In the magnificent Gothic church of Santa Croce, right in the heart of Florence, tourists gape at what is perhaps the most celebrated array of monuments in any building in the world. Galileo’s tomb rests across from that of Michelangelo, Giotto’s frescoes lie close to Brunelleschi’s crucifix, and the memorial to Dante is prominent. Yet few if any of the earnest visitors from Japan, Scandinavia, and elsewhere rarely stay long before the nearby tomb of someone who, in the world of national and international politics, arguably made the greatest impact of any thinker in modern history—Niccolò Machiavelli.

His writings, most particularly his classic study The Prince,1 seem as pertinent in the troubled circumstances of our early twenty-first century as they must have appeared to Machiavelli’s political peers in the rough-and-tumble conflicts of the Italian city-states five hundred years ago. This, at least, is the argument advanced in two of the works reviewed here, by John Mearsheimer and Jonathan Haslam, and wrestled with by the third, by Philip Bobbitt. What all three books have in common, as had Machiavelli before them, is a keen interest in power. For without power, the Florentine argued, there is no security; and without security all of mankind’s other achievements—the arts and sciences, literature, economic progress, civil society—are constantly at risk.

Had anyone doubted this nostrum before September 11 last year, the terrorist attacks upon New York and Washington—and the American response to those attacks inAfghanistan and across the globe—once again made plain the centrality of power and force in world affairs. Bin Laden’s fanatical team may have used civilian instruments to attack civilian targets, but the purpose of those actions was to send a message to the American government and people that they, too, were vulnerable to physical force; that they had enemies who sought to destroy them; and that any means possible, however foul or asymmetrical, would be used to achieve that purpose.

The American response, in turn, was also to affirm that power was essential to political action, and that the United States had plenty of it. Economic pressures were deployed to freeze terrorist assets. Allies were called upon for police work, intelligence, logistical support, even actions in the field. Above all, though, the United States relied upon its own huge military force to blow the Taliban regime that housed al-Qaeda into dust. This was to be expected. The relatively new Bush administration was led by people who believed in the robust defense of national interests, and would not take the September 11 blows peacefully. Moreover, the military to whom they turned for advice had been taught repeatedly in their war college classes—precisely through detailed readings of Machiavelli as well as Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Clausewitz, Churchill, and Kissinger—that the proper application of overwhelming military force was and remains the ultimate resort of all great powers. They were also taught that, were such force to be diminished, or not applied where needed, America would sooner or later go the way of Athens, Rome, Florence, Spain, and the British Empire.

In today’s academy, there is probably no more forceful or formidable proponent of this school of thought than John Mearsheimer, professor of political science and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. Heavily influenced as a young scholar by two great “realist” thinkers, Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, Mearsheimer has spent over twenty years drawing widely upon historical case studies to buttress his contention that physical power—a combination of military effectiveness, economic strength, population size, and geographical extent—is the key to explaining what goes on in international politics, and understanding how events unfold the way they do. More to the point, Mearsheimer believes that no recent developments—whether it be the United Nations system, globalization, the spread of democracy, or the end of History—really change those ancient verities. Indeed, already in the second paragraph of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (after listing the wars of the past century and their human costs in the first paragraph) he offers his readers the following blunt prognosis:

This cycle of violence will continue far into the new millennium. Hopes for peace will probably not be realized, because the great powers that shape the international system fear each other and compete for power as a result. Indeed, their ultimate aim is to gain a position of dominant power over others, because having dominant power is the best means to ensure one’s own survival. Strength ensures safety, and the greatest strength is the greatest insurance of safety. States facing this incentive are fated to clash as each competes for advantage over the others. This is a tragic situation,2 but there is no escaping it unless the states that make up the system agree to form a world government. Such a vast transformation is hardly a realistic prospect, however, so conflict and war are bound to continue as large and enduring features of world politics.

