Skip to content

The allure of the absolute foe

March 27, 2012

On CNN, Mitt Romney recently castigated the Obama administration for desiring greater diplomatic flexibility in handling relations with Russia by describing the country as, “without question,” the America’s “number one geopolitical opponent.” While these remarks were doubtlessly spurred in part by the political incident du jour – Obama’s remarks to Russian President Medvedev stating he would have more flexibility in negotiations after the U.S. presidential elections – they reflect an understanding of friend and foe in U.S. foreign policy which continues to play a major role in American political discourse.

The German political theorist Carl Schmitt famously described the dichotomy of friend and enemy as one defined primarily by the possibility – rather than the necessity or inevitability – of physical combat in the extreme case. In the realm of international politics, almost any state is a potential enemy. Even an allied state, should it impose itself in such a way that it threatened one’s own way of life, could merit armed resistance. Conversely, opposed political interests and values neither necessitated the occurrence of violence, nor foreclosed on possibilities of respect or cooperation. As Schmitt argued:

The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions.

In other words, a genuinely geopolitical rivalry need not translate into a moral opposition or even a sustained state of hostility – merely a recognition that violent conflict is possible. Schmitt’s relatively sober definition of what he would later call, in his Theory of the Partisan, the “real enemy” was made with the possibility of bracketing or restraining enmity in mind. That a state was a potential enemy did not require it be opposed at every turn, or that possibilities for mutually-advantageous cooperation be foreclosed, indeed foreclosing such relations and accepting the normalcy and inevitability of hostility abroad went a long way towards sustaining a modus vivendi that prevented its needless intensification.

Russia, of course, is a state with which conflict is, indeed, possible in the extreme case. Aggression against present NATO members would certainly qualify, or U.S. attacks on or invasion of a Russian partner could also result in limited hostilities. But neither of these situations are inevitable or even particularly likely. The day-to-day reality of Russian relations is much more like Schmitt’s depiction. NATO’s European states certainly conduct business transactions with Moscow on a frequent basis, while several American policymakers are seeking to further Russia’s World Trade Organization accession. In one of the wars in which NATO members are actually engaged, Russia is actually providing support by allowing the transit of non-lethal supplies through its territory to Afghanistan. All this occurs despite vigorous Russian opposition to the West on Syria-related votes in the Security Council, its recent conflict and outstanding territorial disputes with the Western partner of Georgia, and its tenuous cooperation with potential U.S. rivals such as China.

Russia is an enemy because it possesses political preferences inimical to the United States, but because the pursuit and threat of those inimical goals is contingent upon Russia’s actions and capabilities rather than the mere existence of those preferences, American enmity with Russia, and Russia’s threat, is therefore qualified and limited to certain extreme case scenarios, which makes diplomacy, trade, and more generally a modus vivendi possible.

For Russia to be America’s “number one” geopolitical foe, it would make absolutely no sense to cooperate with Russia to wage a war of counterinsurgency and campaign of counterterrorism against the Taliban and al Qaeda. By contrast, when Russia genuinely was the subject of America’s most ferocious enmities and source of its most pressing threats, during the Cold War, America was arming the mujahideen, despite inchoate political differences with its partners in this enterprise. Russia today is a mere adversary, rather than an inescapably dangerous foe.

Defined by the degree of hostility and absence of flexibility in relations, America’s number one foe – geopolitical or otherwise – is likely al Qaeda and its affiliated movements. Schmitt recognized the existence of polities with whom an absolute political conflict was possible. In Theory of the Partisan, Schmitt notes how the transition from the partisan – telluric in the bounding of his political objectives to his own land – to the professional revolutionary coincided with a transition from real enemy, that is, a mere adversary, to absolute enemy – the implacable foe. Schmitt aptly summarized the nature of the real enemy in irregular war when he quoted Joan of Arc: “Whether God loved or hated the English, I do not know, I only know that they must be driven out of France.” The professional revolutionary, by contrast, defines his enemy in such terms that its existence was intolerable, regardless of where they operate – and very often, so does his foe.

The notion of the sort of absolute irregular war had its counterpart in the liberal vision of warfare as punishment of criminality or the neutralization of enemies of humanity writ large. The rise of humanitarian intervention and the War on Terror have been significant drivers of the revival in Schmittian studies, albeit more often by the critical left than Schmitt’s own authoritarian right. The modern U.S. preoccupation with absolute enemies could be posited from two distinct, but now interlinking ways of warfare and preoccupations of enmity.

The first, and older one, is the traditional liberal maritime treatment of piracy. Pirates were considered to be enemies of all humanity, and there were broad legal and moral permissions for their violent destruction. The notion of crimes against humanity has, in some ways (most directly, as Schmitt noted in his 1937 “Concept of Piracy,” through the U-Boat controversies), been superimposed from the stateless pirate to lawless regimes. Far from being unprecedented, the United States has a rich history, beginning with the Quasi-Wars and Barbary Wars, of vicious, limited engagements to defeat pirates and privateers, which, when combined with the punitive expeditions against banditry on the imperial frontier and overseas, reveals today’s targeted-killing and raiding warfare models as, whatever their triumphs and flaws, hardly unprecedented.

