Bobbitt’s Shield

Philip Bobbitt The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History Penguin 2002

Wikipedia has a summary for a general audience, and the global business network, who were credited with assisting in the work, have published a market-oriented synopsis. Here I focus on aspects that match my main interests.


Writing after the ‘Peace of Paris’, it notes

The Long War, like previous epochal wars, brought into being a new form of the
State—the market-state.

It mainly concerns the forms that a market state might take, and the significance of those forms for the then future.

Book I: State of War

Part II: The Historic Consequences of the Long War

10. The Market-State

‘No nation-state can protect its society from transnational perils, such as ozone depletion, global warming and infectious diseases’. The market-state ‘exists to maximize the opportunities enjoyed by all members of society [it] pursues its objectives by incentive structures and sometimes draconian penalties, not so much to ensure that the right thing is done as to prevent the social instability that threatens material well-being.’.

The market-state will live within three paradoxes: (i) it will require more centralized authority for government, but all governments will be weaker, having greatly contracted the scope of their undertakings, having devolved or lost authority to so many other institutions, including deregulated corporations, which are in but not of the State, NGOs …, which are in but not of the market, and clandestine military networks and terrorist groups, which set up proto-markets in security and function as proto-states at war; (2) there will be more public participation in government, but it will count for less, and thus the role of the citizen qua citizen will greatly diminish and the role of citizen as spectator will increase; (3) the welfare state will have greatly retrenched, but infrastructure security, epidemiological surveillance, and environmental protection—all of which are matters of general welfare—will be promoted by the State as never before.

11. Strategic Choices

This chapter starts with the following quote:

“One also expects “elegance” in its “architectural,” structural make-up. Ease in stating the problem, great difficulty in getting hold of it and in all attempts at approaching it, then again some very surprising twist by which the approach, or some part of the approach becomes easy, etc. Also, if the deductions are lengthy or complicated, there should be some simple general principle involved, which “explains ” the complications and detours, reduces the apparent arbitrariness to a few simple guiding motivations, etc. These criteria are clearly those of any creative art and the existence of some underlying empirical, worldly motif in the background—overgrown by aestheticizing developments and followed to a multitude of labyrinthine variants—all this is much more akin to the atmosphere of art pure and simple than to that of the empirical sciences.”

—Von Neumann on the qualities of a good mathematical proof

12. Strategy and the Market-State

The fundamental choice for every market-state is whether to be (1) a mercantile state—i.e., one that endeavors to improve its relative position visa-vis all other states by competitive means, or (2) an entrepreneurial state, one that attempts to improve its absolute position while mitigating the competitive values of the market through cooperative means, or (3) a managerial market-state, one that tries to maximize its position both absolutely and relatively by regional, formal means (trading blocs, etc.). This choice will have both constitutional and strategic implications.

As Kees van der Heijden has recently observed,

“[t]he need for efficient strategic thinking is most obvious in times of accelerated change when the reaction time of the organization becomes crucial to survival and growth. . . . The problem is that such periods of change alternate with periods of relative stability, when organizations often get stuck into established ways of doing things, making them ill prepared for when the change comes.”

One important element of such a process in an age of uncertainty is scenario planning.

“The traditional approach [to planning] tries to eliminate uncertainty from the strategic equation, by the assumption of the existence of “experts” who have privileged knowledge about the “most likely future,” and who can assess the probabilities of specific outcomes. [By contrast] Scenario planning assumes that there is irreducible uncertainty and ambiguity in any situation faced by the strategist, and that successful strategy can only be developed in full view of this. . . . The most fundamental aspect of introducing uncertainty in the strategic equation is that it turns planning for the future from a once-off episodic activity into an ongoing learning proposition.

Appropriate scenario planning can create an institutionalized learning system. I will have more to say about the scenario process in Chapter 26. For the time being, let me simply urge that a true strategic planning group be created linking the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the Policy Planning Staff and that a true “vision team” be simultaneously convened, in secret, encompassing a broad range of opinions to aid that planning group. Such a team … should include business executives, not necessarily only American, as well as scientists, technologists, and editors from the news media. In other words, this team ought to be different in composition from the think tanks that are a prominent source of ideas in Washington.

