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Carl Schmitt and Barack Obama on Political Identity in a Multi-polar World

Though his defense of National Socialism has earned him the reputation of being an ideologue, the most striking aspect of Carl Schmitt’s political career is the changeable nature of his political loyalties, in which he defended both Roman Catholicism and then the Weimar Republic before he came to ally himself with the Nazis. If a certain amount of opportunism may have also played a part in his decision-making, his promiscuity also testifies to a basic agnosticism in his political beliefs that is grounded in his theoretical approach to the notion of culture. Because this approach begins with a Nietzschean delegitimation of value systems with a universal and preordained claim to truth, Schmitt’s thinking develops as an attempt to understand politics in a multicultural world. His theories of decisionism and representation presume a world in which diverse value systems compete in order to establish the metaphysical foundations for order in a given time and place.

As such, Schmitt’s theories provide a starting point for discussing the most difficult situations that are now facing U.S. foreign policy. If dictatorships in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq present at least the possibility of a popular revolt that would play into the hands of American wishes, differences become more intractable with nations in which anti-liberal policies are not carried out simply by tyrants and dictators, but have become established on the basis of a substantial popular mandate. The prolonged character of conflicts in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iran is rooted in the extent to which ideological differences are driven, not simply by a ruling authority, but by popular attitudes. The primary strength of Schmitt’s approach lies in its ability to explain the representational dynamics by which a particular ideology might establish itself as part of a broader worldview within popular consciousness.

Schmitt’s decisionism is consequently not simply an argument about sovereign power. The decision of the sovereign is not just a command, but must be taken as part of a representational dynamic in which the decision sums up a view of the past that can establish itself within the popular imagination. Though Schmitt does not always refer to the representational character of the decision, his description of how the state of exception leads to the decision contains both the idea of an unpredictability of outcome and the notion of incipient order that are the two key characteristics of aesthetic experience. When Schmitt insists on the priority of the decision over the rule, he rejects a positivist approach to law that would ground law in the certainty of pre-established norms. In declaring that “the exception is more interesting than the rule” (Political Theology 15), Schmitt privileges the situation of uncertainty that arises in a state of emergency. “The precise details of an emergency cannot be anticipated, nor can one spell out what may take place in such a case, especially when it is truly a matter of an extreme emergency and of how it is to be eliminated” (Political Theology 6–7). By taking the exception to be the defining situation, Schmitt establishes uncertainty as a prerequisite for the decision. There would be no need for a decision if there were certainty, and Schmitt’s description indicates that the decision does not follow a pre-ordained script. Rather, “the decision frees itself from all normative ties and becomes in the true sense absolute” (Political Theology 12). For Schmitt, norms cannot apply to the emergency situation, and the uncertainty of this situation requires the positing of a direction that manifests itself in the decision.

In establishing order within a context of uncertainty, the decision does not simply impose an arbitrary command, however. Since the sovereign for Schmitt “decides on the exception” (5), the decision is a determination about when there is a state of exception and, by extension, what the normal state might be. But because the decision is not identical with its execution and still needs people aside from the sovereign to carry it out, the decision must provide a representationally convincing vision of what the normal order is. This representational component of the decision means that it has an aesthetic structure in both a production-aesthetic and a reception-aesthetic sense.

In terms of artistic production, the decision functions as a creative act in the sense that the successful creation of an artist is not an arbitrary and idiosyncratic work but one which sums up experience in such a way that it has communal validity. The applicability of an aesthetic model for the Schmittian political decision becomes clear when we compare Schmitt’s thinking to John Dewey’s ideas on aesthetic experience. For the latter, art is only possible in specific contexts that include both uncertainty and a limited amount of order. He writes that “there are two sorts of possible worlds in which aesthetic experience would not occur. In a world of mere flux, change would not be cumulative; it would not move toward a close. Stability and rest would have no being. Equally is it true, however, that a world that is finished, ended, would have no traits of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution” (Dewey 16–17). An aesthetic resolution can only result when there is a situation of uncertainty that still offers elements of order.

We have already seen how Schmitt imbeds the decision in a state of exception that is characterized by uncertainty. The link to aesthetic experience is finally established, however, once it becomes clear that the state of exception is not totally chaotic, but includes a limited amount of order as well. As Schmitt states, “because the exception is different from anarchy and chaos, order in the juristic sense still prevails even if it is not of the ordinary kind” (Political Theology 12). By characterizing the exception as a situation of uncertainty that nevertheless includes a degree of order that prevents total chaos, Schmitt sets up all the preconditions for the possibility of an aesthetic experience that could collect elements of an uncertain order into a decision that would be their fulfillment. The sovereign decision is consequently not just an arbitrary command, but a creative act in which an aesthetic intuition is the source of the insight that manifests itself in the decision.

