Carl Schmitt and the Nomos of the Earth

This is the full text of my lecture to the H. L. Mencken Club on November 5 in Baltimore.


Carl Schmitt was without question one of the most important political philosophers and legal theorists of the 20th century. During his extraordinarily long life, Schmitt wrote on public affairs over a period of about 70 years. He began writing during the period before WWI , and went on to observe the events of the First World War, the interwar period, WW2, the postwar and Cold War eras, and he eventually died the same year that Mikhail Gorbachev became the last Soviet head of state. It was through the process of observing the unfolding of all of these events, that Schmitt developed his very comprehensive system of thought.


Given the length of Schmitt’s career as a political writer as well as the scope and depth of his thought, it would of course be impossible to do justice to the ideas of Carl Schmitt in a brief presentation here today. So what I want to focus on primarily are those aspects of Schmitt’s thinking that are most relevant to our current political situation and the questions and issues that many of us are the most concerned with.

Schmitt was first and foremost a staunch political realist in the tradition of Hobbes and Machiavelli. Given the foundations and presumptions behind his thought, it should not surprise us that Schmitt was primarily concerned with the question of how order is to be maintained on both an international level and within the context of the internal affairs of particular nations as well, and much of his writing throughout his life is devoted to a brutally honest and penetrating examination of these questions. With our own benefit of hindsight, we can see how prescient Schmitt’s thinking often was on so many different matters.


The question of the state was always at the forefront of Schmitt’s thinking. Like Max Weber, Schmitt considered the state’s claim of a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to be the defining characteristic of the modern state. Schmitt regarded the state’s development of a monopoly on warfare as one of the great achievements of European civilization as, in his view, this had the effect of civilizing war. Throughout his life, Schmitt persistently expressed concern about the decline of the nation-state system and the implications of this for international order. Schmitt understood international law to be a distinctively European creation that had its roots in both the achievement of European dominance on a worldwide basis beginning with the Age of Discovery and with the emergence of the Peace of Westphalia and its system of sovereign nation-states at the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in 1648. It is also important for our purposes to understand that the traditional European conception of international law involved a body of law that was customary in nature and was rooted in a shared consensus among European nations and was not something that was cultivated or enforced by any sort of overarching institutional entity.


Schmitt understood that traditional European international law had essentially been destroyed by the events of the First World War, the imposition of the Versailles Treaty on Germany, and the emergence of the League of Nations. It was these events that shifted the foundations of international law from its Eurocentric origins to a foundation that was universalist in nature. Along with these developments came the end of European domination and the rise of American dominance due to the role of the United States in shifting the European balance of power in the First World War and the subsequent creation of the League of Nations. Schmitt regarded the rise of the United States as a major world power to be significant in two principal ways. First, American imperialism tended to be primarily economic in nature as opposed to the more overtly political forms that European imperialism had previously assumed. Secondly, American intervention in the First World War had introduced the concept of war as an instrument of ideology into international law. Under the older European system, war had been regarded primarily as an instrument of policy with its focus being on limited territorial interests or geopolitical aims. With President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of American involvement in World War One to be a “war to end all wars” or a war to “make the world safe for democracy,” war once again took on the form of a crusade just as it had during the Middle Ages. When war is conceived of in this way, then the enemy becomes not merely an adversary to be defeated but is instead regarded as moral reprobate to be annihilated. Under such conditions, war becomes much more total in nature and much more destructive.


Schmitt continued to develop this thesis as he observed the unfolding of the events of the twentieth century. As the traditional European conception of international law within a framework of sovereign nation-states began to recede, Schmitt felt there were two potential alternatives that would replace the European tradition. One of these was the univeralism favored by the Americans, which was rooted in the idea that there is some moral obligation to bring the supposed virtues of modern democracy to the entire world and that it is the responsibility of what is now called the “international community” to enforce Western liberal standards of “human rights” on a global scale. Of course, the institutional manifestation of this idea was originally the League of Nations during the interwar period and then the United Nations in the postwar era. Against this globalizing universalism, Schmitt proposed the concept of “political pluralism” which was the idea that regional powers would retain sovereignty over their own spheres of influence. Ironically, Schmitt cited the Monroe Doctrine as a prototype for the kind of international political pluralism that he envisioned. Under such a system, each regional power would maintain something resembling its own Monroe Doctrine. Not surprisingly, then, Schmitt regarded the rise of the bipolar order of the Cold War period as a favorable alternative to universal American hegemony in spite of the fact that Schmitt was always a strong opponent of communism.


