Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

11.1. The Autobiography of the Other: powers of literary transference
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Fatima Festic (Los Angeles / Ankara)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The Other and Its Universal Negation: Two Possible Schmittean Readings of U.S. Foreign Policy

John Rogove (NYU/France)


This paper will be an examination of the utility of Carl Schmitt's theory of the Friend/Enemy distinction for understanding recent and dramatic changes in the stated purpose and hence the practice of U.S. foreign policy.

Carl Schmitt rejected the claims of liberal politics to universality and to the absolute sovereignty derived from rational and hence objectively universal principles.

To the claims of univeralizable liberal pinciples to be the only legitimate basis of sovereignty, Schmitt opposed a concept of the human phenomenon he called "the Political," grounded in an existential distinction of Friend from Enemy. What is this distinction? It is that which allows a distinctive and homogeneous community of men, what Aristotle called the Polis and Schmitt the State, to recognize those who or that which threaten that community's existence as such, that is to say, its identity, which is to say its distinctive homogeneity.

The content of this identity is seemingly irrelevant; what counts is its distinctiveness relative to other identities, and more importantly its recognition of that distinctiveness, particularly in instances when it is imperiled and in need of defense.

Schmitt was the anti-universalist par excellance. I imagine he would have shared Heidegger's assessment that "Europe is caught in a pincers between Russia and America, which are metaphysically the same." I imagine Schitt would have shared this sentiment because through its lense one may see the reactionary hinge on which a very important part of the ideas of both men swung. The United States and the Soviet Union were in this era seen as the two great powers, both on the fringes of Europe, through which the tides of universal and mass humanity were closing in on the cultures that gave them birth. These cultures, the cultures called Europe, were understood as rooted, homogeneous, and distinct, that is, in possession of a particular identity that distinguished them from humanity at large. The U.S. and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, were threats, but not insofar as being some sorts of menacingly alien cultures, but rather as the media for two equally dangerous, radically materialist ideologies, ready to undermine and deracinate the specificity of cultures by means of just that universalism which as such ignored that same specificity in addressing its constituent members as men simply, and more specifically as men with material needs. When Heidegger spoke these words it was 1935, two years after having joined the Nazi party in the apparent belief that it was the champion of this specificity, the antedote to the encroaching malaise of mass man. Schmitt wrote The Concept of the Political, in which he presented his account of politics as fundamentally the recognition of the friend/enemy distinction, in 1932. The text reads largely as a complaint against the unjust - or rather, hypocritically mendacious - treatment of Germany at the hands of the Allies in the terms and language of the several treaties following the armistice of 1918 and throughout the inter-war period. These were, in his eyes, vengeful, partisan, polemical treaties cloaked in the language of even-handed applications of universal law, apparently imposed for the benefit of Humanity and not for that of France and Britain. What's more, it was for him this universalist mendacity that made their polemical edge the keener, the more vengeant and partisan.

What Schmitt leaves not altogether clear, however, is the nature of his opposition to universalist claims in politics. Leo Strauss, in his contemporary reading of Schmitt, saw this ambiguity as the primary unsolved problem of Schmitt's thought. Schmitt's essay, Strauss noted, was so tinged throughout with the polemical that one might say his thesis was a fundamentally polemical one - he was in a more or less open struggle against the liberalization, which is to say the annihilation, of politics. And therein, in the fact of the polemic, lies the ambiguity, and its possible solution, of his critique's raison d'être. Indeed, it is not entirely clear wherein lies the root and reason of the critique: on the one hand, it might be read as the attempt to save liberalism from its own inherent fragility, to save it from itself, as it were (in getting it to recognize its own enemies). On the other hand, his critique's polemical edge seems to thrust not only toward the form of liberalism but toward its evisceration, toward the condtradiction of the very desirability of its content. For if liberal universalism is nothing but a doomed illusion and true politics is bound to triumph, then why the polemic? Schmitt must have had a deeper reason, and a reason to oppose actively the attempt to bring about the "end of politics".

In this latter reading of Schmitt, one might hear echoes of the reactionary distaste for mass man and his arrangement of society according to the principles of material need and the consequent negation of the beautiful particularities of nations. In the former, one finds a practical, "valueless" strategy for the fortification of no matter what political system, including, potentially, any such as liberalism or Marxism, which carry with them a universalizing rhetorical justification.

One might find support for the first, "practical" reading in Schmitt's description of what he calls "moments of political clarity", when a political group has clearly discerned its mortal enemy and resultantly triumphed or saved itself from destruction. Schmitt chooses as a prime example of this clarity Lenin's recognition of the Bourgeoisie as the absolute enemy of the proletarian Movement, and of the Bourgeois State as that of the Bolshevik Revolutionary one. In this example, the radicalized Proletariat recognizes that its survival as such, that is, as the new incarnation and future of Universal Humanity, is dependent on the annihilation of the Class Enemy.

In this case, Schmitt might be seen to be calling upon any political system with any potential ideological content to recognize the immutable fact of the political if it is to survive. However this reading of Schmitt does not account for his polemical anti-universalism, and indeed cannot account for it without resorting to discounting it as the irrelevant and unphilosophic prejudice of a hopelessly reactionary man, in the same manner one might discount his anti-Semitism. The second reading, the one in which Schmitt's anti-universalism is no mean part of his thought but rather an integral one, is the deeper reading and, I maintain, the only possible grounds for a cogent critique of current U.S. foreign policy theory.