But if the decision that resolves the state of exception really is a kind of aesthetic resolution according to Dewey’s understanding, this means that the decision is not totally absolute. Instead, it is only absolute to the extent that it decides the state of exception in a non-preordained way. The decision is not absolute in the sense that it might be unprecedented and unconnected with the elements of order that already exist within the state of emergency. Like the aesthetic resolution, the decision must integrate the past into its resolution in such a way that both the present decision and the preceding turmoil are mutually redeemed. On the one hand, the elements of order that pre-existed the decision become the basis for a new order introduced by the decision. On the other hand, the decision only acquires legitimacy through the reference to the elements of past order that it reinforces. The political decision as a creator of meaning involves a representational process whose rhetorical effect does not simply depend on a kind of propagandistic manipulation but on a gathering up of elements of the past into a new order that offers genuine meaning to the recipients by creating a structure for memory.

The central role of the audience in perceiving this meaning brings Schmitt’s conception even closer to Dewey’s aesthetic understanding. Schmitt writes: “Not only do the representative and the person represented require a value, so also does the third party whom they address” (Roman Catholicism 21). This third party, the audience, is as crucial for Schmitt’s decision as it is for Dewey’s concept of art, in which “To be truly artistic, a work must also be aesthetic—that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception” (Dewey 48). As with the work of art, the political decision must be structured so that “its qualities as perceived have controlled the question of production” (Dewey 48). If both the political decision and the work of art are produced with an eye toward their aesthetic reception and this reception depends upon the way in which the decision and the work of art are able to gather up elements of audience experience into a culminating experience of meaning, then both art and politics exist within a single sphere in which the common measure of success lies in the event’s ability to create meaning through an aesthetic experience. When this aesthetic experience of fulfillment is achieved, both art and politics establish a meaningful basis for collective life.

Schmitt’s theory of the decision contains an attitude toward metaphysical foundations in which they do not precede the concrete instance or event but are in fact a projection from out of the defining decisions that are taken within the political arena in the face of present crises. The decision establishes a metaphysical foundation for a society through a merging of aesthetic representation and political action. Significantly, this foundation does not pre-exist the decision and in fact only endures until the next crisis that leads to a new decision. Each such decision establishes a new beginning out of which a basis for meaning then emanates outward both into the past as a reinterpretation of remembered events in terms of the decision and into the future as a guideline for subsequent actions. The only guarantor of this aesthetic process, however, is the combination of a sovereign who makes the decision and the popular will that must see in the decision a confirmation of its own self-understanding. Though this self-understanding will be in large part determined by an extended tradition of decision-making and interpretation of events from the past that goes into forming the identity of a political entity, the meaning of this identity for the situation at hand is also dependent on the populace’s intuitive understanding of current exigencies, an intuition that can only be expressed, however, in the decision.

While this aesthetic understanding of the political decision attempts to establish an analytical perspective for evaluating the establishment of norms in the decision, it also sets up the decision and its consequent metaphysical stance as based in conflict. One of Schmitt’s fundamental claims is that the reflection on exigencies is primarily a decision about enemies through which one’s own identity is established. If the construction of meaning occurs within a condition of multiple identities, each entailing its own set of metaphysical commitments, every establishment of identity necessitates the suppression of alternatives. Schmitt’s achievement here is to be able to recognize the legitimacy of diverse metaphysical systems, each one establishing itself on the basis of the same aesthetic process of decision and representation.

But the aesthetic understanding of decisionism, because it provides no other measure of legitimacy than the acclamation of the populace, creates the danger of a relativistic willingness to generally affirm the decisions of a popular will. Certainly, Schmitt’s involvement with Nazi Germany underlines how the use of the popular will as the primary source of legitimation can lead to support for an ideological agenda that can devastate the entire world. But though an aesthetic interpretation of the decision sets itself against both the idea that decisions might be made on the basis of a pre-determined metaphysical stance and the idea that decisions are arbitrary commands, such an approach does not necessarily entail the automatic affirmation of the popular will. The insight into the aesthetic mechanisms by which ideologies establish themselves does not constitute either an acceptance or rejection of such ideologies. Instead, it merely provides some indications for how the progress of political events is linked into the parameters of a cultural and historical tradition.