The second source is of course the rise of the ideological professional revolutionary, arguably beginning with anarchist terrorism and picking up steam with the first Red Scare. The horror of the Russian Revolution was essentially that of professional revolutionaries and violent non-state actors seizing control of an established great power. The rise of militarist, fascist, and national-socialist states within the Axis in some ways continued this notion of professional criminals and violent thugs seizing control of states to create criminal regimes. But the Soviet Union locked in the fear of the professional revolutionary because it had far more subversive potential than the Axis powers ever did. Even advocates of containment, such as Kennan, acknowledged the USSR was engaged in an ideological struggle to subvert the capitalist world through Leninist political warfare.

However, Kennan’s attempts to bracket the Cold War ultimately failed. Rather than the preservation of the industrial centers of Europe and Asia, containment became a universal war against a foe that was everywhere – within the U.S. government, its civil society, and the guerrilla camps of the Third World. This is a far cry from modern Russia, which cares little about ideological subversion so much as resource extraction, and  is willing to cooperate with the U.S. so long as its perceived backyard – the non-Baltic former Soviet Union – remains a privileged Russian sphere of influence. Undesirable, perhaps, but hardly the source of an enmity which would justify ranking Russia above, say, al Qaeda, North Korea, Iran, or even Pakistan – a state which, while nominally far closer of an ally than Russia, is also far more implicated in the support or tolerance of active U.S. foes.

The vast majority of U.S. enemies are not absolute foes in the political sense. However, as Romney’s outburst demonstrates, it is often politically inconvenient to admit this fact. Russia is certainly not an ally, and on many issues it is an adversary. But Schmitt’s distinction between the real enemy and absolute enemy is often too subtle for policymakers and publics alike. While less problematic than the tension between Clausewitz’s real and absolute war, the potential for enmity to intensify beyond rational political considerations is a dangerous possibility in politics and not merely the military expression thereof.

While the idea of absolute foes and the punitive ways of warfare associated with them may be appropriate for organizations such as al Qaeda, there really is no polity deserving of the title, or the absolute opposition those groups receive, in the state system. Americans must learn to accept that adverserial states are inevitable features of global politics, and indeed likely to become more prominent as the ability of the U.S. to impose order on the geopolitical arena recedes. Only insofar as states threaten our existence, our security or our way of life are they our enemies – and the character of that relationship, while adverserial, does not preclude cooperation on some issues alongside conflict on others.

Such considerations are critically important if the U.S. truly is to adopt a policy of restraint or limited warfare, as is so often advocated by thinkers grappling with questions of a post-unipolar world. Limited war with unlimited political objectives is an invitation to either rapid failure or needless quagmire. America’s inability to see Saddam Hussein as a real enemy – an adversary, not an intolerable foe – forced the U.S. and much of the world with it into an ever-expanding mission of carving out failed safe zones, containment, suppression of Iraqi air defense, regime change, and finally an actual invasion to accomplish the goal. That the U.S., having invaded Iraq, thought the Iraqi foe still so absolute as to necessitate a dismantling of the entire Iraqi regime that only worsened the country’s post-war problems and ultimately cost several thousand American lives. In Afghanistan, the expansion of the well-deserved category of absolute enemy from al Qaeda to the Taliban generally only exacerbated the U.S. troubles there.

However limited the initial military forces employed in a confrontation, without limited political objectives that can tolerate the continued existence of an adversary, or even the post-regime perpetuation of an adversary’s way of life within its borders, the U.S. is likely doomed to see limited wars yield either disappointing conclusions or new commitments.

In diplomatic terms, the problem is similarly noxious. Notions of enemy as an absolute term incapacitate the flexibility that is key to successful diplomacy, and will become increasingly important to the preservation of U.S. interests and the liberal international order within a changing geopolitical and moral landscape. Rather than adopting needlessly confusing terms such as “frenemy,” it would be more productive for the U.S. to recognize that it will always have adversaries with opposing political preferences – let alone moral ones – and understand that adversaries can still yield opportunities for cooperation within and beyond the political domain, even if that cooperation does not dissolve the inherent hostilities and extreme case possibility of war itself.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. TheRagingTory permalink
    March 27, 2012 8:02 am

    Never intereupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
    Russia would gain nothing by severing the US supply lines.

    The Advantage for Russia in Afghanistan is in keeping the US there, equipment wears out, men die, political sentiment turns against foreign war, not to mention, divisions fighting in Afghanistan cant intervene in Georgia.

    All the supply lines do is provide sharpened knives for Americas effort to slit its own throat.

    The cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan is so high, the US could build a Ford Class every month if they pulled out.

    That would be a serious threat the the Russian Federation, so its in their best interests to help the US make mistakes on a grand scale.
    Not that I personaly believe Russia is a serious threat, or even probable enemy for the US.

  2. March 27, 2012 3:06 pm

    Once again a great post, but I think you gave Romney’s comment far too much ink. He doesn’t need to be refuted by well argued theory, but by simple common sense and history.
    Russia is not our “biggest foe” because it’s so damned weak.

    Today it’s just another mid-level power that may or may not oppose US policy, and a sometimes nuisance like Venezuela or uhmm…France.

  3. March 27, 2012 5:19 pm

    Okay, I guess neocons think they can reverse Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch movement with Obama’s goof. But, if I were them, I’d be more worried about a candidate who would so obviously abandon their principles and move to the center once the election is over than a President trying to assuage the anxieties of a second rate power with a little sweet-talk.

    Thanks for the trackback.


  1. Eunomia » Anti-Russian Hawks Remain Wedded To Cold War Paranoia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: