Saturday, August 30, 2008

Gopal Balakrishnan reviews Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles

Council of Four, Treaty of Versailles
"a constitution of the society of states"
Prime Minister David Lloyd George (United Kingdom)
Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (Italy)
Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (France)
President Woodrow Wilson (United States)

(Image from Wikipedia)

In an attempt to clarify my understanding of Philip Bobbitt's thinking, I'm reading book reviews. The journal Foreign Affairs has a recent review by G. John Ikenberry of Bobbitt's Terror and Consent, but I don't have online access to that journal, so I've contented myself for now with looking elsewhere for analyses.

I've not yet found online a serious, scholarly review of Terror and Consent that I can access, but I have located an interesting academic review of Bobbitt's earlier Shield of Achilles by Gopal Balakrishnan, "Algorithms of War," published in New Left Review 23, September-October 2003.

Yes, I survey broadly in composing my reading list.

I've not yet finished Balakrishnan's rather longish review, for as the semester is about to start, I'm limiting my time online, so this will be piecemeal. In a section titled 'Strategy and legality', Balakrishnan gives some structure helpful for understanding the architecture of Bobbitt's thinking:
The Shield of Achilles is not . . . reducible to its many weaknesses and eccentricities. As a theoretical work, it possesses one core strength that sets it apart in the strategic literature of the current period. Bobbitt's unusual combination of backgrounds -- as constitutional lawyer and weapons expert -- has allowed him to combine two perspectives that, as he notes, are normally dissociated: the internal legal -- and social -- order of states, and their external military and diplomatic constellation. The originality of his book lies in its attempt to address the problem of how to conceptualize the state as, simultaneously, an inwardly and outwardly tested concentration of legitimate public force. In itself, the merit of this enterprise is plain. Bobbitt's way of negotiating it is the most significant criterion for judging the book. Here the architrave on which his account of the succession of modern state-forms as a coherent series depends -- the notion that allows him to unify their inner and outer fields as a single system -- is that of 'constitution'.

Domestically, of course, this is a familiar part of the political lexicon, denoting the juridical framework of state power within any given social order: in pre-modern societies, accepted by custom or tradition; in nearly all modern ones, codified in written charters. Bobbitt's key move is to extend its application from the intra-state to the inter-state arena. The Shield of Achilles posits a succession of international legal regimes that established the norms of war and diplomacy from late medieval times to the twentieth century:
It is my premise that there is a constitution of the society of states as a whole: that it is proposed and ratified by the peace conferences that settle the epochal wars previously described, and amended in various peace conferences of lesser scope; and that its function is to institutionalize an international order derived from the triumphant constitutional order of the war-winning state. [Footnote 9: "SA, p. 483"]
Bobbitt conceives of these historic peace conferences -- Augsburg, Westphalia, Utrecht, Vienna, Versailles -- as constitutional conventions following protracted violent conflicts, where the signatories agree to accept the fundamental precepts, over which they will then contend during the next Long War. The conferences that set the rules for this game sanction the strategic doctrine of a hegemonic state whose internal arrangements have proven themselves as the most effective mode of mobilizing and deploying forces.
This focus by Balakrishnan on "constitution" is useful for me because the same aspect characterizes Bobbitt's thinking in Terror and Consent. I hadn't seen clearly -- probably due to inattention -- that Bobbitt derives his concept of "a constitution of the society of states as a whole" from "the peace conferences that settle the epochal wars."

This is useful.

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