous decisions, one after the other, in both directions. And the same thing may be said of the pronouncements of the other great powers regarding North Korea, Iraq, and Rwanda. "Ad hoc strategies" is almost a contradiction in terms, because the more states respond to the variations of the hour, the less they benefit from strategic planning.
The reason the traditional strategic calculus no longer functions is that it depends on certain assumptions about the relationship between the State and its objectives that the end of this long conflict has cast in doubt. That calculus was never intended to enable a state to choose between competing objectives: rather, that calculus depends upon the axiomatic requirement of the State to survive by putting its security objectives first. We are now entering a period, however, in which the survival of the State is paradoxically imperiled by such threat-based assumptions because the most powerful states do not face identifiable state-centered threats that in fact imperil their security. Having vanquished its ideological competitors, the democratic, capitalist, parliamentary state no longer faces great-power threats, threats that would enable it to configure its forces by providing a template inferred from the capabilities of the adversary state. Instead, the parliamentary state manifests vulnerabilities that arise from a weakening of its own legitimacy. This constitutional doubt is only exacerbated by the strategic confusion abroad for which it is chiefly responsible. So the alliance of parliamentary great powers,* having won their historic triumph, find themselves weaker than ever, constantly undermining their own authority at home by their inability to use their influence effectively abroad. With a loosening grip on their domestic orders, these powers are ever less inclined to devote themselves to maintaining a world order. The strategic thinking of states accustomed to war does not fit them for peace, which requires harmony and trust, nor can such thinking yet be abandoned without risking a collapse of legitimacy altogether because the State's role in guaranteeing security is the one responsibility that is not being challenged domestically and thus the one to which it clings. We have entered a period in which, however, states must include in the calculus of force the need to maintain world order. This is not the first such period; indeed, the last epoch of this kind was ended by the eruption of the conflict that has just closed, leaving us so disoriented. Accordingly, there is much to learn from the study of that conflict, and also from earlier eras that were marked by changes in the constitutional form and strategic practices of the State.
Preliminarily, there are a few widespread preconceptions that must be put to one side. In contrast to the prevalent view that war is the result of a decision made by an aggressor, I will assume that, as a general matter, it takes two states to go to war. The common picture many Americans and Europeans have of states at war is that they came into hostilities as a result of the aggression of one party. It is like a class bully in a schoolyard who provokes a fistfight in order to terrorize his classmates. But the move to war is an act of the State and not of boys. States that wish to aggrandize themselves, or to depredate others, may employ aggression, but they do not seek war. Rather it is the state against whom the aggression has been mounted, typically, that makes the move to war, which is a legal and strategic act, when that state determines it cannot acquiesce in the legal and strategic demands of the aggressor. So it was with Germany, Britain, and France in 1939. (9) So it was with Athens and Sparta in 431 b.c. A corollary to this idea is the perhaps counterintuitive notion that sometimes a state will make the move to war even when it judges it will lose the war that ensues. A state that decides it can no longer acquiesce in a deteriorating position must ask itself whether, if it chooses to resist, it will nevertheless be better off, even if it cannot ultimately prevail in the eventual conflict.
Many persons in the West believe that war occurs only because of miscalculation; sometimes this opinion is combined with the view that only aggressors make war. Persons holding these two views would have a hard time justifying the wisdom of Alliance resistance to Communism the last fifty years because it was usually the U.S. and her allies and not the Soviets who resolutely and studiedly escalated matters to crises threatening war. Besides the obvious cases involving Berlin in 1952, or Cuba in 1962, we might add the decisions to make the move to war in South Korea and in South Viet Nam, the nature and motivations of which decisions are underscored by the persistent refusals of the Americans and their allies to bomb China or invade North Viet Nam. That is, in both cases the allied forces fought to stop aggression by going to war and declined to employ decisive counteraggression.