The rocky path from castles to eBay

Is a new era of market-states replacing the old order of the nation-state?

Philip Bobbitt's massive tome, which attempts to grapple comprehensively with war, peace, and the course of history, comes at a time when the American people have again become forcibly interested in the international order.

The conventional wisdom has begun to congregate around the thesis that Americans slept in the 1990s, lulled by a diet of notoriously tricky IPOs, high-profile murder trials, and the sordid details of Monica Lewinsky's couture.

Even if we buy the doubtful analogy to a 1930s England watching passively as Germany re-armed, there's a certain inevitability about this sleep. After all, for 40 years the United States had been engaged in one of the odder conflicts in history. A cold war that continues without an actual battlefield is, necessarily, a cerebral war, one that advances by creating attitudes in the enemy rather than dispatching troops. A war prolonged in these conditions will eventually exhaust even the most resolute opponents. Winners need down time, too.

Bobbitt is a professor of law at the University of Texas. He played a distinct if minor role in the latter half of what he calls the "Long War" under both Democratic and Republic presidents, beginning with Jimmy Carter (he helped craft the CIA charter), going through George Bush (senior), and serving most recently as a strategist in the Clinton administration.

Intellectually, his main influences are overwhelmingly British and European. To use a term favored by another foreign-policy pooh-bah, Walter Russell Mead, Bobbitt is a "Continental Realist." He uses a close reading of European history as the prototype of all international order. This school has several things going for it: an air of cultural sophistication, an encyclopedic knowledge of military and jurisprudential history, and an attractively nonjudgmental stance of Realpolitik.

"The Shield of Achilles" is enlarged by being, really, three treatises in one:

• a history of diplomacy from 1500 to 1990.

• a theory of the history of the state.

• an analysis of globalization.

As he moves from the past into our current embrace of free-market ideology, Bobbitt introduces what he calls the "market-state" – a new kind of government that chastely refrains from the old Keynesian attempt to adjust supply and demand by way of selective government interventions.

The connecting thread in this complex evolution is Bobbitt's idea of a constitutional order prevailing among major states. This arrangement evolves by way of epochal wars, which are ended by treaties in which the new order is solidified.

For the average American reader, the use of the term "constitutional" might be confusing. Bobbitt is talking about two meanings of the word. On the level of the nation itself, there are different frameworks of law idiosyncratic to each nation, such as the US Constitution. On the international level, however, the legitimacy of the state depends on a constitutional order – a set of fundamental purposes to which a nation appeals in order to maintain itself as a legitimate power within the set of all nations.

Bobbitt's schema looks like this: We begin with the state as a loose name for the changeable domain of the prince. We then proceed through its stages. The stages we are most familiar with are the state-nation – in which the glory of the state seals the affection of the people, as under Napoleon.

That eventually gives place to the nation-state, which fully emerged at the end of World War I. It exists not only to secure its people, but to enhance their material well-being. How this could best be accomplished became the focus for worldwide struggle in the 20th century: Should it be through one-man rule and ethnic dominance, as fascism proposed; by the rule of a party and state control of property, as Marxist-Leninism proposed; or by representative elected bodies and an economy of mixed private and public initiatives, as parliamentary democracy suggested?

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Bobbitt has been convinced that the nation-state is finished. In the new "market-state," citizens transcend terrestrial borders and adhere to economic allegiances, rendered ever more fluid by the Internet. This was a popular theme with writers from the 1990s, who, inebriated with a heady mixture of libertarianism and dotcom hubris, took a little too literally Clinton's declaration that the era of big government was over.

In cold economic fact, however, government is still big, middle-class entitlements look as if they aren't about to disappear any time soon, and deficit spending has been happily adopted in bad times by Republican and Democrat alike. Schemes for privatizing education and energy have recently looked more like Ponzi schemes than the Next Next thing. One wonders if the announcement of Keynes's death hasn't been a bit premature.

But there's much to recommend Bobbitt's schema, outside of squabbling about the latest form of state governance. It accords treatymaking, a neglected element in history, a needed attention. That emphasis allows "The Shield of Achilles" to make good sense of much of European history.

Do treaties tell all?

There are two problems that seem unaddressed, however. One is the difficulty of matching epochal changes to treaties. For example, surely the change that affected the constitutional order of 18th-century states had to do with the struggle between the British and French empires, and the resultant Atlantic revolutions. Bobbitt's schema, though, forces him to ignore these events in favor of Louis XIV's wars, and Frederick the Great's. This gives us, to say the least, a very odd picture of the 18th century.

The other objection is related: We don't get a sense of the intellectual and economic influences that materially shape these constitutional orders. Bobbitt's determined resurrection of a whole line of theorists of international relations, some of the most unreadable thinkers in intellectual history (when was the last time you curled up with a book by Hugo Grotius?), underlines the narrowness of his approach, and the iffiness of using the analogy between constitutions and treaties too literally.

Unlike the creation of such nations as the United States, in which the act of making the Constitution was synonymous with the act of making the government, treaties do not usually make constitutional orders in Bobbitt's sense.

That the end of the cold war was marked by the Charter of Paris in 1990 doesn't mean that the Charter of Paris operates as a "constitution" for the post-cold-war era. In fact, outside of a special elite of policy wonks, the Charter of Paris will figure only as a question in some future edition of Trivial Pursuit.

Objections to Bobbitt's theory of the course of history must be taken, ultimately, as a compliment to the depth and variety displayed in the book. From the fascinating account of the partnership of Colonel House and Woodrow Wilson to the extended discussion of the Yugoslav breakup, this book will certainly stimulate a needed discussion of America's foreign policy, especially as we drift into a state of endless war against an amorphous foe.

• Roger Gathman is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.

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