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 / Spring 2004 / Issue 34(originally published by Booz & Company)


Philip Bobbitt: The Thought Leader Interview

The constitutional scholar and national security expert defines a new era of market statehood.

Photograph by Matthew Septimus
War is not a pathology,” says Philip Bobbitt. “War is a natural condition of the state.”

In his groundbreaking book The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), Philip Bobbitt, who holds a chair in constitutional law at the University of Texas in Austin, was a history don at Oxford University, and served as senior director of the National Security Council, argues that every 100 years or so, the nature of the constitutional order is altered in the crucible of armed conflict. Indeed, the war on terrorism that began on September 11, 2001, could well precipitate the next change.

This conflict will be quite unlike the war between nation-states that lasted from 1914 to 1990, however. In the ongoing evolution of the modern state, Professor Bobbitt identifies emerging “market-states” that have a different basis for legitimacy and thus a different societal purpose than the 20th-century nation-state. Whereas the nation-state saw its role as increasing the material wealth of the nation’s people and was charged with making sure it was fairly distributed, the market-state seeks to increase the aggregate wealth of its citizenry — through deregulation, growing public–private partnerships, and what Professor Bobbitt calls “the devolution of the welfare state.” In their new role, “states don’t exist to deliver material well-being directly,” Professor Bobbitt says. “States exist to maximize people’s opportunities to advance themselves, and to get out of the way.”

The strength of Professor Bobbitt’s market-state is precisely its flexibility and inclusiveness, especially with regard to other organizations. It is fiercely pluralistic, marshalling many different types of organizations under the premise that markets provide the most efficient means to run an economy, and it can assist in supplementing the coercion of regulation with the incentives of the market. Even the market-states’ war making is pluralistic; private companies are not just suppliers to the government, but partners with it. The presence of corporations and nonprofits in the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq is thus a harbinger of what military operations will become; wars will increasingly be fought not by vast conscripted armies, but by a multitude of allied enterprises and organizations that include professional forces.

The Shield of Achilles is an intensive, scholarly, yet unabashedly personal history of the structures of international war and peace, from the first Renaissance’s princely states to the post–al Queda world order. The book is rich with anecdotes and portraits of soldiers and diplomats from the past 500 years, from the Medici family to the current U.S. administration — with extensive visits in between to such critical figures as Viscount Castlereagh, his adversary Napoleon, Napoleon’s nephew Napoleon III, and the Napoleonic student and Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck. Although The Shield of Achilles focuses on matters of political and legal scholarship, it presents a thesis that is highly relevant to business executives, especially leaders of multinational corporations. Indeed, the author argues that the future is largely in their hands.

Professor Bobbitt is familiar with the pathways of power. As a teenager, he lived in the White House with his uncle, then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson. He is also known for endowing and fostering the only U.S. government prize for poetry, the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, which was named after his mother. A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, he clerked for Henry Friendly on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He then earned a Ph.D. in political history at Oxford and moved into a tripartite career: teaching law at the University of Austin, teaching the history of nuclear strategy at Oxford, and serving in a variety of intelligence and diplomatic capacities in Washington, D.C.

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