Only brave readers will go on after that. Should they do so, however, they will find this blunt argument deepened by several chapters of more theoretical discussion of how the international system works, and broadened by further historical chapters on the rise and fall of specific great powers over the past two hundred years—such as, for example, the British Empire, which conducted a successful grand strategy for an impressively long time but finally also succumbed to the shifting balances of power. One suspects that purebred historians who specialize in particular periods (e.g., the Mexican wars of the nineteenth century) may feel that Mearsheimer’s account shoe-horns the complexities of the times into a fitted space in order to buttress the overall argument. That is always the danger of advancing a general thesis.


More positively, Mearsheimer’s prose is remarkably free of jargon (and this in international relations, a field where jargon has become the norm), and the evidence—including a lot of comparative statistical measures of military and economic power—is nicely assembled. If the case for “offensive realism” (i.e., Mearsheimer’s argument that all states want as much security as possible, and thus strive all the time to maximize their power) is to stand, it stands strongly here.

The final chapter is the most interesting of all, although that may just be due to its topicality, for it con-cerns the touchy relationship between the United States and China. Mearsheimer’s book was completed and printed before September 11 and, although his publisher rushed out a blurb stating that the terrorist attacks confirm that the post–cold war era is “an uncertain and perilous period in world history,” that is probably beside the point so far as the author is concerned. To him, terrorists, Palestinian– Israeli bloodbaths, and Bosnian atrocities are second-division topics in a world of longer-term trends and great-power politics. They may get you bogged down in some regional struggle—Mearsheimer was thus cautionary last year about the US engaging in large-scale military action in Afghanistan—and will certainly distract you from the main stage of world affairs.

What matters, by contrast, is the present hegemonic status of the United States and the prospect that its lead position might be contested by China in the decades to come. In fact, by the logic (“tragedy”) of Mearsheimer’s theory of great-power politics, this future contest is not just likely but inevitable. Barring some internal disasters, China’s economic growth will push it forward to be the regional hegemon, the power balances will tilt, and the United States will—will have to—resist. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics may be the only current work that is blunt enough to say that American encouragement of China’s long-term economic and political development is a grave mistake.3 Thus a Clinton-cum-Bush policy of “constructive engagement” with Beijing, assisting China’s growth but leading as it will to the eventual relative decline of the United States in Asia, is not recommended by our modern Machiavelli—although one doubts that the Florentine sage himself would in this case have made the advice so public and specific. Yet although Mearsheimer firmly argues that “it is not too late for the United States to reverse course and do what it can to slow the rise of China,” it is difficult to see what that means in practice, since staying aloof from China merely lets Europe and Japan advance in that large market; and forcibly blocking China’s rise—like the English trade wars against the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century—is hardly feasible. By Mearsheimer’s own principles of analysis the US will face sooner or later the prospect of a serious Chinese challenge for hegemony in Asia.

Machiavelli also occupies much of the early parts of Jonathan Haslam’s new book, No Virtue Like Necessity, and indeed his name is implanted in its subtitle. Haslam is a distinguished scholar at Cambridge University, the author of many books on Stalin’s foreign policies, and, more recently, the biographer of E.H. Carr—which is clearly the “link” between the earlier and narrower studies, and the present work. For it was Carr who, more than half a century ago, revised his classic work, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919– 1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, in order (as he put it) to counter “the glaring and dangerous defect of nearly all thinking, both academic and popular, about international politics in English-speaking countries from 1919–1939—the almost total neglect of the factor of power.” And it was Machiavelli, Carr had written approvingly as early as 1930, whose writings constituted “a revolt against the utopianism of current political thought.”4 Thus, it is not too fanciful to see Haslam continuing this assault on behalf of a newer generation of realist scholars.


While No Virtue Like Necessity is very different in structure and tone from Mearsheimer’s book, it ends up with much the same conclusions, precisely because it begins with the same target in mind. For Haslam’s foes are also woolly-minded internationalists, though not so much liberal policy-makers (one imagines that Mearsheimer’s chief bêtes noires among re-cent administrations are Carter’s and Clinton’s), but progressive voices in the classrooms of American universities.

