On the importance of history

Connecting strategy, law and history

This is an extract from the brilliant introductory chapter of Philip Bobbitt’s remarkable The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History. Bobbitt disputes the view—including The Acorn’s—that law exists in practice because of the state. Be that as it may, what is interesting about Bobbitt’s thesis is his perspective on the role of society and what it believes of itself in the theory of the State.

We scarcely see that the perception of cause and effect itself—history—is the distinctive element in the ceaseless, restless dynamic by means of which strategy (ie, foreign policy—ed) and law live out their necessary relationship with each other. For law and strategy are not merely made in history—a sequence of events and culminating effects—they are made of history. It is the self-portrayal of a society that enables it to know its own identity. Without this knowledge a society cannot establish its rule by law because every system of laws depends upon the continuity of legitimacy, which is an attribute of identity. Furthermore, without such a self-portrayal, no society can pursue a rational strategy because it is the identity of the society that strategy seeks to promote, protect and preserve. One might say that without its own history, its self-understanding, no society can have either law or strategy, because it cannot be constituted as an independent entity.

History, strategy and law make possible legitimate governing institutions.

The State exists by virtue of its purposes, and among these are a drive for survival and freedom of action, which is strategy; for authority and legitimacy, which is law; for identity, which is history. To put it differently, there is no state without strategy, law and history, and, to complicate matters, these are not merely interrelated elements,they are elements each composed at least partly of others. The precise nature of this composition defines a particular state and is the result of many choices.

Law cannot come into being until the state achieves a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Similarly, a society must have a single legitimate government for its strategic designs to be laid; otherwise, the distinction between war and civil war collapses, and strategy degenerates into banditry. Until the governing institutions of a society can claim for themselves the sole right to determine the legitimate use of force at home and abroad, there can be no state. Without law, strategy cannot claim to be a legitimate act of state. Only if law prevails can it confer legitimacy on strategic choices and give them a purpose. Yet the legitimacy necessary for law and for strategy derives from history, the understanding of past practices that characterise a particular society. [Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles pp5-6]