Now, a lot of Schmitt’s views on this question were obviously rooted in his own antipathy towards the United States. First, there was the role of the United States in Germany’s defeat in World War One and the subsequent imposition of the Versailles Treaty. Second, there were the American aerial assaults on German cities during the Second World War. Lastly, there was Schmitt’s own imprisonment at the hands of the Americans as a potential war criminal due to his previous collaboration with the National Socialists immediately following World War Two. However, it is still quite interesting that Schmitt actually regarded the United States as a more ideologically-driven state than the Soviet Union in the sense that the Soviets in their occupation of Germany simply behaved as an ordinary conquering power while it was the Americans that Schmitt found to be much more concerned about the imposition of ideological purity.


This observation by Schmitt contributes a great deal towards our understanding of the role of American power in creating the global order that has emerged since the end of the Cold War. Many critics of contemporary American foreign policy, from both the Left and the Right, will often focus on the role of either material or economic interests in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy. A standard illustration of that is the interpretation of the American wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya as simply being wars for oil or a gas pipeline or something along those lines. That interpretation is fairly typical among leftists and we’ve all seen the placards that are displayed at left-wing antiwar rallies with slogans like “No Blood for Oil” and there are also some on the Right who hold similar views. There are others who interpret American militarism in the post-Cold War era as simply being about the maintenance of the vested interests associated with the military-industrial complex or, alternately, as being driven by narrow demographic interests. As an example the latter, American intervention in the Middle East will be interpreted as being driven primarily by the influence of the Israel lobby in domestic American politics. But while there is likely some degree of truth to all of these claims, it would be a mistake to ignore or minimize the role that ideology plays in the shaping of American foreign policy.


The two prevailing ideological frameworks that American foreign policy elites subscribe to are either liberal internationalism on one hand or the neoconservative perspective on the other. Liberal internationalism is, of course, the idea that liberal states should intervene in the affairs of other states in order to achieve liberal ideological objectives. And while neoconservatism is often considered to be a manifestation of the Right by more mainstream political observers, if anything neoconservatism is an even more extreme and ideologically-driven approach to foreign policy in that it advocates exporting Western notions of liberal democracy to the entire globe by means of not only military intervention, but also through the radical reconstruction of entire societies. In other words, neoconservatism is an “armed doctrine”of the kind criticized by Edmund Burke.


As an illustration of the contrast Carl Schmitt identified between foreign policy as it might be pursued by an ideologically-driven state and foreign policy as it might be pursued in the more traditional European sense of simply upholding territorial or geopolitical interests, we can consider what the American approach to its more recent wars might have been if American foreign policy were less ideological in nature and more Schmittian instead. Just for purposes of discussion and without making any broader judgments about military interventions by the United States over the past decade, it is certainly conceivable that policy makers operating within a non-ideological framework of traditional power politics might come to regard, for instance, someone like Saddam Hussein or the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, or Colonel Qadaffi as an enemy whose elimination was necessary or justifiable on the basis of a rational assessment of American interests. But within such a framework the much more ambitious and implausible projects of reconstructing Middle Eastern or Central Asian societies on the model of a Western liberal democracy would be absent. Consequentially, these recent American wars would have been far less costly to the United States in terms of blood and treasure and in all probability less costly to the other nations involved as well. For instance, there would have been much less need for the sustained military occupations that have resulted from some of those interventions.


A phrase that Schmitt coined to describe the workings of an ideologically-driven state was the “tyranny of values.” With this concept of the “tyranny of values,” Schmitt was describing two very distinct but interrelated types of political phenomena that he saw as endemic to the types of states that were emerging in his own time. The first of these phenomena was what I have been describing thus far, and that is the scenario whereby international relations and the nature of warfare between states began to shift from an orientation from the pursuit of more limited territorial interests towards the pursuit of ideological crusades. The second of these was the way in which ideologically driven movements perpetually created disorder by attempting to overthrow traditional institutions in order to reconstruct societies according to prescriptive ideological values. This latter point is very strongly related to Carl Schmitt’s critique of modern liberal democracies of the kind that came to dominate Western nations in the 20th century.


Indeed, I believe that one of the most valuable aspects of Schmitt’s thinking as it relates to our own time is his critique of the liberal democratic manifestation of the state. According to the political narrative that dominates contemporary thinking, the concept of liberal democracy is regarded as something that is sacrosanct. At the more extreme, we have the example of thinkers like Francis Fukuyama who considered the universal realization of conventional American-style or Western European-style liberal democracy, or “democratic capitalism” as the neoconservatives call it, as the final end of human political evolution and as some ultimate kind of human achievement. Extreme interpretations of this idea aside, some variation of this line of thought dominates virtually all of our present day institutions and intellectual life. The conventional narrative that we hear from contemporary institutions that serve to shape the ideological values that guide the broader society, whether our educational institutions, or the mass media, or the state itself, is one where Western history is presented as following this linear, progressive pattern towards ever greater levels of freedom, social justice, human rights, tolerance, inclusiveness, and all of these other contemporary pieties. The establishment and large scale realization of the liberal democratic conception of the state is regarded as being one of the hallmark achievements in this process of social and political evolution.


