The World View behind the Gulf War

Achilles, Westphalia and Iraq

Gwydion M Williams reviews Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield Of Achilles

“Among Britain’s most powerful, one book has become required reading. And its thesis is grim”. So runs the Guardian review (Jan 13 2003). But grimness is not the same as realism, and Bobbitt’s neat little diagrams have no real relationship to the historic development of European nations. It’s part of a school of ‘Ex-Cathedra Rationalism’, stuff that claims to be rational and rigorous, but includes beliefs that have no coherent basis.

No coherent basis in past history, that is. There has always been scope for praising the currently dominant power as ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’. Yet when in history has it been the currently dominant power that controlled the next stage of human history?

[Much clearer in 2015 than it was in 2003]

It’s moot, in fact, if the US controlled the prior stage of human history. During the Cold War, America sought as many different allies as possible. This even extended to Mao’s China, which had been alienated by Khrushchev and Brezhnev and saw the Soviet Union as a more immediate threat than the USA. And the need to lure the Third World away from Communism led to them discrediting Britain and France over the Suez crisis. Even their own internal politics were affected: the denial of voting rights to free blacks was noted by De Tocqueville in the 1820s, lasted till the 1960s and was dropped because it embarrassed the USA in its claim to global virtue. Likewise feminism and sexual liberation ripped apart a 1950s culture that had the potential for propagating itself indefinitely.

Bobbitt’s thesis ignores the messiness of real history, in which no two European states arrived at their modern form in quite the same way, and some were wildly different. In Bobbitt-Land, you have a series of different sorts of state popping up automatically, with the Nation-State now due for replacement by the Market-State, a submission to Globalisation. Shield Of Achilles has the appearance of scholarship, but is in fact a junk-heap of misunderstanding and bad sources. A lot of the evidence against Germany is based on quotations from British books written in the late 1940s, not the best time for objective judgement. And it flatters the dominant power, which guarantees short-run success.

The USA has been expansionist and aggressive ever since its origins as 13 small colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America. The bulk of the modern USA belonged to other people in 1776, mostly Native Americans, but the US also stole Texas and California from the Mexicans.

In the 20th century, the USA was able to lever itself to world dominance. This began with joining the Great War in 1917, preventing a German victory. Under the ‘notorious’ treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in 1918, Russia ceded Finland, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and portions of Latvia and Moldavia. All of which were fought over several times over the next 70-plus years, before finally separating themselves from Russia in 1991. The net result of the USA’s various interventions wasted decades and cost tens of millions of European lives.

Modern Americans are crediting themselves for the spread of global democracy. But it had been spreading in Europe throughout the 19th century, and would probably have spread faster if the US had stayed out in 1917 and let Germany win. Democracy in crude sense, at least 50% of adult males having at least 50% of the political power, had been tried in various Republics and Free Cities across the ages. The US constitution failed to guarantee it for the constituent states, whereas a clause compelling all states to return fugitive slaves was a requirement for the South to join. The US kept chattel slavery for even longer than Tsarist Russia, and might never have abolished it if the South had not foolishly tried to secede from the Union.

Germany from 1871 gave the vote to all adult males, which Britain did not have until 1917, and never extended to the vast empire it ruled. Meantime China had tried Western-style democracy after their 1911 revolution, and it had quickly led to chaos and dictatorship, with the West mostly backing the warlords against Chinese who wanted to live in a Western way.

In the Second World War, the USA as a whole wanted to keep out of it. But Roosevelt successfully lured Japan and Germany into declaring war in 1941—Congress would almost certainly have prevented Roosevelt from initiating either conflict. This was fortunate, it would definitely be a worse world today if the USA had not been pulled into the World War in 1941. But it would also be a much better world had they stayed out in 1917.

Every aggressor must find an immediate threat to justify the war. Germany in 1914 was not an aggressor and had no wish to claim any part of metropolitan France, never mind Britain. The occasion for the war was the Serbian claim to Bosnia-Herzegovina, not something that present-day Anglos can safely point to, given the way they treated Serbia in the 1990s. So now you find people reviving the idea that Germany emerged in 1871 as a voraciously expansionist state. The failure of Germany to do anything expansionist in the two generations between 1871 and 1914 is glossed over.