Book II: States of Peace

Part II: The Society of Market-States

24. Challenges to the New International Order


The introduction of the computer and the mathematics on which highspeed computation is based played a decisive role in defeating fascism and communism in the Long War. No history of the Second World War can give anything like an accurate account if it was written before the revelations about Allied code breaking that began to appear in the 1970s. Nor can any political history of the Cold War omit the phenomenal growth of the developed economies, especially Japan and the United States, that occurred as a result of the introduction of microchip technology.

25. Possible Worlds

Before the sea change from nation-state to market-state, “vision” was simply a matter of looking ahead, extrapolating from the present. Realizing that vision was a matter of strategic planning. … What was required was not lacerating self-criticism over our failures to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the mass migrations in East Africa. Rather we needed to approach the future with an acceptance that simple forecasting was not going to be useful to us for a while, that no one had any clear view of what was coming and therefore no one could be confident that he or she was offering a realistic vision of the future. Instead we had to sharpen our skills at imagining different futures so that we had some idea of what was at stake when the choices the future presented were actually upon us.

To say this is to contrast “strategic planning” with “scenario planning.” Both rely on intelligence estimates that are based on the careful analysis of immense amounts of information, sorting out the true from the false, assigning probabilities to information that might be either true or false, guessing what the future would be like if all the relevant facts were available to the analyst.1 The problem for estimative intelligence in the current environment is that it depends upon a relatively stable world from which to extrapolate.

Scenario planning relies on the creation of hypothetical, alternative stories about the future that share certain factual assumptions but differ based on decisions made within each scenario … .

The difficulty with implementing Nye’s proposed solution is that such scenario construction depends upon a dialogue with decision makers at many levels in order to create a culture that is sensitive to the implications of change and alert to opportunities to create favorable conditions for change. Members of this culture produce the raw material on which scenarios are based; intensive briefings with them, once the scenarios are written, are as important to the process as the written product. … Competing scenarios, in the absence of a culture of dialogue animated by a sense of rapport with leaders at the top, are anathema to bureaucrats whose careers are risked by answering questions like “What would it take for this estimate to be dramatically wrong? What could cause a radically different outcome?” which translates to “What arguments can you give me that undermine your recommendations?”

The object is to use scenario planning as a means of stimulating institutional learning; what is being learned is a way of assimilating new events through the incorporation in (or the destruction of) the ostensive, simple stories of the scenarios. However sophisticated the tools, if there is no significant effect on exposing assumptions and heightening the focus on values, people will quickly fall back into the old habit of asking, “Tell me what will happen.”5

The following pages offer three general scenarios, constructed by assembling the elements of possible worlds that are brought into being by crucial, fundamentally moral choices that might face states—choices that could plausibly be made in a number of ways. These are only very simple stories. Because they do not attempt to capture the full richness of reality, they can make our basic assumptions stand out in a way that fate, culture, and history seldom afford. What might the world might look like if one of the three constitutional models of the market-state dominates the society of such states? I will call these three worlds “The Meadow,” “The Park,” and “The Garden.”

The world of The Meadow is that of a society of states in which the entrepreneurial market-state has become predominant. In this world, success comes to those who nimbly exploit the fast-moving, evanescent opportunities brought about by high technology and the global marketplace. Such a world provides an environment for the fullest expression of individual creativity; it rewards those who innovate and who can deal with, indeed who relish, impermanence. There are no fixed rules or taboos. Competition is the great god that sorts out the quick and the dead.

The world view portrayed in The Park is quite different, and it reflects a society in which the values and attitudes of the managerial market-state have prevailed. …

Finally, The Garden describes an approach associated with the mercantile market-state. …

In a meadow all is profusion, randomness, variety. A park is for the most part publicly maintained, highly regulated with different sectors for different uses. A garden is smaller, more inwardly turned—it aims for the sublime, not the efficient or the just.

[An] optimal constitutional arrangement is one that permits peaceful change as states shift from one approach to another over time and as these shifts impose stresses on international society that mirror the stresses felt within states.

