Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Letters on The Shield of Achilles


I’ve only begun reading Bobbit’s book, but already I think it has all the merits you ascribe to it, and most importantly, it serves as a corrective to both Fukuyama and Huntington, at least in their popular reception.

Though Fukuyama and Huntington have rather different views on the current state of international relations and the future of political life, they also strike me as being rather similar. I mean that neither really takes the political as a starting point, and subsequently, neither sees the enduring significance of war as a political act.

If we start with Fukuyama, we see the notion that history has more or less resolved itself in the modern democratic dispensation. Even those nations that can make no practical claim to the democratic mantle will still give lip-service to democratic principles. And in this regard, nothing is more indicative than the United Nations where patently undemocratic nations repeatedly, and often acting as a bloc, use the forms of democracy to attack such real democracies as Israel, the US or the nations of Western Europe. So, in this respect, I believe Fukuyama is correct – he has identified the dominant intellectual and moral presumptions that rule our age. Moreover, I think he is correct to see this as something of an inexorable movement. I suspect that a return to the age of absolutism, empire on the Roman model or even the democratic Greek city-states, is impossible.

And yet, this can’t be the end of the story because history does seem to continue, and we can see this in one of the most important contrasts we’ve drawn often on this site: that between the US and Europe. The United States today is certainly the most powerful nation on the planet. Not only that, but it’s significantly more powerful than even the 25-member European Union. But just as importantly, in intellectual and spiritual terms, the United States see itself as the bulwark of democracy in the world, and it acts to enforce that position. The EU increasingly wants to see itself as even more democratic than the United States, and it believes that democratic nations don’t make war. The Europeans have taken the democratic ideology to extremes to the point where they are literally unable to distinguish between those times when diplomacy is required and those when force must be used. In other words, the EU believes democracy incompatible with force, while the US believes it has brought the two together, though has not necessarily resolved their differences. And, if we consider that the US is the great power today, we find ourselves having to admit that democracy, at least for now, is allied with force. The absolute end of history has not arrived.

If we turn to Huntington for advice, we find the notion of conflict based on cultural regions. Thus, Huntington thinks that cultural cleavages better explain the reality we face and that the future may well be dominated by conflicts between these groups. Here again, I think there is a great deal of truth. The democratic view of the world, despite the universal praise it tends to receive, is a particularly western cultural heritage. It’s quite conceivable that it will not ultimately dominate the globe, but will be threatened in many corners. Indeed, I’m often pessimistic regarding the extent to which many continental European nations have come truly to incarnate democracy – I sometimes think with Tocqueville that democracy is still in America.

Today, many want to see the battle between Islam and the West as a manifestation of Huntington’s thesis. That may well be, but that tends to suggest then that our future is not too bright, and that ultimately the cultural divisions are equally legitimate. However, it’s not at all clear that the cultural lines Huntington draws really explain the reality we face. Rather, they seem to serve as a description, but not a real explanation precisely because cultural differences are simply that – merely cultural. These differences alone can’t explain the attractiveness of the western life to many, nor can they tell us why the West came to dominate the planet.

In other words, I think there is something true about both Fukuyama and Huntington, but also something lacking. Neither can explain the situation we face today. Fukuyama too quickly loses the fact of real conflict in the world, while Huntington seems to make epidemic conflict unavoidable. It’s as though Fukuyama’s democratic world hovers like a perfect sphere above Huntington’s brutal crashing elements of chaos.

And none of this does much good for those statesmen who must guide the world. But on this point, I think Bobbit shines. What Bobbit seems to do is take seriously the actual political form, which means he connects international relations and strategy to the domestic constitutional structures of the participants. As a result, he attempts to trace the historical origins of the modern state in order to identify exactly how the modern state results in a certain kind of war. Just as Greek cities and the Roman Empire had their specific approaches to war, it seems that the modern state is closely related to a certain kind of warfare. In addition, that state, with its rather Machiavellian need for innovation, is itself changing as technology in warfare changes.

Now this point I think is central. More than other political forms, the modern state seems in a constant state of change. To Fukuyama, this is the continual push towards democratization, though Fukuyama seems not to notice that this advance is connected to a particular political form that came to be in the West. From what I’ve read so far, it looks as though Bobbit will weave the political and the technological together specifically in the modern state, thereby understanding the type of war proper to the modern nation, as well as its penchant for innovation. I’d say that Bobbit keeps much closer to the ground than do Fukuyama or Huntington. He follows events closely and keeps to a political analysis that accounts both for conflict and the advance towards democracy.

The great merit, it seems to me, is that by doing this he sees that war is commensurate with political life, but that it need not become total war if we understand the political form that looks set to take the place of the nation-state. According to what I’ve read, that new form will be the market-state, which is more global in reach, but still retains something of the political element as a separate nation (though not a nation in the ethnic sense so common in the nineteenth century).

I find this sort of analysis both exciting and useful, because it gives us a more probable sense of what is around the corner, or at least a number of probable scenarios. It keeps to some eternal political truths, but also makes the effort to account for changes we are experiencing without leaving us devoid of analytical tools. This is definitely a book that deserves a lot of attention, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts as I read over it.



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