laid the course

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History is an historico-philosophical work by Philip Bobbitt. It was first published in 2002 by Alfred Knopf in the US and Penguin in the UK.


Each of the two books that comprise The Shield of Achilles has three parts; each of these is preceded by a thesis.

Book I, Part One

The War that Began in 1914 will come to be seen as having lasted until 1990. Thus this Part introduces the idea of an "epochal war', an historical construction that embraces several conflicts thought to be separate wars by the participants, and the notion of the "Long War", a conflict which embraces the First and Second World Wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean and Viet Nam wars and the Cold War. Epochal wars, like the Long War or the Thirty Years War or the Peloponnesian War, are fought over a constitutional issue. In the case of the Long War the issue was: which sort of 20thc century industrial nation state--fascist, communist or parliamentarian--would succeed to the legitimacy previously enjoyed by imperial state-nations in the 19th century.

Book I, Part Two

The interplay between strategic and constitutional innovation changes the constitutional order of the State. The relation between strategy and law is such that any fundamental change in the nature of strategy will produce a fundamental change in law, and vice versa. There is no single, linear monocausal relation between the two, but rather a mutually effecting circuit. Thus the French revolution brought about the Napoleonic revolution in tactical and strategic affairs; and the introduction of mobile artillery onto the Italian plane in the Renaissance brought about the first princely states. Epochal wars force the state to innovate--either strategically or constitutionally--and successful innovations by a single state are copied by other, competing states.

Book I, Part Three

The constitutional order of the 21st century, market state will supersede the 20th century nation state as a consequence of the end of the Long War. A constitutional order is distinguished by its unique claim for legitimacy. Give us power, the nation state said, and we will improve your material well-being. But whereas the nation state, with its mass free public education, universal franchise, and social security policies promised to guarantee the welfare of the nation, the market state promises to maximize the opportunity of the people and thus tends to privatize many state activities and to make voting and representative government less influential and more responsive to the market. This does not mean that market states cease to be interested in the well-being of their peoples or that nationalism is any less potent but that the State no longer claims legitimacy on that unique basis.

Book II, Part One

The society of nation states developed a constitution that attempted to treat states as if they were individuals in apolitical society of equal, autonomous, rights-bearing citizens. Whereas Book I focused on the individual state, Book II takes up the society of states. This society, like all groups, has a constitution; its foundations were laid at the end of World War I when nation states destroyed the imperial state nations of the preceding century. Perhaps the most important constitutional idea of this society is the right of self-determination of national peoples.

Book II, Part Two

Much as epochal wars have shaped the constitutional order of individual states, the great peace settlements of these wars have shaped the constitutional order of the society of states. The Treaty of Augsburg, the Peace of Westphalia, the Treaty of Utrecht, the Congress of Vienna, the Peace of Versailles, and the Peace of Paris all served to ratify the dominance of a new constitutional order and provide rules for the society of states.

Book II, Part Three

A new society of market states is being born. The challenges facing the society of states today are a direct consequence of the strategic innovations that won the Long War--the development of nuclear weapons, a global system of communications, and the technology of rapid computation. These have undermined the ability of any nation state to govern its economy; to assert its laws in the face of universal norms of human rights; to defend its territory against WMD; to tackle transnational problems like climate change, epidemics and terrorism; to protect the national culture from outside influences. Market states will take up these challenges. Though there are, at present, no market states it is speculated that they will come in at least three fundamentally different forms: mercantile, managerial and entrepreneurial.

The State

The Shield of Achilles put the subject of the State back on the table for constitutional theorists and historians after a long period in which other subjects--rights for example--had eclipsed its centrality. Originally the work, in lengthier versions, was divided into separate books that were intended to stand alone. Book I, State of War, describes a two-way, mutually affecting causal process that mediates between fundamental changes in the constitutional basis of society and deep innovations in it military strategy. To the much debated question whether state formation was caused by the Gunpowder Revolution of the 17th century, by the development of more sophisticated fortresses in the 16th century, or the professionalization of armed forces in the 18th century, Bobbitt answered: all of the above. Rejecting the monolithic idea of the Westphalian nation state, he identified five constitutional orders arising in tandem with strategic and technological innovation: princely states, kingly states, territorial states, state-nations and nation states. Book II, States of Peace, posited that the great peace congresses that sorted out the winners and losers of epochal wars wrote constitutions for the society of sates and thus ratified each new constitutional order (Augsburg/princely state; Westphalia/kingly state; Utrecht/territorial state; Vienna/state nation; Versailles/nation state). This book ends with a suite of scenarios looking forward to the future development of societies of market states.

Narrative Organization

The sequence of chapters in both books of The Shield of Achilles follows the sequence of the novel Nostromo by Joseph Conrad---present, past, future. Somewhat more prosaically, this is the order of Statement of Facts, Statement of Law, and Holding in an Anglo-American judicial opinion. The first part of Book I and Book II deal with 20th century and contemporary events; the second parts of both books then flash back to the emergence of states in the 16th century and take the historical narrative up to the point where the first parts had begun; the third part of each book addresses the future, beginning where the first parts had left off. This methodical if unorthodox sequencing allows the historian to avoid the tempting mechanics of foreshadowing, emphasizing the possibilities of different outcomes at each stage and deepening in the understanding of how the past can liberate the present.


A synopsis of The Shield of Achilles can be found on the Global Business Network website Commentary on the book can be accessed at the University of Texas website

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