Haslam’s charge here is twofold. In the first place, he thinks, academic writers on foreign policy and high political affairs rarely if ever have any practical experience of what it is like to be in office, that is, of what happens when their beloved theories are all too often thrust aside by the pressures and complications of daily decision-making during times of crisis. With relish the author quotes repeatedly from politicians, diplomats, and advisers about the presumption of outside commentators, of which the neatest complaint may have been that of the Italian Ludovico Zuccolo as far back as 1621:

He who has not ploughed the sea does not presume to know the art of navigation; he who has made no effort at music makes no claim to understand notes and tones. But there are few men who, though never having governed, do not claim to know how to judge the administration of states and empires.

Haslam’s second, linked, complaint is that while there have been many periods of history when observers have asserted that a “new world order” was dawning—a world that had learned a lesson from the previous bloody conflicts and was embracing peace, international cooperation, commercial progress, and amazing new technologies—they have ignored the competitive nature of the system of nation-states at their peril and almost inevitably suffered deep disappointment as the next conflict loomed. The various Versailles settlements, for example, hardly lasted a decade before they were being torn down.

According to Haslam, the natural pattern of things is that realism and idealism ebb and flow over time, in direct relation to each other and depending upon the specific historical circumstances; and while it is mere ignorance that some contemporary political scientists seem to assume that writing on Realpolitik only began with E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau, it is, he believes, even more egregious for today’s academics to claim that the age of the nation-state is passé and that newer, transnational, cooperative impulses shape world politics now and into the future.

Haslam’s method of advancing his arguments openly imitates that employed by his Cambridge colleague Quentin Skinner a quarter-century ago in the impressive work The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. This was to move away from examining great political texts in the abstract, as if they had been handed down from on high, and instead to place the ideas which were being debated within the larger stream of ideas, and other writings of the time, as well as the actual political setting in which ideas were put forward. It is done to great effect in Haslam’s first chapter, entitled “Reasons of State,” a supremely confident survey of the chief developments in international thought from the ancients through the Renaissance and early modern authorities to Burke, Rousseau, and Kant. Just to read, for example, of Hobbes’s personal experience of political turbulence, civil war, and exile is to understand much more clearly why he urged a concentration of political power in the hands of a “Leviathan” and what countercurrents he felt he was fighting against.

But it is not just the standard authors of Political Thought 101 that are treated here, and Haslam is perhaps at his most illuminating in his dissections of lesser-known writers like Tommaso Campanella, Thomas More, Jean Bodin, Richard Cumberland, Samuel Pufendorf, Henry St. John Bolingbroke, and Adam Ferguson within his story. Ferguson (1723–1816), a professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, was born only a few years after the epic War of the Spanish Succession and died within a year of the end of the even more “hegemonic” Napoleonic Wars, so it is not surprising to see him writing that “the longest Peace [is] but…a long Truce and a time of preparation for War,” since that more or less perfectly describes eighteenth-century European affairs.

The same method of discussing each worldly philosopher in context is used in the next three chapters, “The Balance of Power,” “The Balance of Trade,” and “Geopolitics,” although with diminishing length and depth; the survey on geopolitics, for example, is a rather fast twenty-one-page gallop from Francis Bacon to Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Karl Haushofer, ending with Nicholas Spykman, author of America’s Strategy in World Politics, published in 1942. It seems appropriate to finish with an American writer, just at the time the United States had become the world’s leading power and was discovering many hard facts about the balance of power and geopolitics—which of course verifies the Haslam-Skinner approach that context matters.

