Congratulations To A Leading Law Professor Turned... Honorary Knight!
No, don't call him 'Sir' — and other fun facts about his knighthood.
Bill Gates. Michael Bloomberg. Steven Spielberg. Bono. Philip Bobbitt.
To paraphrase the old Sesame Street song, one of these people is not like the other. But they also share something in common.
Unlike the first four figures, Philip Bobbitt is not an international celebrity and gazillionaire. He is, instead, a leading legal academic — the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Federal Jurisprudence at Columbia Law School, as well as a Distinguished Senior Lecturer at the University of Texas School of Law, where he previously held the A.W. Walker Centennial Chair.
But here is what the five menshare in common: they are all honorary Knights of the British crown, more specifically, Knights Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (“KBE”). The Order is a British order of chivalry, established in 1917 by King George V, that recognizes contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable organizations, and forms of public service outside the civil service.
Professor Bobbitt is the newest member of this distinguished club. Last week, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II conferred upon him an Honorary Knighthood, in recognition of his “services to UK/US relations and public life.” Congratulations, Professor Bobbitt!
Or should that be “Congratulations, Sir Philip”? Actually, no — because Professor Bobbitt is not a citizen of a Commonwealth realm, he is an “honorary knight” rather than a “substantive knight.” This means that he cannot go by “Sir,” although he may forthwith use “KBE” after his name should he wish to do so.
And he’s fine with not being addressed as “Sir.” Despite Professor Bobbitt’s many accomplishments — degrees from Princeton (A.B.), Yale (J.D.), and Oxford (Ph.D.); numerous acclaimed books, including Constitutional Fate: Theory of the Constitution (1982), The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002), and Terror and Consent: the Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008); and distinguished government service during seven administrations, both Democratic and Republican — he’s not one to put on airs.
“Around here, I answer to ‘hey you’ or ‘Daaaad,’” Bobbitt told me, when we spoke last week by phone about his latest honor.
(In fact, of his numerous achievements, Bobbitt seems most proud of fatherhood. In 2011, he married Maya Ondalikoglu— at the time a 3L at Columbia, now a senior associate at Vinson & Elkins — and they have four children: an eight-year-old son named Pasha, a seven-year-old daughter named Rebecca, and two-year-old twins, Eliza and Louisa. Professor Bobbitt and I spent much of our call talking about our wonderful kids and their latest accomplishments, but I will spare you.)
Having never met a knight, I peppered the good professor with questions about the accolade. First things first: does it come with any hardware?
Yes — a medal, which you can wear around your neck, as well as an insignia or badge.
Will there be a ceremony for bestowing the knighthood?
Yes, although the date for his ceremony has not yet been determined. Because of the pandemic, more than 1,000 events involving the Royal Family have been canceled or postponed, so there’s a bit of a backlog to work through.
Will he get to meet the Queen?
Maybe. Some KBE recipients get an audience with the Queen, as Bill Gates did in 2005, but Her Majesty can delegate this duty to others. (“My hunch is my medal will be presented by a corgi,” Professor Bobbitt quipped.)
If he does meet the Queen, will he kneel before her as she touches a sword to his shoulder?
No; Americans don’t kneel. But Brits do, unless they are unable to — which was the case recently with Sir Tom Moore, the 100-year-old veteran who raised 33 million pounds ($40 million) last year for the National Health Service by walking 100 laps in his garden. Instead of kneeling, Moore — who had both of his knees replaced — stood in front of the Queen in his walker, as she tapped him on the shoulders with a sword once owned by her father.
If Professor Bobbitt were a federal officeholder, would his receipt of the knighthood violate the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution?
Yes. Although it is not an “emolument” because it is not monetary in nature, it is a “Title” from a “foreign state” — so if he were still in government, he could not accept the honor.
How rare are honorary knighthoods?
