When Muhammad Ali famously said, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…they never called me nigger,” he wasn’t just refusing to serve in Vietnam. He was also challenging the ability of the state to define for its citizens whom they should fear and who were their enemies. As Ali said to a group of white college students, who had challenged his position on serving in Vietnam, “You my enemy. My enemy is the white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese.”
From the time of Hobbes, one of the leading attributes of sovereignty has been the right of the state to define what threatens a people and how that threat will be responded to. In the state of nature, Hobbes wrote in Elements of the Law, “every man…is judge himself of the necessity of the means, and of the greatness of the danger” he faces. But once we submit to the state, we are forbidden “to be our own judges” of the threats we are facing and how to respond to them. Except in cases of immediate physical threat to ourselves, we must now accede to the sovereign’s assessment of and decision about these threats. The sovereign, as Hobbes says in Leviathan of the state’s control over matters theological, is he “to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments.”
This is why Ali’s challenge to the Vietnam War was so formidable. He wasn’t merely claiming conscientious objector status, though he was. He wasn’t simply claiming the authority of a higher being, though he was. He was asserting the right of the citizen to be the final judge of what threatens or endangers him. In asserting that right, Ali was posing the deepest, most fundamental challenge to the power and authority of the state.
That he also claimed to be more threatened by his own fellow citizens and government than by an officially declared enemy of the state only added to the subversiveness of his challenge. Against the state’s axis of fear, which claims that one’s enemies invariably belong to another country and thus are part and parcel of the international state system, Ali sought to rotate that axis along a different dimension: away from the international state system to the domestic system of social domination and civil subjection.--Corey Robin "Muhammad Ali, Thomas Hobbes, and the Politics of Fear."
I have not double-checked Hobbes's Elements of the Law, but in his beautiful essay Robin is wrong about Leviathan: when it comes to soldiering, Hobbes recognizes that we have a right to second-guess the Sovereign (recall). There is no doubt that Hobbes thinks all able-bodied have an obligation to fight in defense of the survival of the Commonwealth. Refusing to do so is a matter of injustice. But when it comes to wars of choice, however, one may well justly resist to join the armed forces, and leave the fighting to others that have voluntarily joined the armed service (for money or other reasons). He writes:
No man is bound by the words themselves, either to kill himself or any other man; and consequently, that the obligation a man may sometimes have, upon the command of the sovereign, to execute any dangerous or dishonourable office, dependeth not on the words of our submission, but on the intention; which is to be understood by the end thereof. When therefore our refusal to obey frustrates the end for which the sovereignty was ordained, then there is no liberty to refuse; otherwise, there is. Upon this ground a man that is commanded as a soldier to fight against the enemy, though his sovereign have right enough to punish his refusal with death, may nevertheless in many cases refuse, without injustice...But he that enrolleth himself a soldier, or taketh impressed money, taketh away the excuse of a timorous nature, and is obliged, not only to go to the battle, but also not to run from it without his captain's leave. And when the defence of the Commonwealth requireth at once the help of all that are able to bear arms, every one is obliged; because otherwise the institution of the Commonwealth, which they have not the purpose or courage to preserve, was in vain. Hobbes, Leviathan Ch. 21.
Given that the sovereign is instituted in order to protect life and liberty, it would have been odd if individuals could be asked to put themselves at mortal danger for a reason that falls short of the survival of the state. Whatever the merits of the domino theory, nobody could think that survival of the Republic was at stake in Vietnam. (France -- with fewer resources and nuclear weapons -- suffered a serious defeat in Vietnam, but continued to exist.) So, from Hobbes's perspective, Muhammad Ali was entirely right in his response, that is, to face the sovereign's punishment (and not flee to Canada or fake illness), as well as stand his principled ground.
More subtly, Ali's remarks serve to point to the way to reminding us that ,from a Hobbesian perspective the history of state-sanctioned slavery, Jim Crow, legal segregation, and abuse of the rule of laws to create mass incarceration shows that the United States did not end the state of nature, but continued it by other means. In fact, Ali is right to claim (by implication) the United States represents what Hobbes would call an "imperfect" institution (recall), where civil strife is a consequence of the abuse of law by a faction (see Leviathan Chapter 29). Anticipating Spinoza and Hume, Hobbes argues that social unrest is a consequence of bad government.
I have remarked before that Hobbes's theory is pacific in intent and execution (especially compared to the mercantile and liberal imperial projects that followed during the next two centuries). This is not to deny that, first, Hobbes does not find a solution to the bellicose international arena (where the state of nature exists), and, second, that his domestic project has problematic, absolutists elements (and famously denies a right to revolt). Both failures lead to abuses. But it is wrong to attribute to Hobbes the idea that individuals should defer to the state and ought not decide their own fate when their lives are at stake. We should admire Muhammad Ali for maintaining this insight in the face of enormous intimidation and violence.