And so the question remains: ought universalism be opposed on the basis of its impossibility, or of its undesirability? The tentative solution: Universalism is undesirable because it is impossible. The Political, that is to say the irreducibly communal and oppositional nature of the human animal - the political animal - is here to stay, an unmovable, immutable feature of human relations. Any "political" program that ignores this given is bound to build an edifice more dangerous than the eternal potential enmity of old - the construction that dissimulates the political is bound to see its vengeful resurgence. Politics is interminable; its rejection is only its concealment. Thus, a truly universal program is impossible. There is only the possibility that a polity will disguise and justify its struggle against its enemies with a universalist rhetoric. The most dangerous type of man or political entity is one that claims to represent and act in the name of Univeral Humanity. For he must, of course, if he is to survive, recognize the fact of the political, and thus, like Lenin, recognize the Enemy for what he is. Only in this case, what he is is no longer the simple, symmetrical, existential enemy of the polity in its particularity, but rather the asymmetrical Enemy of Universal Humanity. As such he is - as its Enemy - by definition no longer a part of that Humanity, that is, no longer human. As such, he is fit only for annihilation. In Schmitt politics becomes objective only when the eternal possibility of national war is recognized. In this scenario, one can recognize one's enemy without morally despising him - he is your enemy, the enemy of your polity to which your existence and your identity are tied, but he is still a human being; after he has been defeated and one's way of life is no longer in mortal peril, one can retire back behind one's borders. But once one universalizes one's position, there is no natural limit to the aggression and the negation of the Other - it is, by definition, global, universal; notions of sovereignty, symmetry, and civility, in losing their grounding, cease to exist.

And so we have seen two possible readings of Schmitt, which I will call the "tough" reading and the "deep" reading, respectively - this because the one councils a certain toughness in the defense of one's political system, the determination of which is value free, while the other cautions against the exceptional brutality resulting inevitably from the ideological denial of the political as an immutable fact. The first might even be read as a passive exhortation to what the second implicitly condemns.

Now the latter reading, the "deep" as opposed to the "tough" reading I present as a cogent critique of U.S. foreign policy since around January 2002. I use this date and not September 11, 2001 because one could read the Afghanistan war in several lights. As a New Yorker who witnessed an act of appalling aggression against a sovereign state, I have chosen to read that war as the direct act of self-defense, the limited and discrete defense of one's own that Schmitt - the "deep", valuing Schmitt - would have recognized. I recognize that my good faith distinction of this war from the ideological one directly to follow is probably naïve, but from January 2002 a distinct change in the theory driving American defense policy became manifest - particularly in the rhetorical justifications given for the course from then on taken. The so-called "War on Terror" - an oxymoron if I ever heard one - not unlike Wilson's "war to end all wars" or Johnson's "destroying a village to save it" - became, especially in the Iraq case, a war having as little to do with the defense of the American people as the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Afghanistan had to do with that of the Russian people. It became, just as in the case of the Leninist state, a war against the Enemies of Universal Humanity, in which all claims to sovereignty, symmetry and civility pale in the shadow of this infinitely large, important and therefore unassailable end.

Yet finally there is a sense in which the two readings of Schmitt collapse in upon each other as aspects of one. If one accepts that man has an unchangeably political nature and that politics are not only bound to resurface but will do so all the more destructively and dangerously when that nature is dissimulated, the only question remains in what direction that force will erupt. The eruption will be either inwardly directed, as in the case of the "weak" and at bottom naïvely liberal structure that is brought down by its failure or refusal to recognize its enemies through its refusal to recognize the fact of enmity (as in the case of the Weimar state, with internal enemies, or the III Republic, with external), or it will be outwardly directed, as in the case of "tough", and at bottom fanatical, universalism's recognition and consequent "universal negation" and dehumanisation of its enemies. This would be the case with both Lenin's Bolsheviks at the Politburo or Richard Pearle's hawks at the American Enterprise Institute or Paul Wolfowitz's in the Defense Department.

The "Schmittean" readings known to me of the National Security Strategy of the United States read the text as a robust application of the "tough" reading of Schmitt - liberalism's muscular and Hobbesian recognition of its mortal enemies, and its consequent abandonment of liberal principles in the defense of those principles and the pursuit of those enemies. In whichever Schmittean analysis of the War on Terror, Wolfowitz finds himself in the same boat as Lenin. They are, in Heidegger's words, metaphysically the same. However the "tough", more superficial, and "value-free" application of Schmitt's theory gives us scant basis for a cogent critique of the Neo-conservatives' World Liberal Revolution; on the contrary, it is the reading that the "Neocons" themselves would and do apply to the world situation in defense of their action. I am not claiming the deeper, "polemical" Schmitt is the only possible critique of this global menace, but in making Schmitt's polemic our own, we open up the possibility of turning against itself the very superficial logic of the U.S. Department of Defense.

© John Rogove (NYU/France)

11.1. The Autobiography of the Other: powers of literary transference

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For quotation purposes:
John Rogove (NYU/France): The Other and Its Universal Negation: Two Possible Schmittean Readings of U.S. Foreign Policy. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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