Here, Schmitt echoes Nietzsche in dividing up political ideologies and their accompanying value systems into two broad categories based on their relationship to ideals. On the one hand, Schmitt sees universal ideologies such as Christianity, liberalism, international communism, and perhaps all monotheisms as linked by the extent that they have universalizing aspirations and ideals with which they demonize enemies. Schmitt prefers, on the other hand, ethnically or nationally based ideologies that do not establish universal ideals, but merely local ones that are grounded in a particular group’s specific language, culture, and history, and that treat enemies as structurally similar to themselves and thus not as evil enemies in need of eradication. With the goal of maintaining stability and preventing a descent into total war, Schmitt tries to establish an international politics based on the development of regional blocks, each grounded within its own nationalist or regionalist perspective. Practically speaking, this has meant that Schmitt remains committed to the nation-state as the fundamental political entity and has rejected movements such as communism that undermine a nation-state framework.

How does this vision relate to the current situation of U.S. foreign policy? On the one hand, like Schmitt, the United States has consistently defended the nation-state system for determining the basic units of international politics. Against communism during the Cold War and political Islam today, the United States has engaged in state building projects all over the world in order to establish self-determination based on ethnic identity as the political norm. Barack Obama, continuing this long-standing policy, affirms in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” Because war in this conception is first and foremost a war between nation-states, it can only be justified when the integrity of a state is threatened. To that extent, U.S. foreign policy is consistent with Schmitt’s agnosticism about the contents of a particular value system, so long as it allows itself to be integrated into a nation-state-based global political order.

But Obama’s list of preconditions for a just war does more than establish the nation-state as the basic political unit. He links just war to the adherence to “rules of conduct,” and this adherence “makes us different from those whom we fight.” These rules include on the one hand the rules of war cited above and on the other hand the rights established for people by a liberal constitution. He does not refer to these rights as that which separates the United States from its enemies, that is, as specifically American values. Rather, he contends that liberal rights are universal because they are a universal condition of peace, “that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear.” Whether or not one agrees with this assessment about the preconditions for peace, it is clear that this commitment to a liberal notion of human rights as a universal good is a commitment to a set of universal values. Obama does not defend them as part of a specific set of liberal values but as part of “an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share,” imploring us “to understand that we all basically want the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.” By contrast, he argues that the main danger to this universal aspiration is that “people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities—their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion.”

There is a two-part conception of values that lies at the basis of Obama’s and, in general, the U.S. notion of world order. First, a set of liberal values based on freedom of speech and religion establishes the organizational framework for the legitimacy of a nation-state and its right to represent its people. Within this framework in which all humans are imagined to primarily desire the freedom to live and pursue a personal notion of happiness, there are specific differences in terms of tribal and religious identity that are to remain, however, politically insignificant. That is, U.S. foreign policy defines political identity in terms of adherence to liberal principles, with the goal of an eventual world peace founded on the universal acceptance of these principles and the elimination of alternative notions of political identity. In this sense, liberalism is a substantive and specific ideology that excludes alternative definers of identity, just as Christianity, communism, and Islamic fundamentalism are specific ideologies. Each of these ideologies has its own vision of what should and should not be determining for the structure of a political order. So if liberalism defines tribal and religious ties as the element of difference that is managed within a liberal structure based on freedom of speech and religion, Iran’s Islamicists view such freedoms as a possible but not necessary accoutrement to a theocratic political structure in which processes and hierarchies are determined by Islamic theological considerations. The conflict between these two approaches is a fundamental one about the basic structure of political relationships, and it is on this level of the determination of the “rules of the game” that liberalism functions as a specific ideology.

Obama’s rhetoric clearly tries to deny this specific character of liberalism in order to claim that liberalism is in fact “something irreducible that we all share.” But because the establishment of liberalism involves the suppression of alternative definers of political identity, it must be considered a specific ideology and not an absence of ideology. But though this conclusion undermines the universalist rhetoric of liberalism, it should not be taken as an argument against it. Against both Schmitt’s Weimar-era critique of liberalism as a form of universalism and Obama’s 2009 defense of it as such, we must recognize the specificity of liberalism as a particular vision of order and defend it as such. For it is only with this notion of its specificity that we can appreciate both the fragility of liberalism in its competition with other visions of political identity but also the real triumph involved in its establishment in a particular time and place.

Works Cited

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigee, 1980.

Obama, Barack. “Obama’s Nobel Remarks.” New York Times, December 10, 2009.

Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Schmitt, Carl. Roman Catholicism and Political Form. Trans. G.L. Ulmen. Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1996.

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