We choose which questions to answer in life just as studiedly as we choose our answers. …

27. Peace in the Society of Market-States: Conclusion to Book II.

What a pluralist society of states needs are practical means of cooperation—alternatives to the nation-state institutions that span the different forms of the market-state. Agreements to set up consortia among market-states might provide one such mechanism. The very process of hammering out such agreements could be a useful way of achieving consensus. …

These consortia will be modeled more on multinational corporations or cartels than on states, in part because they are nonterritorial. They can either be a force for consensus and harmony—because they effectively aid the efficient functioning of the global market, human rights, and the information that links the two—or they can harden into competing alliances with limitless capacity for conflict. Corporations, after all, are designed to compete.

Such a change in attitude about the nonterritorial interests of states is bound to come with the advent of the market-state.

One may speculate that the umbrella, rather than the felt-tipped marker that once limned partition lines, will be one such means. The umbrella is a free-trade and/or defense zone that allows for a common legal jurisdiction as to some, but not all, issues. To put it differently, an umbrella is one outcome of a market in sovereignty. Different umbrellas may overlap. Small societies can shelter within such umbrellas—cultures too small to be viable as separate states—retaining for themselves control over essentially cultural matters. For such umbrellas to work, however, we must weaken the promise of maximum identical human freedoms for all peoples, because the cultural control that a society wishes to retain (its religious character, for example) may infringe on maximum identical freedom. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter, “the maxim of civil government should be reversed and we should say: divided we stand, united we fall.”

Tentatively we may note these ten constitutional conditions for a society of market-states:
(1) the maintenance of a force structure capable of defeating a challenge to peace;
(2) the creation of security structures and alliances capable of dealing with the problems of population control, migration, and ecological stability;
(3) a consensus among the great powers on the legitimacy of certain forms of the market-state;
(4) a few clear, structural rules for any state’s behavior that are enforced by arms if necessary, analogous to the society of nation-states’ bar against the annexation of any territory without the consent of its inhabitants;
(5) provisions for the financial assistance to great powers when these powers undertake to intervene on behalf of the peace and security of the society of states as a whole;
(6) prohibitions against arms trading in nuclear materials, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and missile technology but that permit trade in some defensive, informational technologies;
(7) practices for bribing states—by enhancing their security or their wealth—in order to prevent WMD proliferation to any state but especially to major states;
(8) prohibitions against wholesale attacks by the state on its own populations;
(9) some general prohibition on anticompetitive trade and financial practices;
(10) a consensus on the rule that no state that meets the standards of the Peace of Paris—free elections, market economy, human rights—ought to be the subject of threats of force.

These conditions give greater priority to peripheral conflicts and require greater consensus.

[These] conditions presuppose a commitment to pluralism that is inconsistent with either relativism or exceptionalism. By pluralism is meant the view that some values are to be preferred to others, and that
these preferred values are those democratic and peaceful institutions that permit individuated and diverse cultural development in the context of nonaggressive relations. The reason why the political system of the West is preferred is that it is the only system that allows all states, Western or not, to develop their own cultures. In a society of states committed to pluralism there are preferred values (as opposed to relativism) but no preferred states (as opposed to exceptionalism).

This program assumes that states will have to reconfigure and retrain their forces to function in ambiguous environments, where the threat may not come from another state or even an identifiable aggressor, and where the line between war and crime has been smudged.

To act is to understand; every act reflects an understanding. My aim has been to enhance an understanding that has been called upon perhaps no more than a half dozen times in the last five hundred years to create a new world from the inherited political institutions of the old. Will we lay a long siege against ourselves or master the craft of the armorer when shields are made of secrets and not of bronze?


So long, however, as states rely on a deterrence-and-retaliation model for their strategic paradigms—that is, a model that requires a threat-based analysis—they will inevitably neglect those steps, including enhanced intelligence collection, pre-emption, the development of defensive systems (including sensors), vaccinations, the prepositioning of medical supplies, and advanced methods of deception that provide the basis for operating within a different paradigm, one that relies on a vulnerability analysis. So long as states rely on a nation-state model for their international order, fruitlessly attempting to cope with new problems by trying to increase the authority of treaties, multistate conventions, or formal international institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, the society of states will fail to develop practices and precedents for regional, consensual, and market-driven arrangements that do not rely on law for enforcement. Constitutional orders that protect human rights and liberties can coexist with the consequences of the Long War only if they revolutionize their military strategies; states will only be able to pursue military strategies that enable collaboration and international consensus if they revolutionize their constitutional orders, away from the national, lawcentered methods of the nation-state and toward the international, market operations of the market-state.

