Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 03:46 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 03:46 | SYDNEY

My doubts about Bobbitt


Hugh White

21 September 2009 10:19

Like Sam, I admired Paul Monk's essay on Phillip Bobbitt, but I was less convinced than Sam by Paul's claims for the value of Bobbitt's concept of the market state in understanding the world today.  I must confess that I find Bobbitt not so much hard to come to grips with, as Sam does, but hard to read at all. There are many reasons for that, but most fundamentally I have doubts about the very nature of his enterprise. Those doubts are both ontological and epistemological. 

Bobbitt is making a big claim. He proposes that the move from nation state to market state is a big, abrupt change in the basic construct of the international order, which has clear and momentous implications for the way international affairs will unfold over coming decades and even centuries, and for the policies governments should be adopting now. That is, he claims predictive and normative power for his theory.

Let's start with the ontology. Everyone agrees that globalization changes the way states perceive their interests and the consequent balance of costs and risks of different kinds of behavior. But this is not new. The nation state has never been the autonomous actor of international relations theory. States' conduct has always been framed by the consequences of their actions for relations with others, and the factors that shape their judgments of cost, benefit and risk are always shifting.

Bobbitt argues that this particular set of shifts is epochal. The structure of the argument goes like this: for the past twenty years most states (the most powerful ones anyway) have not engaged in old-style strategic competition or conflict. The explanation of this fact is the emergence of a completely new kind of national entity, and the disappearance of an old one. We can therefore be sure that this is not a transitory but an enduring change, and predict the future, and reshape our policies, accordingly.

This seems a very uneconomical argument. I'd apply Ockham's razor. We do not need to postulate an epochal change or a new kind of entity to explain the peace of the past 20 years. That can be explained much more economically as the consequence (primarily) of US post-Cold War primacy on the calculations of cost, risk and benefit of old fashioned nation states. On that explanation, the conduct of states over the recent past is not the result of an epochal change in their fundamental nature, but of their most recent adjustment to current circumstances. States are just states, behaving as they always have.

Nothing in the past 20 years that Bobbitt explains via the market state cannot be explained just as well as the temporary adjustments made by nation states to circumstances – with the critical implication that of course they can and probably will shift back to older patterns, or on to different ones again, when circumstances change. There goes Bobbitt's predictive power.

Historians will see Bobbitt as part of the attempt (Fukuyama being another part, of course) to see America's post-Cold War primacy as lasting indefinitely and constitutive of a new epoch, on which we can base all our plans for the future. Would it were that easy.

The epistemological argument comes at the same point, but from a different direction. The structure of Bobbitt's argument is that the next one hundred years will be more like the last twenty years than like the last one hundred years. Like most of us, he privileges recent past in predicting the longer-term future. Economists call this the extrapolation fallacy. It is usually wrong.

The market state hypothesis is brought in to support this inductive leap. Bobbitt argues that the last twenty years are a better guide to the long term future than is the long term past because everything has changed in the last twenty years, so the more distant past is no longer a good guide. But how do we know that the last 20 years is different? Only on the evidence of the last 20 years. The market state hypothesis has nothing to support it apart from the conduct of states over a relatively short period of time. It lasts as long as they keep behaving that way, and no longer.

Of course, it's implicit in all this that I don't have a prediction of the future to offer in place of Bobbitt's. My approach is based on two very unambitious propositions. One is that states are in the end human institutions, and they reflect the habits of people. Many arguments about change in the nature of states presuppose change in the way people think. That does sometimes happen, but less often than people suppose. We should be careful of assuming that we are better or wiser people than our grandparents, and hence that states will act better or more wisely today than they did fifty or one hundred years ago.

The second is that statecraft involves managing risks, not certainties. I'm not sure that China's rise will disrupt Asia's order, but I am sure that it's a possibility, and one with serious consequences which we need to work hard to manage. So I'd be very careful of those who argue that we don't, which I think is where Bobbitt ends up.

Photo by Flickr user erdanziehungskraft, used under a Creative commons license.