Seeking Global Stability: A Conversation With Philip Bobbitt

Oct 10, 2017

Constitutional scholar and international relations expert Philip Bobbit will be speaking on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce on Wednesday. Bobbitt will discuss what he sees as a dangerous migration of power in this nation. In an increasingly interconnected world, a world where law and the traditional order are steadily giving way to nationalism, extremism and chaos, will opportunity and freedom still remain the hallmarks of this American democracy?

Bobbit will describe what he sees as the rise of great wealth and political clout in the hands of a select few concentrated in the urban centers on the east and west coasts of the United States, and how he sees this troubling shift as threatening the very future of our nation.

Bobbitt, whose upcoming address is part of A&M-Commerce's Sam Rayburn Speaker Series, will present his talk at 10 a.m. on Oct. 11 in Ferguson Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. Bobbitt spoke with KETR’s Mark Haslett by phone in advance of Wednesday’s address.

Edited audio transcript

Mark Haslett: Your appearance on campus here on Wednesday -- what will you be discussing?

Philip Bobbitt: I'm going to take up the topic of how to defend the world order, that is, the sort of post-war consensus around NATO, free trade, the stability of currency, the U.N. Charter.

Mark Haslett: That seems to be on the retreat these days the political center is weakened, nationalist movements and movements from the political fringes seem to be increasingly powerful. So how do you address the challenges facing those who would uphold the traditional order that we inherited from the 20th century?

Philip Bobbitt: Well, I think my talk will be focused mainly on the United States that the way to uphold and defend world order is to achieve greater cohesion in the leading state in world order, the United States.  We and our allies created this world order and we have successfully defended it for over a century, so I think the solution really lies at home.

Mark Haslett: What sort of steps would increase the United States’ strength and stability in terms of its ability to maintain order or maintain stability worldwide?

Philip Bobbitt: I think we need to regain confidence. I think we have lost confidence in our governmental institutions and that most of us don't realize what our constitutional legacy is, why it's worth admiring and defending.

Mark Haslett: You mentioned a cynicism, a lack of trust in public institutions -- how does that attitude relate to the last presidential election and the current presidency of Donald Trump?

Philip Bobbitt: Well, I think the election reflects disillusionment with the government, maybe with the leadership of society at large, even. Mrs. Clinton is the product of that system. She was a Senator. She was Secretary of State. Her political platform was pretty conventional. I suppose the platform itself probably would've had the endorsement of most Americans. I think that she was an unpopular candidate in many respects because she did seem like a creature of the establishment. And her opponent had cast himself as very much the opposite. All the institutions I mentioned -- free trade, the United Nations, NATO, these were all disparaged by Donald Trump when he was a candidate. And the fact of Mrs. Clinton’s government service was held to be a real mark against her.

Mark Haslett: I don't want to spend too much time on party politics specifically, but before moving on -- just looking at the two parties right now, in each of them you have a populist movement and an establishment contingent. In the Republican Party it appears to be kind of deadlocked, even though in some areas one faction might have the upper hand locally, but you have an insurgent populist movement that isn't very uniform within itself ideologically, it's more of an attitude. And then, of course, you have the establishment Republicans against that. And then over on the Democratic side you have an insurgent, progressive wing and an establishment wing, and they appear to be deadlocked with no resolution to their conflict in sight. How do those two situations -- with each party kind of at war with itself -- what's to be done if the center doesn't recover? What if we are entering a new reality in which the center of the political spectrum in the United States remains weak and you have right wing and left wing populist movements that end up dominating national politics?

Philip Bobbitt: Well, I think it's already well underway and not just in the United States. Everything you said would be true of Britain if you just took the words "Labor" for the Democratic Party and “the Tories" for the Republicans. Both of those traditional parties in Britain are divided along the very same lines. You have an insurgent populist movement in both parties. I think there is a sense that our institutions are really not addressing the concerns of most people. A writer abroad said that "populism is an illiberal response to undemocratic governance," and I think that's pretty apt. The movement is illiberal in the sense that it sort of trashes the tradition of discussion, polite debate, respect for one's opponents, and maybe even goes further than that. You know, all these polls that have been coming out in the last six months show that majorities of college students when asked don't support democracy. They don't think the First Amendment is all that hot. They have deep misgivings about free speech and so on. Well, that's the illiberal side.

The undemocratic side is that Congress and other elements have not been focused on some of the issues that people really care about, immigration being one of them. Immigration for the center of the Republican and Democratic parties has been a non-issue. I think they just don't want to address it. Big business supports freer immigration in the Republican Party. Human rights and minority groups support it the Democratic Party, and so they just haven't gone there. But for a lot of people in the United States it's a very threatening issue that just has not been addressed by Congress.

