Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum, translated and annotated by G. L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, 2003), 372 pages, $59.95
December 15, 2003
by Paul Gottfried
This recent, ambitious translation of The Nomos of the Earth, a work first published in 1950 by the great European legal thinker Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), turns out to be especially timely given the present situation in international affairs. Both the translation and the accompanying commentary are by Schmitt’s Anglophone disciple Gary L. Ulmen, who obviously labored over his task. The volume supplies a lucid translation of Schmitt’s elegant German prose, clarification of concepts, a glossary of foreign terms, and a careful explanation of the Latin legal phrases.
Despite Schmitt’s scholarly reputation in Europe and the fact that this English translation has received praise from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, it is almost impossible (speaking as the author of an intellectual biography of Schmitt) to get Americans interested in his ideas. This may be due partly to Schmitt’s decision to join the Nazi Party after Hitler’s ascent to power. Yet the simple opportunism of Schmitt’s initial decision, and his contempt for biological racism, were both apparent from 1933 on, and by 1934 Schmitt fell into disfavor with the Nazi government, which kept him under SS surveillance.
More to the point, Schmitt had little use for liberal constitutional regimes, which he thought had and would continue to give way to chaos or dictatorship. In fact, he believed that “democracy” went hand-in-hand with plebiscitary rule, and that twentieth-century parliamentary debates and party organizations were mere remnants of nineteenth-century liberalism.
Although I accept Schmitt’s substantive distinction between nineteenth-century bourgeois liberalism and twentieth-century democracy, I do question whether pre-democratic liberals were as politically ineffective as he suggests. (Schmitt may have overgeneneralized from the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic, which he ascribed to the legislative features of its constitution.) It may be asked, for instance, whether European liberal statesmen of the nineteenth century were not far stronger nationalists than modern democrats, who treat nation-states as relics and who prefer to fuss over universalistic human rights. Schmitt assumed incorrectly that egalitarian ideals travel best with nationalistic and communal ideologies. In our own time, to the contrary, we see democratic ideals linked to often abstract global identities. Moreover, it was European national liberals in the nineteenth century, such as Francois Guizot, Camilio Cavour, and Lord Palmerston, who built powerful states even as they accepted limits on what those states could do to change civil society.
What is undoubtedly galling to Schmitt’s American readers, and was brought up by his hostile critic Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books (May 15, 1997), was Schmitt’s disdain for American political culture. The U.S. military occupants of Germany kept him in custody, as a possible war criminal, for more than a year. Although his investigators observed that there was “nothing in his career to de-Nazify,” Schmitt’s postwar correspondence and political commentaries show that he was miffed (another word comes more easily to mind) by his treatment. Schmitt presented the United States as a government that wielded great power but could never rise above being a soulless empire. Like much of the European Old Right, including the anti-Nazi Right, the aging German jurist could never overcome his revulsion for the rising transatlantic giant, which he nonetheless hoped might be persuaded to confine its activities to the Western hemisphere.
Despite this tick—which Ulmen, a pro-New Deal American nationalist, might downplay—Schmitt, in The Nomos of the Earth, throws light on our contemporary historical situation. Woven into his work is the premise that the European state system, which had arisen in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, had been broken by the two World Wars and was on its way to extinction. Although personally sympathetic to this order, which he believed had once restricted violence within and among states, Schmitt was convinced that something else would take its place in the postwar period. (Note that his book, though printed in 1950, was composed in large part during the war; still it is not, with due respect to some of Schmitt’s critics, a defense of Hitler’s imperialism.)
Certain developments, Schmitt writes, had put off the inevitable reconfiguration of world politics—for example, World War II and the Cold War, which had left Europe at the mercy of the United States and the Soviet Union, two geographically and culturally peripheral powers. Nonetheless, Schmitt believed that in the long run, European states would be pulled into a polycentric international structure, a point that is made with particular force in the appendix to Nomos published in the late 1950s. Europe would survive as one of these “territorial spaces [Grossräume]” as an integrated political unit, since it was no longer possible to bring back the old order of nation-states. For Schmitt, this order had rested on certain preconditions, such as the association of European nations with particular territories (whence the Greek nomos, which refers to a distribution as well as an order and law), the establishment of sovereign states that became fused with particular peoples, and the treatment of power as a legal problem rather than as a theological or ideological one.
For Schmitt, the thought of legal scholar de Vitoria—the sixteenth-century Dominican and clerical descendant of Sephardic convertidos—exemplified a secularizing tendency among legal thinkers that coincided with the emergence of the nation-states. This tendency would become even more apparent in the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who worked to extricate political power from the control of ecclesiastical authorities. But it was Vitoria who began defining war, in this case between Spanish soldiers and Amerindians, as a relation between adversaries—as opposed to a struggle between Christians and their enemies. Schmitt believed that the subsequent transformation from an ethical standard of bellum justum (just war) to one of struggle against a hostem justum (an appropriate enemy) marked a critical stage in the taming of international tensions. By the eighteenth century, war in Europe would be understood not as a lofty moral crusade, as it had been in the age of religious wars, but as a violent dispute that was open to diplomatic negotiation. War was thereby stripped of ideological passions and relegated to the category of a recurrent nuisance.
What brought back the fury of war, according to Schmitt, was the age of democratic revolutions, particularly the upheavals wrought by the French Revolution and its Marxist sequel. The reattachment of violence to moral passion would result in nastier conflicts than had occurred in the eighteenth century. Moreover, the development of military technology, particularly naval and aerial power, would make the national borders that had existed in the old Europe a thing of the past. The wars of the twentieth century witnessed the fateful combination of rival ideologies and increasingly destructive weapons. The 1950s exemplify this pattern in the bipolar struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which an already battered Europe was reduced to a spacious battlefield.
Reading Schmitt, one finds notions about international relations that crop up in later thinkers, such as the view of politics as the study of relations among nation-states presented in the textbook of Hans Morgenthau, or the polycentric clash of civilizations as conceptualized by Samuel Huntington. These conceptual connections are at least sometimes owing to the fact that the theorists in question, such as Morgenthau and Leo Strauss, were heavily influenced by Schmitt’s thought while students in Germany. Even more important, however, is the fact that Schmitt preceded other thinkers in exploring the implications for international relations of both the former centrality and the later vanishing of the nation state. In addition, beyond brilliant analytic studies, he offered a plausible picture of a post-national world divided into vast spheres of influence. The question is, how well did he predict the structure of power relations in the world we now live in? The answer is, despite his learning and theoretical inventiveness, not well at all. The bipolar division of the Cold War did not give way to a broader distribution of power. The United States went on to win against an economically mismanaged rival and establish a world hegemony that still staggers the mind. Regardless of whether this development is good or bad (and considering the nature of America’s enemies since the 1930s, this outcome is at least arguably less bad than the alternatives that once existed), it seems that Schmitt was far less competent as a futurologist than he was as a legal historian.
Despite this shortcoming, Nomos of the Earth is a political classic of our civilization, and we are indebted to Professor Ulmen for making it available and intelligible to Anglophone readers. Nonetheless, its author was a man of his time. In his shortsightedness, he calls to mind the Greek civic leaders at the beginning of the second century B.C., described by Polybius, who failed to grasp the magnitude of Rome’s rising power. They pretended that Rome was no more than a regional contender for territories, to be played off against the Illyrians and Macedonians. When the magnitude of Roman dynasteia became apparent, some Greeks capitulated and others went down in fruitless revolt. Despite his truckling to Roman patrons, Polybius showed intellectual integrity in setting out to investigate the cause of Rome’s success. America’s critics abroad would do well to follow his example.
Paul Gottfried is professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and the author of After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton).
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