For Spykman, and later Bernard Brodie, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Arnold Wolfers, Raymond Aron, Henry Kissinger, Kenneth Waltz, and Robert W. Tucker did not write or teach in the abstract; they did so in the age of the cold war and under the shadow of the bomb. And at least for those writing in more recent decades, they felt compelled to engage in strong disputes with new waves of specialists who were committed to liberal internationalism, and to the importance of political economy and international organization—that is, with scholars as distinguished as Stanley Hoffmann, Ernest Haas, Robert Keohane, Bruce Russett, and Joseph Nye, all of whom have grappled with the realist tradition and found it wanting. These disputations, which have become the stuff of all international relations textbooks, are convincingly dealt with in Haslam’s final chapter, “From Realpolitik to Neorealism,” in which he gives the last word to Michael Mandelbaum’s caustic recent attack upon the Clinton administration’s record of “Foreign Policy as Social Work.”5

No Virtue Like Necessity is an original and well-crafted exercise in intellectual history. But what is disappointing to this reviewer is the abruptness with which this exercise is terminated. The conclusion, on “The Relevance of Realism,” is the merest of summaries of how the chief tenets of realist thought still have relevance today. True, it begins with a brief and promising mention of how shocked French President Mitterrand and certain other leaders were at the actual unification of Germany in 1989, and how they strove to adjust to the new balance of power in Europe. Having publicly endorsed German unification for years, the French were less than happy at this large addition to German territory, population, and power when it actually came about, which gives us a nice lesson on the differences between appearances and reality.

But Haslam does not go beyond that short example and thereby misses the chance to conclude his work with a larger discussion of what power means in today’s world. Is it still measured by the elements of Hobbesian “hard” power like armies and shipyards? Or should one also make space for those “soft” power elements of cultural influences and new communications as suggested by Joseph Nye in his last few books? Does the steady rise of China mean that the old geopolitical verities remain, unchanged by globalization? How are today’s realists and idealists interpreting Russia’s new intimacy with the West, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the standoff between India and Pakistan? What do the UN’s limited roles, and limited successes, say to the ideas of Machiavelli and Hobbes, Mackinder and Morgenthau? Here was an opportunity to tie up this imaginative work in a powerful and pertinent way, making clear that we ignore realist approaches at our peril, so it is a pity that the chance was not taken.


The Shield of Achilles differs from the other two books in several ways. For one thing, its author’s career has been as much in government as outside. Secondly, there are its sheer size and weight—it is nearly four times as long as Haslam’s book. Finally, there are its density and ambition, as immediately suggested by its subtitle, “War, Peace, and the Course of History.” Now a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas, Philip Bobbitt has served in the White House, the Senate, the State Department, and the National Security Council in both Democratic and Republican administrations. His bachelor’s degree in philosophy was from Princeton, his JD from Yale, his doctorate in modern history from Oxford. He lectures on strategy in the UK, and on law in the US. His books cover a range from legal issues to nuclear deterrence.

There is of course both promise and peril in such a multifaceted preparation for writing a study of war, peace, and history since ancient times. Ideally, its author should indeed be well-grounded in the fields of law, diplomacy, governance, philosophy, strategy, history, even literature and culture; and, as Sir Michael Howard observes in his glowing foreword, few other people can match Bobbitt’s qualifications for the job. But the peril—and it is quite a real one—is that, by including all those dimensions of human endeavor, the core arguments get swamped in the detail and in the subsidiary arguments. Reading The Shield of Achilles alongside Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics reminds one at first sight of Isaiah Berlin’s fox and hedgehog. Bobbitt has put two books within the covers of his huge tome; in some ways, I think there also is a third. What holds these parts together, he argues, is the interconnectedness of law, strategy, and history, his trinity of parts that unifies, and explains, the modern nation-state.

The first book within a book, entitled “State of War,” immediately sub-divides into three parts. The first is a forty-page essay arguing that the many great wars and struggles of the years between 1914 and 1990 should be seen as a whole, a global contest between fascism, communism, and liberalism, with the last emerging triumphant just as the international system was changing profoundly. The author then, and somewhat abruptly, goes back in time to offer a much more substantial sweep of the history of the modern state from the Italian wars of the 1490s to 1914, a deft narrative encompassing military revolutions, changing constitutional orders, and contemporary commentaries on war and peace.

