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An Extended Digression: Carl Schmitt and Regional Hegemony as Großraum

September 14, 2010

To continue the theme of American and Chinese regional hegemony and the wisdom of challenging peer competitors, it might be worth speculating on the possibility of a world of multiple regional hegemons. Drawing on Carl Schmitt and the inter-war German school of geopolitik, we can look at some previous attempts to theorize worlds of multiple great powers. Germany, like China, was a normally continentally-oriented state emerging in the shadow of a powerful maritime hegemon. While this is certainly debatable, Germany provides an example of how the changing geopolitical context affects the rise of ideologies, and provides some insight into the ideas that might animate a regional hegemon to challenge its peers. This is mostly a theoretical exercise, but their work deals with (and exemplifies) some of the same issues confronting the international order today.

The idea of multiple, co-existing regional hegemons, each with their own sphere of influence, is hardly new – and it is not quite dead either. The most striking example which comes to mind is Carl Schmitt, who articulated Großraumordnung – the order of large political spaces. Before and during the Second World War, Schmitt recognized the fragility of the contemporary state order but nevertheless sought to preserve “the political” as enmity between spatially particular peers, in contrast to the negating forces of liberalism and Marxism. Schmitt, who ultimately tacked his hopes to the Nazis, also had a strong incentive to legitimize the “New Order” to preserve credibility and influence within the regime. So he devised the idea of the Großraum, which actually looked to the Monroe Doctrine and the American domination of the Western hemisphere for inspiration (particularly with reference to the Spanish-American war). We could say that Schmitt advocated the reich taking up a role as regional hegemon, and Germany would act as America did in consolidating Europe under its rule, protecting it from foreign interference and giving it a “political idea.” If America’s was to be liberalism, Germany’s was to be fascism, though this aspect of the theory was left vague.

Critically, however, each Großraum was territorially-bounded geographically and particularist in ideology. They held out the possibility, for Schmitt, of preserving separate, sovereign entities with the power to make war and provide order and regularity to enmity. They would clash, but this order rejected ideologies of universal domination and so would preserve particular and sovereign political units, whose legitimacy provided the only possibility of order without the negation of the political through universalism. However, despite Schmitt’s service to the Nazi regime, this was probably not what Hitler had in mind. While debate still rages about the reliability of Hitler’s “Second Book,” as a predictor for wartime policy, it is likely that Hitler viewed the Greater German Reich as a prelude to the defeat of the United States and an Aryan-led world order. Hitler’s racial theories obviously would have made a Schmittian order of bracketed enmity impossible, and required the wars of annihilation and total chaos that Schmitt hoped to restrain in the first place. Nevertheless, 1945 made Schmitt’s hopes even more improbable, since the world was left between the dueling universal ideologies of liberalism and Marxism. Schmitt despised Marxism, but hoped the United States, in defeating it, might finally usher in the Großraumordnung he imagined.

The idea of the Großraum as a new possibility for international politics remains, despite its failure to emerge after WWII. The far right, unsurprisingly, has embraced it in a number of countries. Russian Eurasianists from National Bolshevists to communists, occasionally speculate on worlds divided between the US, Europe, Russia, China/Japan or some other combination of great powers. Even in mainstream Russian politics, the idea of spheres of influence or a Russian space still persists in opposition to the unipolar American order. Schmitt’s admiration for Mao as a partisan whose Marxism always had telluric nationalism and territorial bracketing is also interesting, especially in light of the current debates about Chinese revisionism as seeking to carve out a Chinese sphere and Robert Kaplan’s argument about the “Geography of Chinese Power.” For Schmitt, China was a potential Großraum. Challenging of US unipolarity would certainly constitute a shock to the existing nomos and usher in the new appropriation of territory that would collapse the international order as we know it. For Schmitt, the appropriation of territory and influence, when radically redefined, could destroy the degraded Westphalian system and save it from the negation of US hegemony – hence the appeal of Großraum and similar ideals to a variety of nationalist groups, and to Schmitt’s ideas to anti-imperialists (including the radical left) more broadly.