… Only the State can promulgate laws. Therefore it will be crucial to develop legal processes that provide orderly and peaceful means of reflecting the popular will. Otherwise, the operations of the market-state will be reduced to the market itself. This will invite revolt.

The central point in recognizing the emergence of the market-state is not simply to slough off the decayed nation-state. It is also to emphasize the importance of developing public goods2—such as loyalty, civility, trust in authority, respect for family life, reverence for sacrifice, regard for privacy, admiration for political competence—that the market, unaided, is not well adapted to creating and maintaining. The market-state has to produce public goods because that is precisely what the market will not do. This need for qualities of reciprocity, solidarity, even decent manners, domestically, mirrors the need for collective goods, internationally, and thus represents not only a challenge but an opportunity for leadership.

Now it happens that we are living in one of those relatively rare periods in which the future is unlikely to be very much like the past. Indeed the three certainties I just mentioned about national security—that it is national (not international), that it is public (not private), and that it seeks victory (and not stalemate)—these three lessons of the past are all about to be turned upside down by the new age of indeterminacy into which we are plunging.


So much one could say … . Mathematical comments first.

Which Mathematics?

What are the implications of Bobbitt’s approach for mathematics?


Bobbitt uses the term ‘epoch’. This might be interpreted as a conceptual ‘extent’ (including in time) for which:

A given process, using given measurements of given ‘variables’ passes given tests.
(E.g., a policy seems to be working.)

Optionally, such a process can be justified in terms of some conventional concept of ‘rationality’ or ‘logic’, for example that the underlying situation is stochastic.

In situations that actually are stochastic conventional rationality ‘typically’ seems to be appropriate. In particular one has some sort of ‘law of large numbers’ and so Bobbitt’s Scenario-based approach is not needed. So Bobbitt’s epochs seem to correspond to occasions where conventionally ‘rational’ policies work, and thus to A.N. Whitehead’s ‘epochs’.

Instead of a stochastic world, we could think of an evolving world, in which there may be epochs in the above sense. Alternatively, one might suppose that the situation really is stochastic, but that it is so complicated that in practice there is no way to obtain a sustainable stochastic appreciation of it, except by luck or maybe divine inspiration. Either way:

Epochs are extents to which given beliefs, policies, processes are sustainable.

Bobbitt’s view is that practices based on Scenario analysis are more sustainable than ones (perhaps implicitly) based on assumptions of stochasticity or on the appropriateness of conventions of rationality. Perhaps:

Epochs are extents that can be viewed as ‘coherent’, in the sense that different scenarios appear incoherent.

This much seems reasonable. The implication is that conventional rationality can be applied, but conditioned on scenarios. That is, scenarios are possible conventional epochs.


How can one identify possible conventional epochs? As Bobbitt notes, we are inevitably bounded by our imagination and our understanding of the current situation, which is constrained by our understanding of the past. In this sense we might take a scenario or epoch as correspond to something like a ‘viewpoint’. Then we can take Bobbitt as supportive of the following conjecture:

That it is better to recognize the conditionality of viewpoints and to actively look out for alternative viewpoints, rather than seeking to act within some ‘given’ viewpoint, no matter how ‘justified’ we consider the viewpoint or how rationally or efficiently we act within it.

But, having considered the broadest range of ‘credible’ alternatives (scenarios) that we can, are we justified in acting ‘as if’ this is the complete set? Is there an alternative? Here we seem to go beyond Bobbitt.


It seems to me that a condition for a reasonable market-state to add to those that Bobbitt identifies is an adequate understanding of the issues above. On the one hand, he notes that each epoch is characterised by ‘the Mathematics of the Age’ as exemplified by the use of particular ‘paradigms’ and their associated types of mathematical models and methods. On the other, he likens strategizing to the mathematical theorizing, and recommends Scenario planning as an aid. But from a mathematical point of view, Scenario planning seems to correspond to only a part of how people actually ‘do’ mathematics as such (as distinct from applying some pre-existing ‘canned’ model or method). So, do we need new mathematics, or do we need to be being more like mathematicians (as described by von Neumann)? My reading of Bobbitt is that only the latter would support the kind of approach he is advocating, but he certainly doesn’t emphasise this.

I may add more … .

Dave Marsay

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