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November 4, 2009

Terrorising market-states

With the ushering in of the Obama era, the term “war on terror” appears to have fallen permanently from the American national security lexicon. To be fair, the phrase never sat easily with the majority of experts. It was too politically correct for some, being so evidently self-selective in its application. For others it was an insensitive monstrosity, guilty of instigating ever more enmity towards the United States and the Western world. Still others derided it from a semantic standpoint: how can a war against terror be won? How can war even be declared against what is simply a potent means of inflicting violence?

Yet, the “war on terror” has found an unlikely defendant in Philip Bobbitt, a dapper London-based Texan legal scholar, military historian and strategist, although not for the reasons one might expect. Terror, Mr Bobbitt argues in his 2008 book Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century, is not merely a means of waging violence, but an end state that terrorists—such as al-Qaeda—hope to achieve. The United States and  like-minded countries, then, are fighting not one but many “wars against terror.”

This is but one of many intriguing (and unabashedly iconoclastic) insights Mr Bobbitt has to offer. In Terror and Consent, he picks up from where his monumental historical-philosophical tract, The Shield of Achilles, left off. Mr Bobbitt’s erudite analysis of geopolitics, statehood and the rule of law reflects, in many respects, the most accurate paradigm for the world we live in today. From princely, kingly and territorial states, according to Mr Bobbitt’s schema, the prevailing constitutional order evolved to state nations and then nation states, which was the dominant order from the late 19th to late 20th centuries.

Yet since the end of the Cold War, finance, communications and law have tended less and less to heed national boundaries. This has combined with the changing contract between state and individual, and lead to a new constitutional order: the market state, a state whose legitimacy is based on maximising opportunity for its citizens. It is heady stuff. As the American foreign policy community continues to be mired in petty debates on territorial integrity and international institutions Mr Bobbitt, in many respects, appears decades ahead of his contemporaries.

Having previously established the emergence of the market state, Mr Bobbitt turns in Terror and Consent to another more immediately relevant question: “What kind of terrorism will a market-state produce?” He divides market-states between states of terror and states of consent, and focuses on three forms of international terror: known terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and natural calamities, all of which advance terror in their own ways.

There are reasons to be put off by Mr Bobbitt’s tome, or at the very least, aspects of it. There is his unabashed Anglophilia (Harvard historian Niall Ferguson jokingly referred to him as “homo atlanticus redux” in one favourable review). There is his emphasis on the rule of law, something few contemporary strategists have the patience or inclination to tolerate. There is his penchant for sweeping history interspersed all too often with detailed Woodwardian narratives of terrorist episodes. There are his frequently esoteric references to literature, which are reminiscent of an earlier era of scholarship. Despite his Southern American drawl, one can almost imagine him—powdered periwig on head, cane in hand— leisurely perusing through the works in the British Museum Reading Room before strolling to his club for drinks with Bertrand Russell.

Mr Bobbitt’s Western-centric approach is not just stylistically jarring but also substantively so. (One minor, but telling, error: he appears to believe that the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka is Hindu when, in fact, it is predominantly Buddhist.) Concerning his overall thesis, one must ask who exactly constitute the states of consent? The book is frustratingly vague on this point. The United States and member states of the European Union—the “West”—are evident candidates, as are India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. From there on it gets cloudier. The term doesn’t simply apply to major powers or even necessarily representative democracies, but rather states that have solid liberal-democratic  institutions. Robert Zoellick would dub them “responsible stakeholders.” It therefore becomes easy to interpret Terror and Consent as a neo-conservative manifesto, or at least a work that bridges aspects of neo-conservatism with liberal internationalism, given Mr Bobbitt’s emphasis on global legitimacy.

There is unfortunately no place for realism—or, rather, Mr Bobbitt’s limited definition of it—in his world of market states. Instead, Mr Bobbitt casts aside realism as a relic of the 20th century, the dominant age of nation states. “Realism,” he writes, “is increasingly unrealistic. We must look at the internal constitutional life of states to understand their external imperatives.”

Finally, Mr Bobbitt may have written about nuclear strategy and military affairs for decades, but he’s a relative novice to transnational terrorism and nuclear proliferation. No matter; he brings a fresh pair of eyes to these subjects. A number of prevailing truths get the Bobbitt treatment. He disputes the notion of there being a correlation between poverty and terrorism. He advances the hypothesis of nuclear weapons proliferation being fundamentally different in the age of market states, most notably due to their easy commoditisation. A Q Khan, as one can imagine, perfectly captures this theme and features prominently in one section of the book. Mr Bobbitt, however, sheds little new light on him or his bazaar.

Mr Bobbitt’s contradictions are what make him so compelling, and also so divisive a figure in national security scholarship and policy. He remains theoretically revolutionary and stylistically reactionary. He merges military history with contemporary strategy and legal scholarship, although not always seamlessly. He is at his best when he contemplates big ideas, but devotes much time and text to the nitty-gritty of transnational terrorism and legal counter-terrorism measures taken by the United States.

Timing is everything for a book such as this (Mr Bobbitt himself credits much of the success of The Shield of Achilles to its release coinciding with 9/11). In an already faddish discipline, Mr Bobbitt’s overwhelming pessimism regarding the United States’ strategy in the “wars on terror” doesn’t match recent trends. On February 25, the new US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano failed to even mention the word “terrorism” in her prepared remarks to Congress. This has made it all too easy to dismiss his focus. But even in India, where terrorism has once again risen in importance following November’s attacks in Mumbai, Mr Bobbitt’s book is of limited utility. His focus on international terrorism, nuclear weapons proliferation and natural calamity should make  his insights particularly applicable for Pakistan, which has recently experienced all three in spades. In the case of Pakistan, however, it is its emergence as a market state that remains very much in doubt.


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