Carl Schmitt was one of a number of now-forgotten thinkers who criticized mass democracy of the kind associated with the modern liberal state as a degeneration of human political life. Far from granting greater freedom, for instance, Schmitt saw the democratic state as having the effect of completely politicizing the entire society. A state that is organized as a mass democracy continually tries to cultivate new constituencies for itself, which in turn means that new political interests continually arise that make demands that the state tries to satisfy. The end result of this is that the state ends up intervening is virtually every aspect of social, cultural, and economic life in order to capitulate to all of these constituencies. In other words, mass democracy in practice becomes a form of soft totalitarianism. The other side of this coin is that while democracy may actually bring with it a decrease in freedom, it also brings a decrease in social cohesion and political order that ultimately threatens its own survival. Schmitt understood that mass democracy of the kind that has come to be practiced in modern societies is ultimately nothing more than a permanent war of special interest groups that are trying to gain control over the state. In the process, the state actually begins to lose legitimacy because by trying to be everything to everyone, the state ends up satisfying no one.


Another essential aspect of Schmitt’s thought is his concept of the friend/enemy distinction and his identification of what he considered to be the essence of the “political.” According to Schmitt, the fundamental characteristic of what is meant by the political is the existence of organized collectives that pose a potential existential threat to one another and therefore have the potential to engage in lethal conflict. There does not have to be actual lethal conflict, but the possibility has to be present. The way that this idea of the “political” as Schmitt defined it relates to his critique of liberal democracy is through his recognition of the inability of the liberal state to recognize its own enemies or to act decisively against it enemies. In his own time, Schmitt was writing within the context of the Weimar Republic and criticizing what he saw as two fatal flaws in the liberal republic’s approach to statecraft. One of these was the inability of the republic to act effectively in defense of Germany’s national interests within the context of international power politics. The other was the inability of the republic to maintain domestic order within Germany and, in particular, to resist the existential threats posed to itself by the rising Nazi and Communist movements that were threatening the Weimar regime with overthrow either through the manipulation of the legal and political machinery or through extra-legal acts of violence.


The two developments of our own time where I think the ideas of Carl Schmitt are most relevant are the loss of the state’s monopoly on warfare through the emergence of so-called “fourth generation warfare” whereby war is increasingly being waged by non-state actors, whether these be terrorist groups, drug cartels, gangs, cults, religious movements, guerrilla armies, or whatever, and where such entities supersede states in their claims of legitimacy or on the allegiance of their adherents or subordinates. Perhaps the best example of what I am talking about is Hezbollah, which has essentially replaced the Lebanese state as the guardian of the nation of Lebanon and arguably has more legitimacy than the Lebanese state itself. Contemporary military theorists like Martin Van Creveld and Bill Lind have written a great deal about the state’s loss of its traditional monopoly on war that the rise of the fourth generation forces reflects. What this means is that Schmitt’s definition of the political as the potential for lethal violence between collectives that pose an existential threat to one another now applies not only to wars between states, but also to wars between non-state actors, or between states and non-state actors.


The other important development where Schmitt’s thinking is particularly relevant is the inability of Western liberal states at present to recognize the existential threat to their own societies and broader civilization posed by the prospect of demographic overrun generated by mass immigration. This existential threat is developing and escalating even as some Western states are becoming more repressive with regards to traditional civil liberties. For instance, Sam Francis once pointed out the astonishing fact that after the events of September 11, 2001, it became the conventional wisdom among policy makers that in order to safeguard against terrorism, it was permissible to engage in torture or prolonged detention without trial, or to maintain secret prisons or establish military tribunals in place of civilian courts, but it was somehow not acceptable to simply eliminate immigration from places where potential terrorists are likely to originate. So what we see there is a situation where a liberal state is on one hand completely ineffective even at safeguarding its own borders. Yet at the same time, it has no problem casually throwing off long established constitutional traditions or extending the hand of the state into previously forbidden areas. Another aspect of this question is the fact that so many liberal intellectuals fail to perceive the existential threat posed to the values they claim to cherish most by mass immigration from the Third World due to the fact that the preservation of the kind of hyper-liberal values that most contemporary intellectuals take for granted are simply not compatible with the importation of large numbers of people for whom such values are alien to their own cultural and national traditions. So as we observe all of these contemporary events, we can also see how the thinking of Carl Schmitt is still quite relevant to our time and has much to say regarding our own situation.


Thank you.


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