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The Shield of Achilles

by Philip Bobbitt
Foreword by Professor Sir Michael Howard

Published by Allen Lane

Reviewed by Michael Newland

"Neither his fellows, nor his Gods, nor his passions will leave a man alone"
Joseph Conrad


Shortly after the collapse of Russian communism, Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History signalled what many people believed with good reason to be a watershed in world affairs which lay the foundations for unprecedented tranquillity.

The demise of communism appeared of far wider import than what now seems the long-delayed end of a decrepit political system discredited decades before. The division of the world by competing ideologies, which began with the First World War, had ended with the triumph of parliamentary democracy. Fascism had been defeated in 1945, and communism had collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions with hardly a shot fired - ironically a fate which the communists had expected to befall capitalism. Liberal democracy was expected to prevail everywhere, and the conditions for its continued success, which were an essential part of Fukuyama's thesis, were widely ignored.

That the expectations aroused by the events of the early 1990s have not been fulfilled, and are unlikely to be, is a theme of Philip Bobbitt's book. The changing nature of states and the varying rationales for their legitimacy and international acceptance since the Middle Ages is an ongoing story which, put in that way, enlarges our comprehension of the world.

The Shield of Achilles is about a very big picture indeed - the nature of the modern system of states, its origins and those new forces undermining its ability to achieve the ends which it was supposed would fall eventually within its grasp. What form will the state take in response to what Bobbitt argues is a new situation? While we were all dwelling on the risks to us from the Cold War, and presuming that an end to it would mean the removal of much of the impetus towards conflict, events were overtaking us which would create entirely new forms of risk, and new avenues for conflict.

Bobbitt formalises much of what we see in our newspapers as the outcome of a historical process in constant flux at the hands of both the development of technology and changing perceptions as to how the citizen should participate in his society.


Philip Bobbitt argues that the system of states, organised for their own defence, recognising each other and intended to avoid war, began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. He writes:

'Westphalia was to the states of Europe in 1648 what Philadelphia became for the states of the American colonies in 1789 - the birthplace of a new constitution for a small society of states.'

The Westphalian system was intended to give recognition to the rights of princes to rule within their own states. Since states presumed that war was an appropriate means of changing the arrangements, conflict, however, continued. Every state, if it could manage it, was free to expand its power in the absence of any universal authority. Rearrangement of the agreements was a continued theme employed to justify war. This drawback led to a new doctrine early in the 18th century.  The limitation of Westphalia, which sought stable rule inside states rather than in their external relationships, was addressed. The concept of a balance of power designed to deter European war entered into international relationships not merely as something for ambition to upset but as a part of the fundamental structure of an international constitution. Louis XIV's grandson, the Duke of Berry, wrote at the time:

'All the powers of Europe finding themselves almost ruined on account of the present wars, it has been agreed to establish an equilibrium. It has been thought that the surest way of achieving this is to maintain a certain proportion, in order that the weakest ones united might defend themselves against more powerful ones, and support one another against their equals.'

The armies of the 18th century were small and professional. The French Revolution changed everything. Political legitimacy came to be seen as drawn from the people. That source of legitimacy imposed on the entire populace the duty of defending their rights and powers. In 1793, the National Convention decreed that all French males were conscripted into defeating the foreign enemies of the revolution.

War ceased to be an affair of a certain caste and became a national involvement. Clausewitz wrote of the epochal change in France:

'Such a force as no one had had any conception of made its appearance. War had suddenly become an affair of the people, and that of a people numbering thirty millions, every one of whom regarded himself as a citizen of the state.'

Despite the fall of Napoleon, the new ideas soon spread to Prussia and throughout Europe. The Congress of Vienna recognised that agreed principles were necessary to avoid the catastrophe of wars now waged by the masses and where public opinion had to be recognised by governments. Consent by the people had become a basis of authority and that would apply not only internally within states but also to arrangements designed to provide collective security.

The ongoing result of mass citizenship was that states sought internal legitimacy increasingly in the promise to provide for its citizens those benefits we have come to see as normal and universal rights in nation states. Education, remedial taxation and expenditure, suffrage and so on validated the state rather than its seeking validation from other states by agreement.

Unfortunately, there was no single constitutional form which could be agreed on as best enhancing the welfare of citizens. The peace at the end of World War I left three different systems denying each other's legitimacy. Communism, fascism and parliamentarianism divided the West. Woodrow Wilson said at the end of the Great War:

'It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellows as pawns and tools.'

