Politics & Policy

James Bond Was Right

Fighting S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

There are people who believe gunpowder is the father of liberalism.

They also believe it led to the invention of libertarianism, conservatism, Communism, Islamicism, Fascism, Fabian socialism, and, of course, firecrackers. Now, the firecrackers thing makes sense, so let’s just put that aside. But what about all that other stuff?

Well, the argument goes something like this. Gunpowder made cannons possible. Cannons can knock down walls. Walls protected serfs, vassals, peasants, and other subjects of the local potentate. For centuries, whenever the bad guys came a-ridin’ into town, a-whampin’ and whompin’ every livin’ thing that moves within an inch of its life — to borrow a phrase from Blazing Saddles — all of the people would run inside the walls of the local lord. With cannons, the bad guys could still get inside to rape the cattle and kill the women, to borrow another phrase from that classic.

And with this development, the system of little princely states, with their moats and castles, began to fall apart. Wars fought with mercenaries were on the way out, though it would certainly take some time. Princes — what Machiavelli called these regional rulers — needed a way to get people to fight and defend their turf for reasons other than cash. So, thanks largely to Machiavelli, the concept of ideology was forged. Princes needed to win the hearts and minds of their subjects so that ordinary Joes — or in this case, Giuseppés — would be willing to lay down their lives for the boss. You can make the people love a single prince, but how do you ensure they love his ne’er-do-well son or grandson or great-grandson? In order to do that, you need to have the people fall in love with an idea about how the world should work.

I had always heard this explanation with regard to ideology. But I’ve been reading this massive book (900 dense pages) The Shield Of Achilles, by Phillip Bobbitt (presumably no relation to John Wayne Bobbitt), which makes the same argument about the state. Full disclosure: When I say I’m reading it, that’s a bit misleading. I’m actually just rummaging around in it like a guy with the munchies does in a well-stocked fridge.

Anyway, this perspective makes total sense and is actually just the flipside of the ideology story. Because the first ideology these princes came up with was the idea of the state. Remember: States and nations are very different things. Nations refer to peoples. States refer to the apparatus we associate with government — armies, taxes, secure borders, laws, etc. The Kurds are a nation, for example, but they have no state. The Hapsburgs had a single state, but contained many nations.

Anyway, Bobbitt argues that the state was born out of war — to help rulers wage war and defend against it. The idea that the modern State was born of the enlightenment of intellectuals, a desire to help the little guy, or some other touchy-feely version of the social contract is poppycock. The state — with its ability to raise taxes, conscript soldiers, coordinate commerce and agriculture — was from its origins a means by which rulers could protect themselves.

The Turks invented cannons and used them to seize Constantinople. That technology improved as it moved westward (a common trend in world history). Bobbitt notes that Charles VIII of France commanded the first modern, multiethnic army (though it lacked many ethnically French soldiers — even then they didn’t want to fight) funded by a central treasury. When it marched into Italy in 1494, its modern artillery in tow, the old system fell apart. “Suddenly walls, towers, moats all were rendered obsolete,” Bobbitt writes. “As a result, princes and oligarchs made a pact with an idea: the idea was that of the State, and its promise was to make the ruler secure.”

This version of history should make many libertarians nod and say “we told you so,” since they’ve always believed the state was never particularly or primarily concerned with the needs of the people. But that’s a discussion for another day.

What’s relevant here is that if the state was formed in order to fight and defend against wars, then the state is in trouble. Bobbitt argues that the state was once the only institution powerful enough to wage war and defend the rest of us from military attack. This was a function of technology but it was also a function of economics. Only states could levy taxes and afford standing armies.

The dilemma Bobbitt raises is that this is no longer the case.


In Wednesday’s column, I noted how loopy the jihad-fantasy crowd is. Al Qaeda members and their sympathizers entertain the batty idea that if there were only some sort of pan-Islamic Ragnarok, somehow America & co. would lose out to Saudi Arabia, et al. (Ragnarok, by the way, is the world-shattering set-to laid out in Norse mythology, in which the gods fight the giants, the forces of good mix it up with the forces of evil, Thor decapitates Sid Blumenthal, etc.)

I received a lot of e-mail from folks saying, in brief, “you’re a no-talent ass clown.” The slightly more fleshed-out response was that while the Islamofascist warriors may hope for a world war, they don’t fight with armies. They really don’t even fight at all. Instead they slink into countries and blow people up. So, who cares if we could beat the Islamic world in a fair fight — they want to detonate nuclear bombs in shopping malls. They don’t want to invade.

This is all a fair point (though I think way, way, way too many people missed the point of that column). And, it gets to the heart of the dilemma presented by Bobbitt’s book. It used to be that only states — and even then only a minority of them — had the capability to play whack-a-mole with whole civilian populations.

Modern economics and modern technology have changed that. It is now possible for individual people to acquire the sort of wealth previously only associated with states. Moreover, it is increasingly possible for these individuals to get their hands on weapons that can inflect massive casualties — not just nuclear, but chemical and biological weapons. Even conventional weapons can kills thousands — as we learned on 9/11 — as a result of the increasing population density of our cities and our ever more efficient transportation systems. In the 15th century, it took a lot of money and man-hours to kill a few thousand people militarily. Today it can be done in an instant.

Bobbitt believes this may well spell the doom of the nation-state as we know it. Victor Davis Hanson is skeptical. I remain agnostic on the question because I haven’t finished the book; and I think, in the short term, it doesn’t matter who’s right. Whether the state melts into some sci-fi future run by corporations — or not — is irrelevant for the time being, because the problems we face right now remain the same.

Osama bin Laden is fighting a war without benefit of a state. If he gets a nuke, he’ll be able to inflict more damage on the United States than all but a handful of states ever could. And unlike, say, the leaders of China or the old Soviet Union, bin Laden has no one to answer to. He’s a free agent. Even without a nuclear bomb, he’s proved more dangerous than a lot of countries.

In other words, he’s a super-villain.

In fact, as others have noted, he fits the profile perfectly. He may not have super-powers, but plenty of super-villains didn’t (Lex Luther, the Kingpin, the Joker, etc.). He may be nuttier than an orgy at Mr. Peanut’s poop party but, again, that too is often a requirement for villains.

But comic books probably aren’t the best illustration. Think James Bond. Or, more specifically, think S.P.E.C.T.R.E.: the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. In the James Bond books and movies, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. always seemed just a little silly: really rich people messing with Britain, America, and Russia just to get their jollies. But, that’s what bin Laden is.

Sure, bin Laden’s motives and ideology are deeply rooted in the history of the last 1,400 years (and of those, mostly the last 40), but he represents something new. Future super-villains will undoubtedly crop up and they will be even less rooted in the past. Why? For the same reason people start cults, assassinate celebrities, and pay $20 million to go into outer space.

Who knows where the next super-villain will come from? He may be a Scientologist or he may lead a rogue faction of Up With People. There’s actually a great episode of The Simpsons in which Homer goes to work for one “Hank Scorpio,” the Bill Gates-type C.E.O. of Globex Corporation who’s actually a doomsday-weapon-wielding international terrorist who blows up New York’s 59th Street Bridge.

When you look around the globe you can see all sorts of candidates. Hamas operates as a nation-less state already, feeding and providing medical care for its supporters. Narco-terrorist groups in South America have de facto control over lots of geography. And you don’t even need much geography at that. With modern communications equipment you could have some Pope of Badness ensconced in a villa in Switzerland barking out orders to his minions across the globe. Oh wait, that’s actually how S.P.E.C.T.R.E. did things.


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