Schmitt’s Großraum theory also bears some superficial resemblance to Huntington’s much later idea of the Clash of Civilizations. However, there are problems enough with Huntington’s theory without gratuitously tarring it with accusations of crypto-fascism (which Huntington has suffered enough of for his similarities to Oswald Spengler).* In Schmitt’s theory, it is the political power and authority of the reich to command the Großraum that creates the basic geopolitical unit, in Huntington it is culture. Furthermore, Huntington portrays each civilization’s values as so divergent that they cannot build a common international order to manage rivalry, this is precisely the opposite of what Schmitt wanted to accomplish in his search to replace the jus publicum Europeaum.

But why talk about Schmitt at all?** As the comparison with Huntington shows, he is hardly the only thinker to envision a world of regional hegemonic powers capable of reaching a modus vivendi. The flaws in Schmitt’s Großraum theory, however, could help explain why a world of multiple regional hegemons might prove unstable and untenable. Firstly, it is unclear what political idea a reich could impose on its Groβraum to unite it without the potential for universalist expansion. In invoking the Monroe Doctrine, Schmitt also acknowledges that the geographically particular character of the Doctrine disappeared when Wilson and Roosevelt attempted to expand its principles beyond the Western Hemisphere. Instead of being recognized as a fundamentally geopolitical decision, American leaders now saw it merely as a proof-of-concept for an inchoate American world order. Schmitt probably attributed this to the toxic influence of liberalism and, more generally, towards America’s elemental nature as a sea-power. In his theories, maritime powers were inherently drawn to the limitless and universal nature of the sea, with its associations of liberty and historical enabling of global commerce and Angl0-American world order. He contrasted this with the anti-universalist and more conservative character of continental states – and presumably these telluric states (Germany, China, etc) would be core states in the new grosspolitik.

However, Schmitt, who seems separate from the tradition of geopolitk better known for its influence on Nazi foreign policy, does not quite grasp (or chooses to overlook) the potential for particularist, continental states to slide into universalism themselves. Before WWI, Wilhelm II and his aspirations for weltpolitik borrowed much from Mahan, and Mahan himself identified Germany as a “sea power” aligned with the US, UK and Japan against “land powers” France and Russia. German geopolitikers were opposed to “maritime” thinking insofar as they opposed Anglo-American imposition on Germany. However, they still saw the Anglo-American model as a model for emulation as well as opposition.  Inter-war geopolitik was a reaction to the theories of Mackinder and Mahan, a sort of geopolitics with German characteristics. But German regional domination was just as prone to sliding into the weltpolitik of world domination or intervention as America’s Monroe Doctrine, which Haushofer, along with Schmitt, saw as so ideal.

This is all history and theory. What relevance does it have for today’s debates? Should we be worried that Chinese officers, like those of Imperial Germany and Imperial Japan before them, are reading Mahan? Obviously, China’s future ideology and worldview are going to emerge because of conditions here and now, not because of some vague amalgam of inter-war German IR theories predict it. Intentions change, and so do ideologies. Regional hegemonies tend to be preludes to desire for world power, even if world hegemony is a futile goal. Beyond the logistical arguments about energy and economics that would make a regionally-dominant China dangerous to US interests, Schmitt’s Großraum theory and the German geopolitikers illuminate a critical relationship between geography, power and ideology that might hold true today.

The ideologies which seek regional hegemony change in the process of attaining it. In seeking regional hegemony, states do adopt a sort of political idea, one with geographical limits and particularity. For the United States, it was the establishment of the “New World” as a separate space from Europe, and a pledge not to intervene in European affairs should Europe do the same in the Western Hemisphere. For many Germans who aspired to achieve regional hegemony, opposition to liberal internationalism came concurrent with the desire to build a Listian system in Mitteleuropa. For China, the idea of “peaceful rise” and now national sovereignty and areas of core interest are emerging and changing with the geopolitical circumstances. China’s views of Exclusive Economic Zones, its island claims, and international legal doctrine against any kind of “splittism” serve a variety of geopolitical agendas culminating in the creation of an indivisible, sovereign China with control of its immediate neighborhood.