Germany in 1871 had taken Alsace-Loraine, predominantly ethnic-German and traditionally part of the Germanic Realm (Reich). France wanted them back, this was the cause of the strange alliance between France and Russia, which wanted to take away the Slavonic territories of Austria-Hungary. No one then was much concerned with ethnic self-determination: Alsace-Loraine had become solidly German by 1914, while Poland at least considered that Russian rule was much worse than being ruled by Prussians or Austrians. The main logic for Britain fighting Germany in 1914 was the prospect of Germany becoming richer than Britain by peaceful competition, and displacing the British Empire as the world’s top nation.

The reality of power-politics spoils the USA’s image as a nation that just accidentally became the world’s only superpower in the course of Doing Good Deeds. So some reason has to be found why German had become evil in 1914—or better 1871, since it was visibly the same place between those two dates. And yet it couldn’t have been evil in 1815, because Blucher and the Prussians were Britain’s allies against Napoleon. Therefore:

“Not until the middle of the nineteenth century did one German state, Prussia, impose its rule on the other and create the first European nation-state. From its beginning the German state was hostile to the prevailing international system… Germany nationalism—a program that held that a state was legitimised by service to a pre-eminent ethnic nation—was the prototype for fascism, as its expression in the Constitution.” (The Shield Of Achilles, chapter 2.)

What was there in German nationalism of the 19th century that wasn’t also expressed by Anglo-Scottish nationalism in Rule, Britannia in the 18th century? Britons affirmed then that the would never be slaves, but a lot of the wealth came from owning slaves, in the West Indies and in the Southern states of America, then still British colonies. The only things that the Kaiser’s Germany shared with Hitler’s realm and did not share with pre-1914 Britain was an opposition to British interests and the use of the German language.

Identifying the Kaiser’s Constitutional Monarch with Hitler’s dictatorship is on a level with saying that the 1865-71 unification was in the middle of the 19th century. Middles usually have an equal portion of something either side of them, and unification began two-thirds of the way through the 19th century. Can the man not do simple arithmetic?

Bobbitt is a messy writer, littering his text with footnotes and end-notes that would have been much better digested into the main test. In this case you are sent off on three threads to seek justification for the notion of Germans inventing Fascism 12 years before the birth of Benito Mussolini.

The first thread is a footnote that quotes another book that says “Since Germany has been united by force and through union had achieved a predominant position in Europe, other nationalities aspired… to reunite their peoples in the state by similar means.” (Ibid., quotation in the second of two footnotes.) But no other state besides Italy was split into small sovereign states within the nationality, and they unified at much the same time as Germany, a culmination to the struggle of decades. Elsewhere it was liberation, setting up a state in defiance of one or more foreign rulers. And affirming a struggle for independence that had been happening since at least 1848, sometimes for very much longer.

The second thread takes you to Chapter 8. This explains Bobbitt’s puzzling statement that Germany in 1871 was Europe’s first nation-state: before that you had state-nations, which Bobbitt sees as something complete different. History as told by the Monty Python team was more logical than Bobbitt’s pompous empty categories. He also complains about Prussia having 17 votes in an assembly of 61, without bothering to check whether or not it was a fair reflection of populations

The third thread is an end-note citing a British book about Germany published in 1946 (not the best of times for an objective view.) This complains that the Germany chancellor could rule without parliament, and calls this “a veiled form of monarchical absolutism”. Which would be something very different from Fascism, a populist movement whose leaders were mostly of lower-middle-class origins. In any case, the simple existence of a multi-party chamber with a role in government was significant.

Germany also had universal suffrage in 1871, an equal vote for all adult males, which Britain did not acquire till 1917. The House of Commons had extensive powers and privileges, a heritage of its successful struggles against the monarchy. But only after the Third Reform Act in 1884 was it elected by more than half of adult males in the British Isles—the Empire had no share in the ‘Imperial Parliament’, though white colonies had extensive self-government.

Bobbitt’s understand of history is sketchy. He intermittently refers to the Netherlands as ‘Holland’. He speaks of “Austria-Hungary and France, the two states had dominated German politics since Westphalia”. (Ibid.) Never mind that Prussia was regularly an equal competitor in 18th century wars, or that the Austrian Empire only became Austria-Hungary in 1867. Sweden was another influence at the time, though the successors of Gustavus Adolphus let this slip.

Bobbitt’s vision stretches far back into European history, but without understanding. Did you know that state sovereignty did not exist until it was invented by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648? If you didn’t, you’re right, it’s a nonsense idea, lawyer-talk that ignores actual history in favour of a few doubtful technicalities. But this babble about Westphalia is part of the Hard-Right world view that has fuelled the war on Iraq. History is being re-interpreted to say that sovereign states are a recent and unimportant creation.

[I later discovered that it started in university departments of “Political Science”.  Evidently staffed by people ready to believe ideas that historians view as nonsense, since every actual history I’ve seen regards the Treaty of Westphalia as simply an acceptance that the Thirty Years War had ended in a stalemate.  I’ve done a fuller study, available at this website.]

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev invented ‘Limited Sovereignty’ to justify his crushing of Reformed Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Affirmed it by sending his tanks against hostile populations, with great success in the sort term, even lower and more crushed than Iraq seems to be. But we can now see that this breach of accepted norms started the process ending with the Soviet collapse of 1989-91.

This also happened because Russians and Eastern Europeans found that they were falling behind the West, having been roughly equal in the 1960s. Stalinist socialism was a viable alternative system, as was Mao’s China. So too is state-regulated and protectionist India and the more Westernised socialism of China today. But Russian leaders from Khrushchev down to Gorbachev wrecked a viable system in a foolish attempt to copy the strengths of the USA.

The New Right reading of history makes no attempt to explain why the USA and USSR were roughly equal in the 1960s. They draw lessons just from the data that suits them, the decline of a Leninist ideological system that had discredited itself. They take it as proof of the enormous virtue of the current US way of life, rather than noting that the West adjusted to greater working-class individualism whereas the Soviets tried to suppress it.

The US saved itself from the Great Depression with a semi-Socialist system introduced by Roosevelt. It grew more slowly than Western Europe up until the 1970s. The small US advantage since the 1970s is due to the US being willing to take huge numbers of energetic immigrants, while Europe is basically full. Moreover, the policies that the US is pushing is not what it does at home, but an ideological schema that opens up foreign countries in a way that the US itself has never been open. The demand is ‘market yourself, while the US nobly assumes the burden of protectionism for its own vital industries’.

Current US policies are being justified by ‘Post-Westphalianism’, the idea that separate countries running their own lives is an oddity that began in 1648. Bobbitt says “We usually date the origin of the nation-state to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648… The nation-state is dying, but this only means that, as in the past, a new form is being born… the market-state.” (Page 17, hard-back edition.) Real history shows nothing of the sort: nation-states have multiplied since the 1960s, with multi-national states fragmented. And for all of recorded history, tribes and kingdoms and city-republics treat each other as sovereign entities, entitled to be different.

If you’ve got a weak argument, pretend that the main point is already proven. The ‘Holy Roman Empire’ had a nominal authority over the whole of Christendom—over the whole world, theoretically, because Latin-Catholic theology did not accept that anything could be valid without papal endorsement. But the Papacy had also stopped the Emperors from having real authority, not even as mediators between nations. It was the Papacy that authorised William of Normandy to conquer Anglo-Saxon England, and later authorised the Anglo-Norman kings to conquer Ireland. It was also the Papacy that tried to split the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal, thought the Dutch, English and French successfully undermined it.

The Treaty of Westphalia ended the possibility of Germany becoming a nation-state in the normal manner, with state power accumulating around the power of a traditional monarch. It confirmed the permanence of the divisions made by the Wars of Religion, a division into some 300 states of various sizes. Whereas a similar process in France was to end with a solid reunification under Louis 14th.

The entity within which the Thirty Years War was fought was the Holy Roman Empire Of The Germanic People. The last part of the name is often omitted, as with the United States or United Kingdom. But it had been centuries since Charlemagne’s unsuccessful attempt to recreate the Roman Empire. His kingdom included about half of Latin-Christian Europe—the lands that became France, Germany and the Benelux countries, along with northern Italy. He then felt strong enough to claim the vacant title of Emperor of the West, but the Pope outwitted him by crowning Charlemagne as if it were a papal gift, an act for which there was no real precedent.

Most monarchs were crowned by the most senior religious dignitary they could lay hands on, but that did not imply anything more than recognising and sanctioning someone else’s decision. No Archbishop of Canterbury every dared refuse to crown the next claimant to the English throne—the closest was King Stephen being crowned by his half-brother in preference to Queen Matilda, and this led to a civil war that eventually ended with Matilda’s son becoming the heir and ancestor of subsequent English monarchs. But in the case of the Holy Roman Empire, the papacy did manage to wangle itself the right to say who was or wasn’t emperor.

When Charlemagne was made Emperor, the rest of Latin-Christian Europe was not at all inclined to obey this new Supreme Lord. They would call him Emperor, since the Pope endorsed it, but most of them were rulers of kingdoms with their own ancient traditions. And Charlemagne’s realm fragmented between his various successors, with France eventually emerging as a distinct kingdom whose monarch was often more powerful than the German Emperor.

Human politics began with a huge number of separate political entities that each recognised the others as valid, sovereign in the modern sense of the term. The Roman Empire absorbed or destroyed many of them in Europe, West Asia and North Africa, but when the Empire fell, new principalities and kingdoms took shape. Portugal achieved its present frontiers before any other modern nation-state. But some other European kingdoms were recognisable by the year 1000: England, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Arguably Scotland, and the Hungarians and several other nations in Middle-Europe had a shape not unlike the shape they have today, after many ups and downs.

The authentic Roman Empire had been a political-military machine, funded by taxes and ruled by an Emperor whose power depended on holding the office of Emperor. Sometimes the official Emperor was a puppet and someone else ran the machine. But it was a functional state system, which collapsed in the West in the 4th century and lasted in Byzantium for many more centuries.

For Bobbitt, “from the fall of Rome in AD 476 to the crowning of the Frankish leader Charlemagne by the pope on Christmas day 800, the former territory of the Roman Empire was successively flooded by waves of barbarian invaders from eastern and central Europe.” (Ibid, Chapter 6, page 75.) Nice prose, shame about the facts. The Western Roman Empire had been suffering major raids by Germanic tribes since the Allemanni in 259, a process partly reversed by strong emperors like Diocletian and Constantine, with Germans settled on nominally Roman lands and used as buffers against other rival Germans. There was a gradual loss of control, culminating in the sack of Rome by Visigoths in 410, and again by Vandals in 455.

Well before the formal end of the Western Roman Empire, it had in practice become a mass of independent realms with a fairly nominal role for the Emperor. The Roman state, with its complex bureaucracy, taxes and professional armies had been whittled away to nothing by the migration of Germanic tribes into Britain, France, Spain and North Italy. The main event of 476 was the formal deposition of a puppet Emperor and the creation of a short-lived Kingdom of Italy by the Vandals (who were actually quite cultured). Odoacer King of the Vandals stopped pretending to control the Western Roman Empire, which the other Germanic kings would not accept. He did still recognise the Empire, but only the Byzantine Emperor, who had no real control in Italy at that time.

The Byzantines asserted real power later on, with the conquest of Italy in 534-5 under the famous General Belisarius. But the Byzantines were gradually driven out by the Germanic-ruled Lombard kingdom, who in turn were conquered by Charlemagne.

It was Byzantium that kept Roman and Imperial-Greek traditions alive. Charlemagne was notable as the first German king who had comparable power and could claim to be a real Emperor. But he and his heirs remained Germanic kings with a fancy title, there was no state machine such as Rome had created and such as persisted in Byzantium (not to mention other gigantic Empires unrelated to the Romano-Greek and Christian tradition).

Charlemagne’s attempt to re-found the Western Roman Empire failed, in part because the Papacy had gone way beyond its original role as the most senior of the five Christian patriarchies. The Bishop of Rome was trying to become a kind of Emperor, but successive popes also felt the need to bestow the title of Emperor on some hereditary ruler whom they felt they could work with.

And that’s just Western Europe. The parochial Latin-Christian viewpoint thinks of the Roman Empire ‘ruling the world’. But the Empire at the height of its power ran into the deserts in North Africa, and met an equally powerful state in Persia or Parthia in the Middle East. Most critically, the Roman Empire failed to conquer the Germanic tribes, who in the end broke into the Empire instead, and split it into kingdoms. Charlemagne’s dynasty were the most successful of these dynasties—actually usurpers who replaced the more ancient Merovingian dynasty, with Papal approval.

