Since the late 1970s, he has spent much of his career in intelligence and strategic planning in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Working on a task force led by Carter-era White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, he helped rewrite the CIA Charter. Later, he was legal counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the Iran– Contra affair, and then in the first Bush administration, he was the counselor on international law at the State Department. In the second Clinton administration, he was director of intelligence, then the first senior director for critical infrastructure, and finally the senior director of strategic planning for the National Security Council.
Unsurprisingly, Professor Bobbitt’s perspective is that of a historian who has lived a life of varied practice, as well as a life of the mind. Strategy+business sought Professor Bobbitt’s insights on geopolitics and global economics during his recent visit to New York.
S+B: In The Shield of Achilles, you write that the Western world is at a turning point, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Treaty of Versailles ended World War I.
BOBBITT: It’s a turning point in the ongoing evolution of the modern state, which is actually the post-Renaissance state. Modern states started in Italy around 1490, and the state system gradually expanded until it now virtually surrounds the world. There have been five different kinds of states since then, each dominating the world for about 100 years. The history of the state, in other words, is one of successive periods of long stability. Stability doesn’t mean peace; there was always war. But in each period, a different kind of state tended to win those wars. In each period, governments gradually learned to adopt a new kind of “constitutional order” — a new conception of what the state was supposed to do — or else they were overtaken by those who had already adopted it.
For instance, the first Renaissance states were princely states: The local princes, unlike the feudal lords they replaced, were wealthy enough to hire mercenaries, dominate trade routes, protect larger and larger regions, and collect enough taxes to solidify their hold over the people of those regions. Because that kind of constitutional order worked better, the governments that adopted it could dominate the wars of that period. But then a new period of turbulence came along, precipitating an epochal war that produced another form of constitutional order that fundamentally changed the premise of the state, and made the princely state nonviable. This was the kingly state, with even larger territories. Its hold over Europe was certified in 1648 at the Treaty of Westphalia. Whereas before the state proclaimed “give us power and we will protect the possessions and person of the prince,” the new constitutional order promised to unite the state with the dynasty of the king.
In the early 18th century, yet a new order appeared, the territorial state. Then around 1776, the prevailing constitutional order shifted again, this time to the state-nation, in which all the citizens were united by common loyalty to their national, ethnocultural identity. This was the era of imperial states that exploited nationalities, including their own.
In 1914, the constitutional order shifted to the nation-state, where the state exists to benefit the nation it governs. The most successful states would henceforth be those that could directly advance the welfare of their national people.
And now it’s shifting again. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, we’ve been in another such period of turbulence. We’re entering into the era of the market-state, in which states exist to maximize people’s opportunities to advance themselves. And that will change the role of everyone, starting with the business leaders who provide many of those opportunities.