But obviously, republican America and Imperial Germany were already gearing up to achieve worldwide power before they had even achieved regional hegemony. Mahan’s globe-spanning thought succeeded the hemisphere-bounded Monroe Doctrine, and even as the US was expunging European influence from Cuba, it reached into Asia by taking the Philippines. Imperial Germany in WWI saw its new imperial backyard as the staging ground for a bid at replacing British world leadership. In World War II Germany again outgrew the Großraum even before it could consolidate it, embarking on a mission of world conquest. Despite geopolitik‘s Mackinderite desire to unite Germany and Russia as heartland allies against the Anglo-American outer crescent, Hitler and other Nazis were unwilling to tolerate the Soviet peer competitor and Molotov-Ribbentrop’s delimited spheres of control. Even if an ideological threat is necessary to propel a reich out of its Großraum, the act of achieving regional hegemony kindles new ambition.

Geographic security and power breed the desire for more power before they instill satisfaction and restraint. In seeking regional hegemony and geographic security, a regional hegemon’s Großraum inevitably abuts the sea, with its “stopping power of water” as a natural barrier against interference. But exposure to the sea also means exposure to those “maritime” ideals Schmitt saw was so destabilizing to the telluric, continentalist states. Here, the discourses of “geopolitical imagination” and “mental maps” interact with the classical geopolitics that Mearsheimer describes. Given the chance to conduct its region as it pleases, and needing resources to continue growth its own region cannot provide alone, the prospect of controlling the sea compels regional hegemons to seek some degree of world power, and certainly to fear that a rival will turn the sea against them.

If China’s neighbors can prevent China from achieving Großraum and regional hegemony, then this problem remains purely hypothetical. But the tendency of great powers seeking hegemony over great spaces is not to reach accommodation with their peers, but to try and dethrone them. Looking beyond the purely structural considerations of offensive realism, Schmitt and geopolitical thought provide some insights as to how ideology and geography can spur regional hegemons to global intervention – hopefully economics and logistics will keep these theories from being put to the test in Eurasia and the Pacific anytime soon.

*The needless use of “Schmittian” as an offhand critique against Huntington is part of a broader trend of intellectual criticism of the War on Terror and the Bush administration (that Huntington, who argued against the feasibility of conquering Islamic states and turning them into Western democracies, is supposed to be a neoconservative is yet another pet peeve of mine). However, describing neoconservatives or the Bush administration as Schmittian is vague and misleading, and distracts from what Theory of the Partisan could actually tell us about terrorism today. It is merely a more learned way of implementing Godwin’s Law.

**Aside from reading Schmitt and Schmitt criticism.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 9:34 pm

    Interesting. Unfortunately I’m too tired to comment on the main points right now.

    On a side issue — I know little about Haushofer and German geopolitik, but I did note this remark in R.J. Evans’s The Third Reich at War: in discussing Hess’s flight to Britain in May ’41, Evans writes that “Hess’s teacher, the geopolitical theorist Karl Haushofer, had instilled in him a belief that it was Britain’s destiny to join in the world struggle against Bolshevism on Germany’s side.” (p.167) Not sure how this fits in w/ geopolitik’s “Mackinderite desire” to unite Germany and Russia against Britain and the U.S.

    • September 15, 2010 12:32 am

      Thanks for the reply. I am (whoops, NOT) extremely familiar with Haushofer and haven’t read more than excerpts or secondary sources on him – but the impression I had was that before Barbarossa, at least, Haushofer believed that Germany should seek accommodation with Russia to free it up to destroy the colonial powers in the West. In sources describing his vision of the world before 1941, it culminates in a world of four “pan-regions” – USA, Germany, Russia and Japan. After 1941, it becomes a world of three pan-regions – USA, Germany and Japan – I’m inclined to think this was to save some credibility and influence in Berlin.

      Whether that theoretical change also translated into a desire to reformulate German alliances from a continentalist coalition against the maritime/colonial powers to a racial/political coalition against Bolshevism, I honestly do not know. But my impression was that before Barbarossa, at least, Haushofer saw trade and alliance as a more practical way to unite the “heartland” than fighting a two-front war against the outer crescent of maritime/colonial powers.


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