Unsurprisingly, Machiavelli pops up on numerous occasions here, too. Bobbitt suggests that four turning points define the different ages of the classic state system: 1494, when the French invasion of northern Italy blew aside the old order of city-states and medieval power relationships; 1648, when the wars of religion ended and the system of modern, secular nation-states was entrenched by the Treaty of Westphalia; 1776, when the “Atlantic Revolutions” that created nations-in-arms began; and 1914 itself, when the age of ideological total war commenced. Pedants could quarrel with each of his dates—why not 1789 and the revolution in France instead of 1776?—or even question the validity of fixing dates at all; but the choices to me seem reasonable and unremarkable, and the text is written with verve and moves the reader briskly along from one age to the next.

A third section returns us, jerkily, back to 1990, where the end of the cold war and the collapse of the USSR meant that the system of states had crossed another watershed. But this new phase—and Bobbitt’s argument here is central to the whole book—is one that is infinitely more complicated than all previous transformations because, so he argues, the five-hundred-year-old states system itself is ending. In other words, most of what we have learned about international politics and diplomacy and statecraft since Machiavelli’s time is being rendered obsolete in a remarkably brief period, and this is happening at such a deep level and so swiftly that many of us—say, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Professor Mearsheimer and Senator Jesse Helms—are still unaware that we straddle this historic cusp.

Now Bobbitt is not so naive as to say that the nation-state is no more; not only does he not believe it, but it would be truly ironic coming from a long-serving official of a country which, with its present foreign policies and postures, appears to assume that the United States is as free an agent nowadays as it was in 1783. What he argues, though, is that the traditional strengths of the state—armies, taxes, governments, authority, constitutions—are no longer a safeguard against an array of modern forces that are far less easy to deal with. These include an anarchic knowledge explosion, transnational capital flows, and criminal networks, as well as environmental threats and diseases such as AIDS. This greater complexity will in turn force more nuanced and complex responses by governments. For example, following the NAFTA accords, the United States may no longer be able to treat Mexico and Canada as fully foreign countries. Nor, after the Schengen Treaty on immigration in Europe, among other decisions, may European states pursue individual immigration policies—but they might all retain somewhat different public educational systems.

Moreover, governments themselves will also be changing, because the drivers of global transformations are pushing societies toward transformative domestic arrangements—in the manner, as Max Weber showed, that earlier changes in warfare and international politics affected state structures, constitutions, and societies. One just has to look at the ways in which Tony Blair has been earnestly trying to “re-tool” Britain through the regional devolution of powers and reform of the House of Lords—or, by contrast, the current inability of the Japanese to handle structural changes—to see what Bobbitt is getting at.

All this allows the author to move smoothly to Book Two—“States of Peace”—where he examines the changing “society of states” over the same five-hundred-year period and offers judgments on the successive efforts to redefine the system, whether it be at Westphalia in 1648 or Versailles in 1919 or in the Paris Accords of 1990. Here the focus is no longer on political and military leaders, but on international jurists and other scholars who sought to explain, justify, and codify the evolving international order from one age to the next. As such, it comes close to Haslam’s own project, and also reminds one of F.H. Hinsley’s classic Power and the Pursuit of Peace.6

Bobbitt ends the second book, as he does the first, by attempting to describe our present age as being one of “market-states.” This is, however, not what it sounds like or commonly means, and it is worth asking whether that is so felicitous a term here, since the free marketeers of the world will probably hail his book without reading it properly. Bobbitt has chosen this term, I believe, because he wants once again to emphasize the element of choice, and the importance of states making choices in the ways they exercise power, as well as to urge the need for political leaders to be nimble and practical as they handle newer challenges.

States themselves, for example, have choices in revising their own constitutions and laws and practices, and the author assumes that this will be done differently in France than in, say, Singapore or the United States. Governments have the choice of employing existing international alliances and treaties or inventing new ones to deal with threats, or of going solo, as many American conservatives prefer, and as was advocated only last month in the Bush administration’s document “The National Security Strategy of the United States.” Choices also have to be made about different forms of cooperation—regarding the sharing of secret intelligence, health issues, the environment, terrorism—in order to head off threats. The world that lies before us is no cornucopia, and in the various and very complex courses of action that Bobbitt explores for the reader there are no easy exits.

