Carl Schmitt, American prophet

Explanations of American national security policy can scarcely be more timely. Events in Iraq, Libya, and Syria invite reflection on the propriety of US interventions abroad. Both the Bush administration’s domestic wiretapping program as well as the Obama administration’s “targeted killing” of American citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki have reflected an expanded executive authority that has drawn criticism. As the country faces new challenges—Iran, Pakistan, China—contemplating the future of its national security policy demands an unambiguous understanding of its recent past.

Ironically, it was a twentieth-century German jurist, Carl Schmitt, who best anticipated the structure of American national security policy as it developed over the past decade. Given his background, this may sound implausible at first. Schmitt was born in the Rhineland in 1888 and later established himself in the 1920s with hard-hitting attacks on political liberalism and ruminations on “political theology.” But he also became infamous under the Nazi regime as an anti-Semite.

Yet Schmitt anticipated America’s ambivalent stances on intervention and executive privilege long in advance. True, Schmitt didn’t directly influence American policy. Neither John Yoo nor Harold Koh spent hours poring over esoteric German jurisprudence while developing their legal approaches. But what Schmitt accomplished was to forecast the structure of America’s security challenges today.

Consider the issue of intervention. After Iraq and Libya, one might think that interventions pose novel problems. Not so. Schmitt, who despised the United States as an imperial rival to Germany, criticized American interventions in the Caribbean in the 1920s. Schmitt saw these interventions as a perversion of the Monroe Doctrine. The Doctrine, he wrote, originated as a legitimate defense of democracy against monarchism. Further, it was confined to a specific region of the planet, namely the Western Hemisphere.

But this anti-imperialist tradition became a pan-interventionist ideology. American liberal interventionism corroded the concepts of not only just and unjust wars, but also war and peace. War as declared by states no longer existed. All that remained were “interventions,” “counterinsurgency operations,” or the fulfillment of a “responsibility to protect,” until the entire uncivilized, insurgent world was pacified. That, Schmitt warned, might take a while.

Or consider the issue of executive power. Schmitt wrote not only on international law but also on what he called “states of exception.” Emergencies or crises, like 9/11, inevitably occurred at times in the lives of constitutional states. But constitutions were often vague about how, when, and by whom normal procedures were suspended in such emergencies. This gave executives, like the German chancellor or the American president, leeway to determine the scope and duration of emergency powers needed to resolve, and eventually end, the so-called state of exception.

Schmitt remained fascinated by these situations, less because of a predilection for authoritarianism than because they described how governance actually worked. As the liberal interventionist tradition eroded clear lines between war and peace, executives sought to perpetuate the privileges of exceptional situations, even if other organs of government acted as if the normal rules still applied. This, and not an idealized “separation of powers,” was how governance actually worked, even in democratic, constitutional states.

Schmitt criticized American policy from such a despicable position—anti-American, anti-Semitic, illiberal, Nazi—that it is hard to appreciate his prescience. People rarely pair Samantha Power and Paul Wolfowitz as intellectual bedfellows, for example. But both embody Schmitt’s worst nightmares about the emergence of an American pan-interventionist ideology. And when Americans voted for “change” four years ago, many expected the reversal of despised Bush administration counterterrorism policies. But the present administration’s policies have disappointed. Its policies of killing Americans abroad without judicial supervision, re-affirmed last week by Attorney General Eric Holder, and its use of signing statements, justified by what Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan has called a “multi-generational” campaign, fulfill Schmitt’s auguries about states of exception.

More specifically, Schmitt is worthy of attention because he anticipated these changes as structural rather than situational. Liberals have criticized Obama as a crypto-fascist for the signing statements attached to the recent defense spending bill, and frequently criticize the “targeted killings” policy. Ron Paul supporters wish to deliver America to a chimerical world of “constitutional” governance where the country would always declare war and seldom intervene. These and other groups like the Tea Party that argue that a different president could reform systemic tendencies are naïve. Still, their shared anxiety across ideological lines reflects a common discontent with the hypertrophied Wilsonianism that Schmitt prophesied and that our national security policy today embodies. No matter who governs, it seems, we have dynamic presidents and interventions.

The good news is that the United States is not the National Socialist dystopia some groups fear. Ironically, however, appreciating what a Nazi diagnosed in America can help achieve clarity about why Americans of different political persuasions feel uneasy about changes to American governance. The next president’s responses to specific crises will prove crucial, of course. But his real challenge will be to explain to the American people why this increasingly unpopular mix of executive authority and liberal interventionism that Schmitt foresaw so characterizes the country’s national security policy today, and whether this is even desirable at all.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email