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Let’s Talk Real Schmitt

July 5, 2012

Dan Drezner has an interesting post on dissecting the ideological approach to international competition, as Mitt Romney espouses it. Read the whole thing, but the title, and this part of it, rubbed me the wrong way:

 I do wonder, however, if too many Americans have imbibed the simple Schmittian  dichotomy of friend and enemy to view other countries.  We’re unpracticed as a country in dealing with the category of “rival” — or, in the case of Russia, “demographically crippled rival.”

Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction, like the Clausewitzian trinity, is one of those interesting concepts developed by theologically-influenced Germans that is extremely useful but doesn’t always translate well into American international relations and security studies. My German isn’t good enough to start talking about translations or grammar or anything like that, but it’s useful to be clear what exactly Schmitt was talking about when he spoke of the friend-enemy distinction.

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt is concerned, first and foremost, with talking about the bounds of the polity and the sovereign state, rather than international relations per se. The friend-enemy concept, first and foremost, is a delineation of who is a part of the political community and who is not. Schmitt claims:

The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity.


The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.

Any political grouping with whom a conflict is possible is the enemy – in a sense, any grouping which we would not allow to control our way of existence – and that we would resist violently were they to attempt it – is our enemy. However, adds Schmitt:

It is by no means as though the political signifies nothing but devastating war and every political deed a military action, by no means as though every nation would be uninterruptedly faced with the friend-enemy alternative vis-à-vis every other nation. And, after all, could not the politically reasonable course reside in avoiding war? The definition of the political suggested here neither favors war nor militarism, neither imperialism nor pacifism.

Schmitt also says:

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.

As I pointed out in an earlier post I wrote about Romney’s remark about Russia as a “number one foe,” there remained, for Schmitt, a distinction between the real enemy – defined merely by the potential for conflict in the  extreme case, and the absolute enemy, whose political existence was intolerable to the body politic.

In other words, the sort of Manichean friend-foe distinction is derivative of, but not inherent to, the friend-enemy distinction. Schmitt, in fact, would become quite concerned with drawing a distinction between the friend-enemy relationship which acknowledged what he believed was an enduring political reality – the delineation of communities on the basis of fear of violent death – and one which demanded the vanquishing of one’s enemies as a matter of necessity.

Schmitt believed the most significant source of these problems was liberalism, which sought to destroy the foundations of international order. To Schmitt, in Concept of the Political, not simply traditional sovereignty but also the basis of neutrality and other vital facets of international law and behavior. Beginning in the 1930s and culminating in his 1950 Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt described the Jus Publicum Europaeum, the idealized system of the 18th-19th century world order. Critical to Schmitt’s understanding was that this order, in recognizing the real friend-enemy distinction, also recognized jus hostis – the rightful enemy – by which two sovereigns could clash without either being a criminal. In liberalism, as exemplified by World War I and confirmed by World War II, aggression – the exercise of the prerogatives of jus hostis – the international order criminalized aggression, and further defined as a meaningful normative body “humanity,” against whom stood only enemies of humanity. In a theme Schmitt discusses in the latter chapters of the Concept of the Political and elaborates for decades after, the universalizing tendencies of liberal states defines enmities in a manner that makes compromise impossible, for who can compromise with an enemy of humanity and universal values? In this manner, Schmitt saw liberalism as marking all its enemies, not as jus hostis, but as hostis humani generis, the enemies of all humanity, like pirates, outlaws, and barbarians.

In other words, the sort of Manichean worldview which defines all other countries either as willing and grateful supplicants to the liberal international order – with an American orientation – was not the kind of perspective Schmitt advocated, but the one he most vociferously despised. He did not want a world where all political confrontations tended towards competition, and certainly not one where enmity had to characterize relationships beyond “the political.” While Schmitt recognized certain kinds of foes as absolute enemies – his Theory of the Partisan in some ways foretells the global, technologically-advanced revolutionary as such a threat – he wanted to avoid a world order which sought to characterize its enemies in such a way.

Schmitt saw great power politics, with spectrum of neutrality, detentes, “humanzied” limited wars and elitist, decisionist ethos not simply as normal, but as morally superior to the alternative of the universalistic hegemon that overstepped its right as a major power, upending what Schmitt saw as a fundamentally pluralist international order. A foreign policy that saw Russia as an ugly country and an irascible foe for exercising a sphere of influence, for resisting the will of an American, Western-backed liberal universalism, and advocating for the traditionalist, hardline interpretation of state sovereignty, would not be Schmittian, but closer to the ideals Schmitt believed were fundamentally antithetical to his vision of politics. There are certainly relevant ways to apply Schmitt to American foreign policy, but Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction is actually a lot more nuanced than most IR writing gives him credit for – and, while it’s a low bar to clear, it’s a lot more nuanced than campaign-trail rhetoric.

As Adam Elkus observed in a recent twitter debate, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is often incorrectly interpreted in ways similar to Schmitt (there are also some superficial similarities between the Schmittian Großräumen and Huntington’s civilizational blocs). Huntington’s Clash, despite its deep flaws, is fundamentally a call for acknowledging pluralism and rejecting universalism – and does not argue for establishing a Manichean model for power political behavior, even though it’s often interpreted as a normative call for “Western world versus the rest.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 12, 2012 10:34 am

    I just commented over at Drezner with this,

    “The public needs a Schmittian dichotomy. The challenge of leaders is to be judicious in choosing the appropriate “enemy” and then maintaining maximum flexibility on who should be “friends” to deal with the enemy. Good old “Uncle Joe” vs. Hitler springs to mind. You can always reverse course as necessary later. Consistency is not a virtue in politics.”


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