Taxation is another issue. The Republicans in Congress, at least, are perceived by the public as being for lower taxes for the rich, you know. And the Democrats are perceived probably equally, exaggeratedly as being for higher taxes for everybody. I don't think most people are as concerned about other people’s taxes as they are about their own. And most people are not rich.

Mark Haslett: Getting away from the partisan stuff and kind of stepping back more towards general stability and security issues -- what domestic policies do you think should be implemented to increase, the United States’ ability to be strong on the international stage? And is that happening now, or are those things being rolled back?

Philip Bobbitt: Oh, I think we're much weaker on the international stage. And the reason for that, I believe, is that the country has lost a sense of purpose. It doesn't have a confidence that United States will do the right thing abroad, either because we are incompetent, because we've had unsuccessful policies in Iraq and Afghanistan or because we've lost our way. We don't know what values we really can agree on. We don't seem to respect a common history. We disagree about common heroes, common values. In every era of military competition, the successful states, the ones that are most strategically dynamic, are those that have a constitutional coherence, and I'm afraid that's fraying in this country.

Mark Haslett: You mentioned our difficulties on the foreign policy stage in the past decade or two. I read in The Guardian an article that said that you supported the 2003 Iraq War at the time. Was that the case -- did you? And how do you feel about that now?

Philip Bobbitt: I thought then and I think now that the rationale given for the war was a mistake. And I wrote so in The New York Times and in The Guardian. I felt the right rationale was not to capture the weapons that we thought that Saddam Hussein had because there were discrepancies in the volume of chemicals weapons that he had, that we knew he had and that he turned over destroyed. And there were fears that he was developing biological weapons. What I thought the better rationale was, to prevent him from acquiring nuclear weapons, and I still think that's right. I think it's inconceivable we would've gotten a nuclear agreement with Iran if Saddam Hussein were still in power in Baghdad. I think where the American policy went wrong it wasn't in the invasion, it wasn't removing this psychopathic dynasty, it was in the aftermath, in the occupation. We didn't have a large constabulary force that spoke Arabic, that understood local customs, that appreciated tribal differences, because we disbanded the police and the Iraqi army and we didn't have Arab allies standing with us on the ground and our forces were combat forces. They weren't occupation forces. So I still think removing Saddam Hussein was right.  I may be the only person alive (laughs), certainly the only person in the academy, who thinks the invasion was right, but I think the occupation was a historic blunder.

Mark Haslett: Do you think that the United States was prepared for a Shia-dominated Iraqi government or did we really think that there would be sort of a Turkish-style, pluralistic state to emerge out of that?

Philip Bobbitt: (laughs) Well, the Turkish, they may not be the model today. But I know what you mean.

Mark Haslett: Well, yeah, it used to be.

Philip Bobbitt: I'm not sure what we thought. I think that -- I think we really hadn't paid enough attention to it.

Mark Haslett: A little bit to the east, you referred to the nuclear deal with Iran. What do you think of that deal? And do you think it will survive the Trump Administration?

Philip Bobbitt: Hard to say. It looks as though the President has sort of tossed the hot potato over to the Congress, that he will not certify Iran as having complied with the agreement. But whether or not the sanctions we agreed to lift in the in the agreement will be re-imposed is up to the Congress, so I'm not quite sure what will ensue. On the substance of the treaty, I think it is as good as we could get at the time. And I think that it freezes development that would be much more dangerous if they weren't frozen, if they weren't inspected and if they hadn't destroyed some of the hardware that they have. It's not an answer. It's not a definitive answer, but it is better than any alternative that we can get. And if you think I'm wrong about that then look at our feckless efforts with North Korea.

Mark Haslett: Do you have confidence in the ability of American intelligence to verify Iranian compliance?

Philip Bobbitt: Well, I think it isn't just American intelligence. I have confidence that we can verify Iranian compliance.

Mark Haslett: Because (laughs) everyone's watching, it's not just us, I suppose.

Philip Bobbitt: (laughs) It's not just the Americans.

Mark Haslett: I don't want to go over every single hotspot on the planet with you, but there's a couple more that I do want to mention. There was some anxiety during the presidential campaign among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that Hilary Clinton would get the United States involved militarily in the Ukraine, in that situation. Ukraine seems to be not on most people’s front burner these days -- is that something that you think will emerge as an issue of direct relevance to the United States? Or do you think that given the administration’s reluctance to support some of the more traditional bloc-based alliances that Ukraine isn't going to be in our headlines anytime soon?

Philip Bobbitt: Well, it should be, because it's the first time since WWII that a European state has invaded and annexed another substantial portion of a state, a member of the United Nations and has occupied by supporting and by using its own troops, an insurgency that has created a secessionist portion of the state that remains. That's the first time that's occurred since- since the end of WWII, and that's big news. That's very big news indeed.

Mark Haslett: What do you make of the fact that many elements within this Ukrainian nationalist movement belong to far-right parties? They have alliances with some of the European…

Philip Bobbitt:   Yeah. Yeah.

Mark Haslett: …far-right nationalist parties, that's something that is rarely mentioned in U.S. reportage on the situation. Typically, the reports just refer to Ukrainian nationalists and they don't really characterize them politically beyond that. Does-

Philip Bobbitt: It's in fact just the opposite. If you listen to RT, the government in Kiev is always characterized as a fascist government.

Mark Haslett: Right. Right, that's true, because I mean it's basically a Russian state organ.

Philip Bobbitt: (laughs).

Mark Haslett: But...

Philip Bobbitt: You think so?

Mark Haslett: Well...

Philip Bobbitt: (laughs).

Mark Haslett: Almost. But-

Philip Bobbitt: I think it is. I think you're absolutely right.

Mark Haslett: But the reporting that you see in mainstream media -- I mean, I listen to reports. I work at the local NPR station and listening to NPR News, they rarely make mention of this far-right character in the Ukrainian resistance. Should we be concerned about NATO being in a position to come to the aid of those elements when if you go further to the west in Europe those are sometimes hostile to the United States and its interests?

Philip Bobbitt:   It's really quite interesting isn't it that far-right parties in France, for example, are pro-Russian and are getting funding from the Russian regime. And you're right they are quite hostile to the United States. I think it should be of a concern to us because -- I guess this is probably the theme of my talk and of our conversation, because the domestic politics of the state are the single greatest determinant of its international behavior.

If we support democratic, liberal, with a small L, parties in Central and Eastern Europe then we have allies in whatever competition ensues. If they go down, then our policies go down with them. We don't control these states, we don't occupy them, we're not going to overrun them. And if the pro-American elements in these political parties are discredited because the Americans flake out on them or because the Americans can't be bothered then local anti-American parties will achieve dominance.

Mark Haslett: We don't have a lot of time left so I want to take sort of a big picture view now, pulling back from specific areas talking about foreign policy -- as far as what people in the United States are concerned about or perhaps fear as far as the stability of the world order and threats from economic chaos or war, terrorism, things like that. What do you think we are perhaps too afraid of, things that really aren't as much of a threat as people seem to think, and what should we actually be afraid of that perhaps we aren't paying attention to?

Philip Bobbitt: (laughs) I don't know that we should be afraid of anything. As I said I think our principal problems are the loss of confidence. We are overwhelmingly a successful state. I don't think we have cause for fear. General Mattis had a wisecrack the other day that appealed to my retrograde nature. Somebody asked him, I think it may have been a congressional testimony, what things kept him up at night. And Mattis said, "Nothing keeps me up at night. I keep other people up at night."

Mark Haslett: (laughs)

Philip Bobbitt: (laughs). And I guess that's quite rational. I mean we're living in -- although it may not seem this way to all of us -- we're living in a very tranquil period. We're living in a very productive period, and there are no problems on the agenda right now -- inequality, racial conflict, some of the difficulties we have in public education, public health -- there is nothing on the agenda that we don't have the capacity to succeed in and thrive in overcoming.

Mark Haslett: I know that this isn't an area of specialty for you but how do you view environmental and ecological issues as they are relevant to issues of stability and security?

Philip Bobbitt: I think they're something that we ought to be able to rally around. I think this is a is a common enemy, if that's the right word that we can address sensibly. The solutions to climate change are going to come partly from cooperation with other countries, because it's a transnational problem, partly from the genius and ingenuity of our own engineers and technology companies. I don't think we'll be nearly as successful at banning those things that degrade the environment as you will be in developing technologies that prevent that degradation in the first place.

Mark Haslett: You wrote about -- and this was some years ago, I mean not an incredibly long time ago, but some years ago you wrote -- you contrasted the nation state with the market state.

Philip Bobbitt:   Yeah.

Mark Haslett: And you described -- if the Trotskyists described Stalinism as state capitalism, this would be the absolute opposite. It's almost like the capitalist state, where you have the state, which is managed and its course navigated by capitalist interests or business interests or the market interest, whatever you want to, however you want to characterize it. Looking back since it's been a while since you wrote that, how do you feel about your projections at the time, and what do you think is coming up?

Philip Bobbitt: Well, I wouldn't characterize market sates quite the way you did. I wouldn't say they are states that have been captured by corporations. I would say that the history of the constitutional order in this country, in Germany, and now all across the developed world since say the 1870s has been the reliance on law by the state to tame the market, so you had state-owned enterprises like state energy companies, transportation companies, telecommunications companies, and you had the regulation not only of industry, but of many aspects of personal life. Market states have a different compact with the public. They don't say give us money and we'll improve your material well being. They say give us money, give us power, give us your taxes and your allegiance and we will maximize your opportunities, provide you with more options. And to do that rather than taming the market they try and use the market, so you go from conscription to an all-volunteer force. You deregulate not just industries, but women's reproduction. You have various movements in the states to decriminalize narcotics, these are all --states go away from state-owned enterprises. They've pretty much done away with state-owned enterprises, Germany notwithstanding, and it moved to sovereign wealth funds. All of these, developments, which I did write about beginning in the late '90s, and I still write about because I think those predictions have all come true. And I think that the reaction in many states against the reliance in the market and the movement towards deregulation and neoliberalism is a reaction against the coming market state. And I think that nationalist movements like the Catalans and the Scots and the Basques and Lombards and so on, and which will come to this country, by the way, I think those are examples of the market state. Market states are much more friendly to nationalism than nation-states ever were because nation-states exulted one particular national group over the others, whereas market states allow many civil societies, based around a particular nation to flourish that would not otherwise have been economically or politically viable. So I stand by that, but I don't entirely agree with your characterization.

Mark Haslett: What do you thinks going to happen in Catalonia?

Philip Bobbitt: Oh, I think they'll have something like a state, they'll manage their education, they'll manage their language -- they won't manage their defense policy and they won't manage their currency.

Mark Haslett: Sounds like a pretty good deal.

Philip Bobbitt: (laughs) Not if you're in Madrid. (laughs)

Mark Haslett: (laughs) Perhaps not. What about in Ulster, do you think the Six Counties will be part of the Republic in 20 years?

Philip Bobbitt: Gosh, I don't know. I don't know. I simply don't know. I think a lot depends on what happens in London. You know a hard Brexit could mean a reinforcement of the border between the Six Counties and the South, and that could mean a revival of all the antagonisms and the violence that I'd hoped the Downing Street Declaration had put behind us.

Mark Haslett: Well, let me just leave it open-ended then, for the last question, is there anything that we didn't get to that you think would be of interest to our listeners here in Northeast Texas?

Philip Bobbitt: I think you covered all the things I'm going to talk about on Wednesday. My father’s family is from Mineola, Texas, which is sort of in Northeast Texas.

Mark Haslett: Well, they're on the very southeastern edge of our broadcast area. You just start to lose our signal right as you get into Mineola.

Philip Bobbitt: (laughs) I'm sorry. Sorry to hear that.

Mark Haslett: Well, we're pretty far away. We've got 100,000-watt FM so Mineola is about -- I don't know. You can get us pretty well in Winnsboro, which is the northwestern tip of Wood County, but in Mineola, they tend to listen to the Tyler media rather than us.

Philip Bobbitt: I guess if there's one thing I would add that we didn't touch on that I feel strongly about it is NPR, what a gem, what a national treasure, what a tremendous asset. If you look at what's happened to radio generally ... I come from a radio family. My father and I used to own a couple of country western stations out in West Texas. If you look at what's happened to radio generally, local stations are in decline. If you look at what happens to the national news programs, (laughs) and they're a pretty- pretty dispiriting experience. NPR has a standard, like Radio 4 in London, very high standard, and it's inspiring. It’s great.

Philip Bobbitt is the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia, and has long been a leading constitutional theorist whose interests also include international security and the history of strategy. He has published nine books including the canonical book on constitutional interpretation, Constitutional Fate (1982) and his international bestsellers include The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) and Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (2008).  His most recent books are The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2014) and The Ages of American Law (with Gilmore, 2d edition) (2015).

Professor Bobbitt also has an extensive history of government service. He has served in all three branches of government, during six administrations, Republican and Democratic, including most recently as Director for Intelligence Programs, Senior Director for Critical Infrastructure and Senior Director for Strategic Planning at the National Security Council.  Until 2017 he was a member of the External Advisory Board of the CIA.

He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and a former trustee of Princeton University.