Philip Bobbitt's sweeping analysis of the relationship between 21st-century states and terrorism could not be more timely. His arguments are radical, but they will not appeal to many Europeansby Anthony Dworkin / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Terror and Consent
by Philip Bobbitt (Allen Lane, £25)
As the Bush administration nears its end, there is growing excitement in Europe about the chance for a fresh start in transatlantic relations. Despite the best efforts of both sides to smooth over differences in the last few years, the parting of ways between the American government and mainstream European political opinion, which began in 2001, has never fully been reversed.
Nowhere is this more true than in the overlapping areas of security and international law. One of the most compelling aspects of Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt’s ambitious new book on the “wars for the twenty-first century,” is that it explicitly presents itself as a blueprint for a new strategic vision around which the US and Europe can unite. US and European responses to terrorism have tended to fall on opposite sides of a series of conceptual divides (for instance, over whether terrorist attacks should be seen as acts of war or crimes, or whether strategy or international law should guide military intervention). Bobbitt’s book seeks to reframe the confrontation with al Qaeda in such a radical way that the significance of these conventional arguments falls away. Terror and Consent proposes a redefinition not only of the “war on terror,” but of global politics generally. Some sense of its aspirations may be gained from Bobbitt’s comment that Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington failed with their big ideas (the “end of history” and “clash of civilisations” respectively) because “they were in fact not big enough.”
Bobbitt’s own big idea—anticipated in his earlier, equally sweeping book The Shield of Achilles—is that the world is in transition to a new constitutional order marked by new state formations and a new kind of warfare. The nation state is on its way out and in its place we see the emergence of the “market state,” which is adapted to a globalised world and operates through decentralisation, privatisation, incentives and networks. The market state sees itself, much more than the nation state did, as a collection of individuals; its boundaries do not have the definition of nation states and it seeks legitimacy by maximising the opportunities of its inhabitants.
In different ways, the US and the EU are both market states—but so, in one of Bobbitt’s many paradoxical flourishes, are the terrorist groups that oppose them. Al Qaeda does not control a defined territory, but territory is in any case receding as a mark of statehood. Al Qaeda, in its global reach, use of new technology and networked structure, is at once an enemy and a reflection of our own societies.
This means that it is more appropriate to talk of a war between the countries of the west and the terrorists than it was in the old days, when nation states confronted internal terrorist groups like the IRA or Eta. The new kind of terrorists do not care about preserving their legitimacy among the societies they target and are thus much more violent than preceding groups; what’s more, the fact that the components of nuclear and biological weapons seem to be increasingly available for clandestine purchase means that we must take seriously the danger that this ruthless breed of terrorists will get their hands on them.
But if we are indeed at war with terrorists, it is war of a radically different kind from the wars we are used to. What is at stake is not the defence of territory but the preservation of what Bobbitt calls “states of consent”: societies based on human rights that respect the free choice and autonomy of their citizens. Terrorism threatens this by imposing a “state of terror” in which free choice is not possible and fear and insecurity drives people to welcome limitations on their fundamental rights. Hence Bobbitt argues, with another contrarian flourish, that it is precisely terror that we are at war against, not just terrorist groups.
Moreover, the same kind of breakdown of the social contract can be caused by campaigns of ethnic cleansing or natural disasters, and, properly understood, the wars on terror stretch to include these too. Hurricane Katrina was clearly in Bobbitt’s mind as he wrote these passages, but they also seem prescient today—as I write, the liberal democracies are debating whether to intervene militarily to bring aid to the victims of the Burmese cyclone.
The fight against terrorism is placed within Bobbitt’s wider picture of international relations, which revolves around a struggle led by America and Europe to defend their own sphere of consensual democracy and to expand the rule of law and human rights abroad. This struggle is not exactly ideological, because there is no opposing political ideology against which we are fighting, but there is none the less a battle of ideas to promote the legitimacy of government by consent. With this vision, I think Bobbitt captures an important truth about contemporary global politics. He argues that the wars against terror will take place at home and abroad, and will erode traditional distinctions between military operations and police work. They also involve much greater attention to the protection of civilian life, and they demand absolute fidelity to law as a condition for success.
Bobbitt is harshly critical of the Bush administration for its disdain for established legal standards, which he accurately describes as “a staggering tactic in a war that is… about the preservation of the rule of law.” Nevertheless, he also argues that international law must be brought into line with the strategic demands of the era we are entering. He would like to allow some coercive interrogation, short of torture, for captured terrorists. He also suggests a reframing of the Geneva conventions to deal with the dilemma of how long we should be allowed to hold such unconventional fighters, though he provides few details of the provisions he has in mind. More central to Bobbitt’s thesis is his call for a new doctrine of preventive intervention, whereby an alliance of democracies can authorise intervention in another country “when a state develops and trades in weapons of mass destruction, or makes alliances with or intentionally harbours global terrorists, or commits large-scale human rights abuses against its own people (including the refusal to treat epidemics or admit outsiders to mitigate natural catastrophes).” Despite many criticisms of the way in which the war in Iraq was conceived and conducted, Bobbitt leaves no doubt that he thinks the basic rationale for it was correct.
This summary only begins to capture the scope of the issues Bobbitt touches on in his book. He takes issue with some aspect of every conventional position on the subject. His range, his elegant style and his evident ambition to recast every subject that he touches on give Terror and Consent the quality of a virtuoso performance. But despite its polish, the book is best approached not as a complete and carefully worked-out vision, but as a highly suggestive framework for thinking about a range of vitally important issues.
Bobbitt’s picture of the world is unashamedly moralistic. He portrays a world where states of consent confront states of terror, but pays little attention to countries in the middle like China and Russia, whose governments retain power through some combination of authoritarianism and public acceptance. According to Bobbitt’s scheme, only open societies can be victims of terror; but this ignores the obvious fact that China and Russia face terrorism too and, to some extent, share the west’s interest in opposing the proliferation of unconventional weapons. It is not clear that Bobbitt has fully taken on board the tension between the system of “neutral, general rules” that he calls for, and his desire to make an alliance of democracies into the arbiters of global order. For this reason, I suspect most European policymakers would not wish to sign up to his proposals as they stand. But he is surely right that it is an urgent task to find new principles for legitimacy in international action against the threats he identifies.