All this is well and good in the abstract, but it seems to me too tantalizing, and to beg lots of practical questions. The very first sentence of Bobbitt’s prologue claims: “We are at a moment in world affairs when the essential ideas that govern statecraft must change.” Must change? Even if this is true, can they and will they? Most political leaderships in the world today do not enjoy the very considerable powers of a British prime minister with a large majority in the Commons, or have a leader as nimble and, to his credit, imaginative as Tony Blair; yet even he has difficulties when he tries to change too much, too swiftly, as with the current resistance of many in the UK to the euro. But does the new government in Afghanistan or Sierra Leone—or, for that matter, do the existing governments in China and Argentina—have any significant freedom of maneuver to adjust to a new world order?

My own impression is that most political leaders in the world today are overstraining themselves just to keep afloat of current problems, and that very few of them have the capacity and energy to strategically rethink the nature of the state. Most of them probably don’t know that we are now in Bobbitt’s altered historic era, or that they are supposed to become “market-states.” This is not to dispute his truly daunting argument that things may be changing more rapidly in these years than in any other period in history, or that we are badly equipped to handle the new, non-state disorders; it is simply to observe that a large-scale alteration of old habits and assumptions will be difficult without great strains, perhaps in some cases social and political collapse.

Just as Bobbitt’s massive book was being completed, there came September 11, in many ways a dreaded confirmation of the thesis that the classic states system was ill-prepared to handle the new, fractured world landscape. The terrorist attacks exposed all-powerful America’s own Achilles’ heel, for no invulnerable shield—the classical allusion in Bobbitt’s title about war, peace, and tragedy—could stop such a surprise low blow as that dealt by al-Qaeda. The September attacks prompted the author to add some final cautions about how seriously we need to organize ourselves to avoid “a world-rending cataclysm,” which help to give his message more gravity (“We are,” he writes, “entering a fearful time…”). They will also surely give the book greater attention than had it been published a year or two ago.

Is The Shield of Achilles a great, pathbreaking work, as the many endorsements on its cover suggest? I confess I find it hard to say. The two-book/three-book structure makes large demands upon the reader who plows steadily through, and he who would dip in from place to place would be puzzled as Bobbitt discourses on the Yale Legal Realism School, on global population trends, and on how the Shell Oil company conducted “scenario studies” correctly predicting such developments as the formation of OPEC and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Quotations from poetry and prose are scattered throughout the book, which may give it a greater solemnity in the eyes of some readers, but which in many places simply slows down one’s comprehension of an already thick and overlaced text. The five- page, post–September 11 postscript, though necessary, is too brief and ends, as did Toynbee’s own A Study of History, on a transcendent, religious plane, in this case by quoting from the lovely Christian prayer, “I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year….”

This doesn’t seem to me the right way to end an important treatise about the changing nature of the international system, and reflects more the shock we all felt in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks last year. Perhaps a revised edition will extend and deepen Bobbitt’s reflections. Finally, his book is also very Eurocentric in its focus, as Bobbitt himself admits; a reviewer in Delhi or Singapore may be less impressed with its scope than most of us in the West.

But I take my hat off to the author for the boldness of his enterprise, for his scholarship, and for his capacity to get the reader to think along new lines. His concern throughout is also with power; he, too, admits to standing in the shadow of Machiavelli. But Bobbitt has captured the fact that the system of states that arose shortly before the Florentine’s writings and has persisted as the main force in international affairs for half a millennium may have crossed a watershed in world history, and that the turbulences ahead will not easily conform to the established recipes for dispelling threats to national security. We are duly warned. The Shield of Achilles may well become a classic to later generations. The question is, will it be read and pondered over by those who exercise power at the onset of our present, precarious century? One rather doubts it.

This Issue

November 7, 2002