At its height, the Roman Empire controlled no more than one-quarter of the world’s population. It was probably less rich and powerful than the distant Chinese Empire, which definitely drained it of wealth via the silk trade. And the Western Roman Empire was brought down by nomadic Huns whom the Han-dynasty Chinese had successfully driven westwards.

The Holy Roman Empire was a weak attempt to revive the Roman state, not comparable to the successful revival of the Han-dynasty Chinese Empire by the Tang dynasty, Sung Dynasty, Ming dynasty and the Sinified-nomad Manchus. China was dominated by scholar-gentry who always worked for a unification of the realm under a single supreme Emperor. In Europe, the papacy was always a disruptive force. Europe divided into a mass of kingdoms and smaller units, many of which had existed as pagan tribal entities and kept those forms when they became Christian. England and the several Scandinavian kingdoms kept continuity and were never under any sort of Imperial authority, as did Hungary, Poland and other places.

The Emperor who sighed the Westphalia treaty styled himself “Ferdinand the Third, elected Roman Emperor, always August, King of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Arch-Duke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy…” and quite a lot more. (See for a full English translation.) It had become a tradition that the Emperor was also King of Germany, but this had become an empty title. The core of Hapsburg power was as Arch-Duke of Austria, which they held by solid hereditary right and which gave them the military power to acquire their various kingships.

The titles of Emperor and King of Germany were subject to election by other German rulers, who had every interest in keeping it as an empty name. And the Hapsburgs themselves had no reason to create a Roman-style Imperial State that might then be seized by one of their rivals. Although an elected monarchy sounds like a good idea, it has always been fatal for the unity of any state that tried it. Poland had been strong under its hereditary monarchs and declined rapidly when the title was made electoral.

Germany after Westphalia became a set of small states, each intent on being a state, and most quite successful at living well and producing art and science. But first France and then Britain became centralising states that were much better at accumulating power. And it was power that had the last word in the immediacy of politics and war.

Geography also matters. The Rhine does not enter the sea in one grand estury, as does the Thames and as most rivers do. Instead it breaks up into several smaller rivers known technically as ‘distributaries’. And over the centuries a variety of sea-port cities on these fragments of the Rhine rose and declined in a confused political-economic pattern; Bruges, Antwerp, Amsterdam etc. While London retained its unquestioned predominance in England, the focus of a Kingdom that began much poorer and became much richer and stronger through the stability of a strong state with London as its normal centre.

In Germany, Westphalia was an acknowledgment that the House of Austria had failed to become real Kings of Germany, in the way that the Kings of France were able to reassert themselves thanks to Richelieu and Mazarin. The vaster powers briefly enjoyed by Emperor Charles was by a dynastic accident which gave him the heritage of Spain and Burgundy, and he chose to split them again when the whole heritage became too complex to manage.

The real Roman Emperors were real Heads of State with a single army and bureaucracy. The Hapsburg rulers were content to be heads of several different governments which each had its own system. At the time of the Spanish Armada, there was no actual King of Spain, but just a single individual who was king of the distinct kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, with power in the Netherlands by inheritance from the Dukes of Burgundy.

In the modern world, the Holy Christian President of the USA is running his country as a Terrorist Superpower. The USA is functioning like the classical Abusive Patriarch, whose punishments are harsh but inconsistent. The Simpsons are a true representation of its values.

The USA has no aspiration to become any sort of ‘United States of Everywhere’: it does not even seek to merge with like-minded neighbors, in the way the European Union has done. Rather, it seeks endless disruption. Third-world countries are sovereign, which means that their troubles can be blamed on them. Yet they are strongly discouraged from going their own way. Denied dollar loans, and it is well-known that a lot gets siphoned off, giving the US local supporters who don’t mind messing up their own nations if they can get enough into their own pockets.

Why does the world still have numbered Swiss bank accounts and similar? Because it suits the Overclass. Nor should you expect a serious crack down on money laundering, drugs money and stuff that does not suit them.

After the successful invasion of Iraq, the US forces secured the Oil Ministry and let everything else be looted. Not just the personal wealth of Saddam’s supporters, but shops and ordinary property. Not to mention museums, where the public property of the Iraqi people was broken or stolen, with increasing reports that well-organised gangs ‘stole to order’, possibly with some private purchaser already lined up.

Just how could a criminal gang know that the US military would stand by benevolently while they ‘stole to order’? Think about it.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, some time in 2003

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