The Shield of Achilles describes a political theory for nations and uses the past 500+ years of European history to justify it. It is a reasonably well written semi-academic work. At 960 pages I doubt many will actually read the whole thing. So I’ll summarize his thesis here. There is a lot of material in the book that explains this in more detail and defends it.
His goal is to answer one important question:
- What is the purpose that makes a state legitimate?
This question is to be answered in the context of the people and cultures of the time, not current opinions. So when considering the France of Napoleon, it is in the context of his time, not current opinion.
Bobbitt is of the opinion that the purpose of the state has evolved through various forms over the past 500 years. He argues that the great wars reflect conflicts between old forms and new forms of legitimacy. Similarly, the great peaces reflect the stabilization of a new consensus. The drivers for change are changes in the sciences, technology, legal structures, and cultural structures.
One example of the great war theory is that the various conflicts that can be lumped together as World War II reflect a conflict between an emerging fascist state model and the then dominant nation state model. The war, and subsequent United Nations peace, established that the nation state model was the winner and the legitimate structure for states.
His different phases of state legitimacy are:
- Princely State (1494-1572)
- The state confers legitimacy on the dynasty.
- Kingly State (1567-1651)
- The dynasty confers legitimacy on the state.
- Territorial State (1649-1789)
- The state will manage the country efficiently.
- State Nation (1776-1870)
- The state will forge the identity of the nation.
- Nation State (1861-1991)
- The state will better the welfare of the nation.
- Market State (1989-)
- The state will maximize the opportunity of its citizens.
Using these concepts of state legitimacy helps understand some aspects of history. The history of 17th-18th century Germany makes much more sense when you use these models. The people involved did not attach statehood to their concept of being German.
This also explains a lot of the historical mess in the Balkans. Nothing makes sense when you try to apply today’s nation state viewpoint the old structures of the Ottoman Balkans. When you think in terms of these transitions, the conflicts and behaviors make more sense. Instead of thinking "why were these people so crazy?" you see the issue of "how could they escape the conflicts left by the failing models of statehood?"
Shield of Achilles was published in 2001 before 9/11, so there are some predictions that can be compared with actual events. I find:
- The emergence of the market state remains plausible. Many places and emerging political groups use this model.
- Bobbitt did not recognize the conflict with the Islamic state as an emerging conflict model. The conflict between the Islamic state model and the market state model is apparent in the Arab Spring and its aftermaths in different countries.
- His assertion that the Cold War and its many skirmishes was the long war that rejected the Marxist-Communist state seems to hold up. Deng, Xi, and others remain careful to preserve a public allegiance to Mao Thought, but the Chinese Communist Party ruling structure is increasingly separated from the details of Marxist state models. Similarly, Russia still has a Communist party, but the national structure is completely changed.
- He did not recognize the question of whether the parliamentary democracy will be the structure of the market state. China is quite clearly presenting public goals that are consistent with the market state model, while clearly not following the parliamentary democracy model.