contributor perspectives

May 31, 2015 | 21:01 GMT

10 mins read

Introducing Philip Bobbitt

Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

On June 3, this space will host a column written by Philip Bobbitt, the first of what we hope will be many. In today's column, I would like to offer a kind of crash course on Bobbitt's work, not simply to inform but also to entice readers to peruse his column with a sense of his larger perspective on the world. Compressing three of his most important books into a single short column will do violence to the subtlety of his arguments. But like the trailer for a Blockbuster movie, I hope this introduction will leave you wanting to come back for more on Wednesday.

Bobbitt comes at issues of geopolitical strategy with a historical sweep that is nothing short of Hegelian. In a 900-page tome entitled The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002), he uses his understanding of the history of constitutional law to chart six distinct forms of the State that have emerged since the 16th century: the princely state, the kingly state, the territorial state, the state-nation, the nation-state and, most recently, a new order he has dubbed the market state.

A constitution constitutes a state. Simple enough. What is less simple are all of the factors and forces that contribute to each transition from one constitutional order to the next. Bobbitt argues that a series of epochal wars brought different constitutional orders to primacy, and that the peace treaties concluding each of those wars ratified a particular constitutional order. The legitimacy of the state then depends on how well it can deliver on the terms of the deals that are made by and inscribed in the constitutional order under which it falls.

The constitutional order of a state and its strategic posture toward other states together form the inner and outer membrane of a state. That membrane is secured by violence; without that security, a state ceases to exist. What is distinctive about the State is the requirement that the violence it deploys on its behalf must be legitimate; that is, it must be accepted within as a matter of law, and accepted without as an appropriate act of state sovereignty. Legitimacy must cloak the violence of the State, or the State ceases to be. Legitimacy, however, is a matter of history and thus is subject to change as new events emerge from the future and new understandings reinterpret the past.

The legitimacy of the nation-state, the order under which we've been living since the Civil War but that is now giving way to the market state, depended on its ability to protect its citizens from a range of threats: from weapons of mass destruction to natural disasters; from international currency fluctuations to infectious epidemics; from culturally offensive images to the effects of rapid climate change. To support his claim that, "Legitimacy… is a matter of history," Bobbitt explores the historical significance of three global trends: the spread and commodification of weapons of mass destruction; the rise of transnational threats such as migration, disease and famine; and the globalization of communications networks and economies. In light of these developments, the nation-state can no longer fulfill its constitutionally inscribed promises, and in the twilight of its fading legitimacy, a new order – the market state – is emerging with its own set of promises and sources of legitimacy.

While there is always room to quibble about minor boundary skirmishes in schemas as elaborate as Bobbitt's, what seem undeniable and important are the relationships Bobbitt establishes between war, the terms of peace and the constitutional order that ensues. His command of both history and constitutional law allows him to show how these relationships have worked in the past. However, the real power of his argument lies in the purchase it offers for understanding the present and choosing among several possible futures. Not surprisingly, Bobbitt is a staunch advocate of scenario planning, the subject of my first column in this space. 

We misconstrue the present, he argues, if we fail to appreciate the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of the market state, whose precise nature is frustratingly difficult to describe precisely because it is still in the process of forming. Indeed, Bobbitt develops three different scenarios for the market state that could ultimately materialize. What each of the possible market state forms share, however, is a logic that is driven more by economics than by politics.

One is reminded of Marshall McLuhan's observation that real sources of power can be located by identifying the tallest buildings in town. Once those buildings were churches; then they were state capitols. Now, they are the skyscrapers of multinational corporations. To put it more crudely than Bobbitt's finely wrought argument, we have moved from a predominantly religious era in which priests and popes held the levers of history, through a political era in which presidents and prime ministers took control of power via the separation of church and state, and into an economic era in which chairmen and CEOs are gaining importance through the separation of state from marketplace. According to this crude approximation of Bobbitt's careful argument, privatization – whether of water works or education, health care or security – is the new Reformation. Where power once passed from heads of church to heads of state, it is now passing from heads of state to heads of the private sector.

But much remains uncertain, so scenarios are needed. Bobbitt develops three scenarios – the Meadow, the Park and the Garden – that are thinly veiled projections of an American future, a European future and a Japanese/East Asian future, respectively.

The world of The Meadow is that of a society of states in which the entrepreneurial market-state has become predominant. In this world, success comes to those who nimbly exploit the fast-moving, evanescent opportunities... The world view portrayed in The Park... reflects a society in which the values and attitudes of the managerial market-state have prevailed. Governments play a far larger role... Finally, The Garden describes an approach associated with the mercantile market-state... Unlike the regional groupings fostered by The Park, the states of The Garden have become more and more ethnocentric, and more and more protective of their respective cultures.