The end of hostilities in 1918 established the modern nation state, and finally destroyed the dynastic system, but did not establish an agreed form for it. Parliamentarianism, with the people judging the effectiveness of the state in pursuing their benefit at the ballot box, was challenged by the growing communist movement for most of the remainder of the century and for a shorter period by the German fascist movement. It was only with the collapse of communism that the dominant western states could agree on the primacy of parliamentarianism. Bobbitt thus argues that the First World War was a 'Long War' which really only ended in the 1990s by which time both Germany and Russia had accepted parliamentarianism.

What is different in the settlement which finally ended the struggle which began in 1914, Bobbitt says, is that it was based not on the concept of the balance of power, which had underpinned international relations since the Treaty of Utrecht early in the 18th century, but on the hegemony of the United States. There has been no parallel for such a situation since the Roman Empire.

The Long War did not end with the military triumph of one faction over another. That was prevented by something entirely novel.  The development of nuclear weapons, and their delivery systems, promised the total destruction of protagonists. The war was cold, and ended with Russia and its satellites abandoning the field when the internal arrangements required even to compete in military terms became insupportable.

The age of those weapons of mass destruction, we now hear so much about, on the one hand avoided mass conflict despite the all too justifiable fears that deterrence would fail. On the other hand, and in tandem with economic change, it has launched us into an entirely new situation in many ways more dangerous and terrifying than what has happened before.

It is to this which Bobbitt turns in the latter part of his book.


'For five centuries only a state could destroy another state. And for five centuries, states have developed means of defeating other states. Only states could marshal the resources to threaten the survival of other states: only states could organise societies to defend themselves against such threats.

We are entering a period when very small numbers can deal lethal blows to any society. Because the origins of these attacks can be effectively disguised, the fundamental bases of the State will change.'

Bobbitt here identifies a fundamental shift in power relations to which the world is suddenly awakening. His book was approaching completion shortly before the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. The horrible reality of a world where a tiny number of persons can organise such an attack was seen on live television.

Bobbitt terms terrorist groups which can organise such atrocities as 'virtual states'. Modern technologies allow world-wide networks to collect and dispense funds, and to commit acts previously confined to governments or least to their clients. The future will be quite unlike the past and no victory is possible of the kind we associate with 1945.

There are now not merely problems, which admit a solution, but dilemmas which allow choices in response but a variety of outcomes none of which are without drawbacks or even entirely predictable. The defeat of the German army in 1945 could safely be assumed to end conflict with Germany. Terrorism, with the help of electronic communications, can be hydra-headed, and the removal of one head - even if it can be located - can provoke the growth of more. It is precisely this phenomenon which underlays the current debate concerning an invasion of Iraq. 'A state' says Bobbitt 'though disavowing responsibility will be deemed the author of attacks, and will become the target for retaliation.'

Forecasting depends on projecting into the future trends already in place with a record which can be studied. The new situation has no track record. Identifiable threats have given way to the need to define vulnerabilities.

The nation state, and its capacity in tandem with others to provide security, is now undermined in its capacity to provide territorial integrity by weapons of mass destruction, which can often be constructed without the full resources of an entire state being needed. The construction of atomic weapons did not need more than fraction of America's resources during WWII, and biological and chemical weapons are magnitudes smaller in their requirements. Worse, the concept of mutually assured destruction, which played such a part in the Cold War, holds no terrors for those willing to commit suicide in their cause.

But the nation state is also undermined in quite a different manner, both territorially and otherwise.

During the 20th century, nation states based themselves on economic intervention and regulation. Since the 1970s, the argument that maximising welfare required the opening up of markets and movement of capital. Labour market flexibility and lower taxes are a secret of growth.

'The state that resists liberalising its labor markets in order to protect high-wage jobs will end up with no jobs; the state that resists cutting back on welfare will find that it has to cut back anyway when revenues fall and that it has even larger welfare bills to pay as unemployment climbs.'

Thus, says Bobbitt, nation states are transmuting into what he terms 'market states'.

They promise a virtuous circle for participants, in terms of growth, but bring in their train problems which the nation state at least promised to curb. Increasing divergence in wealth between rich and poor is undermining to any society. The mass movements of population and their demands to retain their own identities in host countries - guaranteed by human rights law - is another obvious source of division. As the nation state admits to a reduced ability to deal with its problems directly, belief in the state's authority and moral legitimacy will be corroded. Populations will not be willing to be conscripted into the service of the society, as they were before, adding to the difficulty of welding it together.

