Browse Topics



Interview: Professor Philip Bobbitt Discusses the Future of the U.S. Regarding Wars

Weekend Edition Sunday: August 18, 2002

World Order


Historian Philip Bobbitt teaches constitutional and international law at the University of Texas. Since 1979, Professor Bobbitt has held a variety of academic and government positions with an emphasis on foreign affairs. He served as President Carter's associate counsel for intelligence and international security. He was counselor on international law for the first President Bush. And served on the National Security Council under President Clinton where he was also senior director for strategic planning. Earlier this year, Philip Bobbitt published "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History." And he is in our London bureau today.

Good morning, Professor.

Professor PHILIP BOBBITT (Historian): Good morning.

HANSEN: What are the lessons, do you think, to be learned today about--its the phrasing in the title of your book, `war, peace and the course of history'?

Prof. BOBBITT: I suppose the principal lesson is that states, these great international political entities, not states like my state of Texas or Canadian states like Alberta, but states like France or Germany, have been the great drivers of international relations since the emergence of the modern state in the Renaissance, and that their history reflects an interplay between the inner life of the state, its legal order, and its external life, the strategy and course of war.

HANSEN: You mention the Renaissance. Where is the best place to start? Where is a good starting point to understand each of these concepts and how they work together?

Prof. BOBBITT: In the last decade of the 15th century, the French king Charles VIII came into the Italian plain with mobile artillery. Artillery had really been introduced, oh, less than 50 years before, but it was too large and too cumbersome to be brought into battle on a mobile basis. The French used the technology of founding church bells to create lighter cannon and at a stroke they rendered irrelevant the moats and high walls of the rich, weak cities of Italy, which they coveted. That caused these cities to frantically cast about for new ways to raise money, to make permanent alliances, to hire mercenaries to build new fortifications. And that was the birth of the modern state.

HANSEN: What, then, are some critical turning points after that starting point in the development of international order, or you actually call it the society of states?

Prof. BOBBITT: Yes. The state system goes along--it enjoys a period of stability and peace and then it's interrupted by a war, which at some point begins to endanger the very constitutional life of the state. At this point, the war turns epochal and it becomes the kind of war that historians recharacterize in retrospect. The 30 Years War was one such war. No one in that war ever left his home and said, `Darling, I'm off to the 30 Years War.' But we look back on that and think of it as a single epochal war.

The other turning points, I suppose, would have been the wars of Louis XIV, the wars of the French Revolution, the long war of our century, a war that encompassed the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the wars in Vietnam, Korea and the Cold War. These are epochal wars because when they end, a new constitutional order is brought to triumph, and a peace congress typically ratifies that order for the society of states.

HANSEN: I'd like to bring in perhaps a current example of an idea of a world order. Specifically, going back to the administration of the first President Bush, who put together this international coalition against Iraq a decade ago, right after the fall of communism, right after the long war, which you refer to.

Prof. BOBBITT: Yes.

HANSEN: Now the president then, President Bush, referred to the establishment of a new world order. Do you think it was accomplished?

Prof. BOBBITT: Yes, I suppose it was. It wasn't--what was new really wasn't the order. The order was Woodrow Wilson's idea. What was new was the world. You ask about the Renaissance. Ever since the Renaissance, it has taken a state to destroy another state. Every state knew that its competitors would come from a small number of potential adversaries. And that makes possible retaliation which makes possible deterrents. But we're entering a period in which small number of persons armed with the facilities of international communications and travel, with weapons of mass destruction, and with computers, can, or at least soon will be able to, wreak a devastating havoc on the state. And that means that strategies like deterrents will have to be supplemented.

HANSEN: There was a clear reason that everyone in the international coalition supported the first President Bush; the second President Bush, now, he is indeed dealing with the new problems that are coming. Can the imposition of a government by one state on another be clearly justified in this reason for what you call `deterrents'?

Prof. BOBBITT: Simply threatening Iraq, simply trying to deter her, really doesn't solve the problem. If that were all there were to it, we would not be thinking about invading Iraq. We can deter Iraq. Hell, we deterred the Soviet Union for 50 years. It's rather that when these states develop nuclear weapons, and they will someday, inevitably, the chances of some of those weapons going into groups that are not states will rise. I don't know any thoughtful person who believes that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by these states will make the chance that they'll be used against developed world less. Nobody thinks that.

HANSEN: Professor Bobbitt, you've included poetry in your book. Would you like to read one that might be germane to our discussion?

Prof. BOBBITT: Yes, I would like that. There is a poem by Czeslaw Milosz called "Preparation" that I had tacked up on my bookcase during the 12 years I was writing this book. Let me read it.

`Still one more year of preparation. Tomorrow, at the latest, I'll start working on a great book in which my century will appear as it really was. The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked, springs and autumns will unerringly return. In a wet thicket, the thrush will build his nest lined with clay and foxes will learn their foxy natures. And that will be the subject with addenda, thus, armies running across frozen plains, shouting a curse in a many-voiced chorus. The cannon of a tank growing immense at the corner of a street. The ride at dusk into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire. No, it won't happen tomorrow. In five or 10 years.'

`I still think too much about the mothers and ask "What is man, borne of woman?" He curls himself up and protects his head while he is kicked by heavy boots. On fire and running, he burns with bright blame. A bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit. Her child, embracing a teddy bear, conceived in ecstasy. I haven't learned yet to speak as I should, calmly, with not quite truth, and not quite art, and not quite law, and not quite science, under not quite heaven, although not quite Earth, and not quite guiltless, and the not quite degraded.'

HANSEN: Philip Bobbitt reading Czeslaw Milosz's poem "Preparation." Philip Bobbitt is the author of "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History," published by Knopf. He teaches constitutional and international law at the University of Texas.

Thank you very much for your time, Professor Bobbitt.

Prof. BOBBITT: Thank you. Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright 2002 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information, please contact NPR's Permissions Coordinator at (202) 513-2000.

This transcript was created by a contractor for NPR, and NPR has not verified its accuracy. For all NPR programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version.


Spring Lineup
From March 18 to June 21, 2002, Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen will serve as an interim host on All Things Considered, while its co-host Noah Adams is on leave to write a book. Until Hansen returns to Weekend Edition Sunday in July, NPR's Lynn Neary will host.