In a meadow all is profusion, randomness, variety. A park is for the most part publicly maintained, highly regulated with different sectors for different uses. A garden is smaller, more inwardly turned—it aims for the sublime, not the efficient or the just.

It is ours to choose. There are advantages and disadvantages to each future, and Bobbitt, like Machiavelli, has an acute and almost tragic sense of the trade-offs. Not all good things go together, and we remain blind to these very important choices if we misconstrue the terms of the deal underpinning our current constitutional order. This is precisely where Bobbitt's combined historical, constitutional and strategic perspective is so helpful.

In his next major book, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (2008), Bobbitt again builds on the importance of the transition underway from the nation-state to the market state to make the argument that most of what we read about terrorism and the War on Terror is outdated nonsense. Just as an old nostrum has it that generals always prepare for yesterday's war, rather than tomorrow's, we similarly cannot afford to prepare for yesterday's terror, nor can we fight tomorrow's terror with yesterday's tools.

I must give short shrift to Terror and Consent if I am to say anything at all about Bobbitt's latest book. But a few points before I move on. First, as with The Shield of Achilles, Bobbitt is thinking big. This is not just a book about al Qaeda or the Middle East; it is a book about the fundamentals of statecraft and strategy, the very meaning of war and peace, and what constitutes "victory" in the War on Terror.

Second, the book's mood is dire. There is so much at stake, and so little time to waste. So this is as good a time as any in this introduction to make the point that Bobbitt speaks not only as a scholar and professor of constitutional law, but also as a practitioner in the halls of power. He is the nephew of Lyndon B. Johnson and has served the federal government in some capacity in every administration since, with the exception of the administrations of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. He was Associate Counsel to President Carter before serving as Legal Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on the Iran-Contra affair. He was the Counselor on International Law for the State Department and held three different posts on the National Security Council: Director for Intelligence Programs, Senior Director for Critical Infrastructure and Senior Director for Strategic Planning. He knows whereof he speaks on issues of national security, intelligence and geopolitical strategy.

Now we move on to Bobbitt's latest book, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2013), in which he offers a masterful reinterpretation of Machiavelli's much-misunderstood writings, paying particular attention to The Prince. Just as it is difficult today to see the outlines of the new market state when our minds have been molded by lifetimes of familiarity with the nation-state, so too was it difficult for Machiavelli's contemporaries to see the contours of the newly emerging princely state.

Again exploring the relationship between military strategy and constitutional law, Bobbitt shows the need for a princely state that was larger and richer than the feudal hill towns that dotted the 15th-century Italian landscape, and whose high walls had become vulnerable to new military technology.

The wealthy but weak cities of Italy needed much greater revenues in order to tear down their now vulnerable high stone curtains and to replace them with lower walls, further out from their city centres, on which they could place their own artillery to keep besieging forces at bay. They needed larger and more reliable military forces than the hastily recruited and unreliable condottieri on whom they had depended. They needed alliances and treaties that would outlast the persons of their signatories... They needed ambassadors... They needed an administrative apparatus... In short, they needed states. Thus, the modern state originated in the transition from the rule of princes to that of princely states that necessity wrought on the Italian peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century.

If Machiavelli's advice to the rulers of these new princely states sounded harsh to the ears of good Christians, it is only because they mistook his advocacy on behalf of the State for a selfish advocacy on behalf of the prince heading it.

Five different paradoxes bedevil the tradition of scholarship on The Prince. The combinatorial possibilities for coming down on one side or another of each of these paradoxes has spawned more than a score of different interpretations of The Prince over the centuries. In Bobbitt's hands, and through his lens of constitutionalism, all five paradoxes find resolution in a conclusion that has the aesthetic satisfaction of a good mystery novel.

But to come full circle, what we need now is not just a new interpretation of Machiavelli. We need a new Machiavelli, a scholar and statesman so clear-eyed and prescient that he or she can descry the outlines of the new market state as it comes into existence and has the knowledge and experience to navigate the newly emergent realities of a new constitutional order. Philip Bobbitt may be just that person. Indeed, Henry Kissinger considers him to be, "perhaps the most important political philosopher today."

Jay Ogilvy joined Stratfor's board of contributors in January 2015. In 1979, he left a post as a professor of philosophy at Yale to join SRI, the former Stanford Research Institute, as director of research. Dr. Ogilvy co-founded the Global Business Network of scenario planners in 1987. He is the former dean and chief academic officer of San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School. Dr. Ogilvy has published nine books, including Many Dimensional Man, Creating Better Futures and Living Without a Goal.

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