The mood in Britain is now increasingly one of what has been termed 'internal immigration'. The population has largely withdrawn from participation in political life, and there is increasing dismay and disillusionment with the big political parties. There is a near-uncontrolled flow of population from less developed countries, and an unhappy choice between being accused of human rights and democratic violation if any attempt is made to integrate newcomers, or control the flow, and declining social cohesion if they are not.

Britain is a prime example of what Bobbitt proposes may happen. In the case of the United States, he suggests it possible that the country will split into states adopting a variety of different ethnic and cultural systems, and with mass migration to states seen as congenial by different groups. A common defense policy and open markets would ensure the continued cohesion of the whole. This seems to the writer extraordinarily unrealistic. The absence of the cement of common values would certainly mean the dissolution of the United States, although it might retain token common institutions as does the British Commonwealth.

Under the nation state, populations expected the media to broadly support the society, as they mostly did themselves in a social contract which dictated a very great deal in return. That constraint disappears in market states. The media is now, says Bobbitt, in direct competition with government, and well-placed to do so being expert in public relations. It has replaced the discredited left as principal critic. Unfortunately, he says:

'The media are completely untrained in this task - ethically or politically. Much the same can be said for the leadership of the great multi-national corporations. Nor can these institutions expect much help from the political class that has so enslaved itself to the market via its reliance on campaign contributions.'

Eroded expectations of the state are reinforced by the new role of the media.

In Britain, diminished media deference towards those in power has created a holy terror among politicians of nailing their colours to any view of any substance. Ironically, a greater tendency to dissect government actions has not led to better decision making but to a shallowing of debate.


In so far as there is any answer to the conflicts of the coming world, in their fundamentally uncertain character, Bobbitt suggests that the market state 'asserts its primacy as the most effective constitutional means to deal with the consequences of the strategic innovations that won the Long War'.

This is a little optimistic when the very nature of the market state is destructive and bewildering to human beings who generally seek a society recognisable to them by its cultural and racial continuity. Of course to say such things is near heresy at the present time. What is true is what Bobbitt also asserts and makes sound far easier than the practice of it. The society of states must try to organise to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction - if it be possible which is a very big if - and try to ensure that intervention creates coalitions.

But to what extent are states entitled to intervene in other states? It may be argued that no state has the right to build weapons of mass destruction. This does not resolve the problem since highly-organised terrorist groups of the virtual state variety may lodge themselves in one degree or another in countries which do not support them but have traditions which are tolerant of a very considerable degree of dissent against other states because of their circumstances, history and political interests. One of the keys to combating terrorism, says Bobbitt, is to cut off their funds. Can countries be legitimately occupied for this purpose? One of the strengths of the virtual state is that a full destruction of it might require the occupation of perhaps dozens of countries.

The Iraq crisis (February 2003) may be seen as a classroom problem built for the maximum difficulty in clinical terms.

Not only is there is no concensus concerning the threat of weapons of mass destruction, but little concensus on the value of intervention. The fundamental dilemma as to whether interventions may provoke more than they resolve is starkly exposed.

There is also the difficulty that attack may be the only form of defense in the new situation where mutual deterrence is useless. But government has sought for a very long time to pursue war with the support of its own people. The complexity of motives evident in the United States's wish to occupy Iraq has left many people doubtful as to the real purpose of military action, and left the Labour government in Britain without a clear mandate for war.


At 922 pages and costing £25, The Shield of Achilles needs a summoning-up of courage to fully read. Yet its substance is really now required knowledge for anyone trying to make sense of the world. The writer has tried to tease out the essence and put in into a more brief and accessible form. But there is so much in this book that he will at least in part have failed.


Bobbitt categorises the asserted basis for the state's legitimacy since mediaeval times in the following general way:-

1400-1570 The princely state - "The state confers legitimacy on the dynasty"
1570-1650 The kingly state - "The dynasty confers legitimacy on the state"
1650-1780 The territorial state - "The state will manage the country efficiently"
1780-1870 The state nation - "The state will forge the identity of the nation"
1870-1990 The nation state - "The state will better the welfare of the nation"
1990-         The market state - "The state will maximise the opportunity of its citizens"

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