Quite rare. According to Professor Bobbitt, there have been fewer than 20 honorary KBEs in the past 20 years. As for the last time an American law professor received an honorary knighthood, my former colleague Staci Zaretsky reports at Above the Law that the last time an American law professor received an honorary knighthood was in 1948 (Arthur Lehman Goodhart, in case you’re wondering).
In light of the rarity of the honor, as well as the fame of some past recipients, why is Professor Bobbitt, an American legal academic, being recognized in this way — by a British monarch, no less?
For starters, his ties to Britain go back decades. After his service in the Carter White House, Professor Bobbitt moved to England to study at Oxford, earning a D. Phil. in Modern History in 1983. From 1983 to 1990, he was a member of the Modern History faculty at Oxford. Over the years, he developed ties with other British academic institutions as well, including Kings College London, where he was the Marsh Christian Senior Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies. He has spent significant amounts of time living in England over the past four decades or so, and he still owns a home there — a home in which he did much of the writing for his ten books.
And, interestingly enough, his books have often sold better in Britain than in the United States. Two of them, The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent, were British bestsellers. In 2004, Prospect magazine named Professor Bobbitt one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in Britain.
A major theme of his scholarship has been the importance of the U.S.-U.K. relationship. He shared some brief thoughts on it with me during our call.
“We tend to take the U.S.-European relationship, especially the U.S.-U.K. relationship, for granted,” he said. “For many years we were focused on the Soviet Union, right now we are focused on China, and we are obviously very focused on events in the Middle East. That’s understandable, given the headline events that take place involving these countries.”
“But the day-to-day strength that a good U.S.-U.K. relationship confers upon both countries is without any other example,” he continued. “The U.K. will soon be the largest economy in Europe, overtaking Germany in the next few years. And the cooperation of the Five Eyes alliance in terms of military intelligence is unique.”
“Over the years, I’ve written and argued in support of the idea that we need to be very attentive to the ties we tend to take for granted — especially the U.S-U.K. relationship.”
Professor Bobbitt’s advocacy for strong U.S.-U.K. relations has been widely noted — including, it seems, by the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, whose secretary makes recommendations to the Queen for honorary knighthoods. And you don’t have to take my word for it.
As former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair said regarding Professor Bobbitt’s knighthood, “I am delighted that Philip has been recognized in this way. He has been a staunch, steadfast, and often passionate advocate for the U.S.A./U.K. relationship, someone who combines the highest standards of intellectual thought and scholarship with a strong set of values and principles. He has been always a great friend to our nation and thoroughly deserves this recognition.”
Or from the U.S. side, here’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Philip Bobbitt warrants the uncommon granting of a U.K. knighthood for his important writings in law, philosophy, and national security, his highly regarded teaching, his service in government, and his tireless commitment to preserving and enhancing the relationship between the U.S. and U.K. This is a well-deserved and timely honor.”
Timely indeed. Professor Bobbitt’s knighthood came in the same week that President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson met and signed an updated version of the 80-year-old “Atlantic Charter,” pledging to work together to meet the challenges of today’s world, such as climate change and cyber attacks. After their meeting, President Biden tweeted, “The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is stronger than ever.”
Despite such high praise from numerous luminaries, Bobbitt exhibited his usual modesty about the honor.
“I’m a placeholder here, which is the only way to explain this,” he told me. “The honor is not just to me; it’s really a nod towards the countless persons, in the academy, the government, or both, who have long nurtured a tradition of mutual affection, esteem, and reliance between our two countries.”
Congratulations to Professor Philip Chase Bobbitt, KBE, on this richly deserved recognition. And thanks to him and all others who have worked so hard over the years to maintain and strengthen what is a very special relationship indeed.
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I say “men” rather than “women” because women are named Dames rather than Knights.
The fact that he was a professor and she was a student (although not his student), as well as the age difference, did set tongues wagging at Columbia Law when their relationship became public. But it’s actually a very sweet tale, which I recounted in this Above the Law story, A Law School Love Story: Prominent Professor Marries Columbia 3L.