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Liberalism as a Political Ideologyin U.S. Foreign Policy

Though different enemies have come and gone, the ideological underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy have remained fairly consistent from the Vietnam War to the present War in Iraq. The goal of this foreign policy has been to defend liberal democracy against its opponents, but this goal has been undermined both in Vietnam and in Iraq by the neoconservative belief that the aspiration to democracy is universal because everyone is interested in freedom. This argument neglects the fact that the U.S. is not promoting democracy per se, but a particular form of democracy dominated by liberal principles of government. Because liberal democracy consists of a set of procedures like elections and legislative decision-making, neoconservatives assume that it is a universal and rational form of government that can be implemented anywhere and anytime in order to create human freedom. But procedures such as elections and legislatures are not in fact a part of a universal aspiration toward freedom but make up a set of specific traditions and rituals. The establishment of liberal democracy consequently is not simply a matter of allowing a natural development to occur in the absence of violence, but consists in the establishment of a certain form of political representation and liberal procedures.

Carl Schmitt highlights the representational challenges of establishing liberal democracy in his critique of liberalism’s claim to have superseded processes of representation inherited from monarchical political forms. Because ultimate values cannot be created through violence nor argued for logically, the establishment of any kind of political authority cannot occur through persuasion and arguments but must be based on “an ethos of belief” that is for Schmitt the final ground of all authority and all politics. [1] In order to understand how this ethos of belief develops, Schmitt describes representation and identity as the two basic formative forces that determine the character of a political entity. When he notes that a state cannot exist without representation, it is not because a state must delegate responsibilities, but because it cannot exist only as a mechanism. It must have a particular form that is established through an aesthetic representation of the political entity: “There is therefore no state without representation because there can be no state without a state form, and the presentation of the political unity is an essential part of the form.” [2] This representational quality of political entities explains the political significance of entities such as the Catholic Church, which are not states but attain their political meaning based on their representational effects in society.

Aesthetic representation in politics is not just a case of a manipulation of the masses, and his idea of representation is not an example of what Benjamin calls an aestheticization of politics. [3] He notes for instance that a republic, even as it criticizes the representational aspect of monarchy, needs to establish a new representational ethos in order to gain legitimacy: “Already in the seventeenth century, the republican-democratic vertu opposed the governmental state’s principle as a polemical counterconcept against honor, seeking to disqualify the representative quality of honor and to expose representation itself as mere ‘theater,’ while republican-democratic vertu set the homogeneous people’s democratic and self-identical presence against the representation of the prince and his court. At the same time, however, one also made use of the specific ethos of the properly norm-setting legislative state, with its just law, its wise and incorruptible législateur, and its always good and just volonté générale.” [4] This account focuses on the cultural transformation from a pathos of honor of a representational cultural strategy to an attempt to delegitimize the representational quality of power by means of the ideal of vertu, supported by an image of self-identical presence leading to a legislative ethos. Though he is talking about a political evolution from one state system to another, the motivating forces that enable this evolution are cultural, having to do not only with the specific cultural symbols dominant in the two systems but also with the aesthetic strategies involved—self-conscious representation on the one hand and the image of self-identical presence on the other. In fact, Schmitt’s implicit critique of the new legislative state is based on his sarcastic references to the justice of law, the wisdom of legislators, and the goodness and justice of the General Will. The justice, wisdom, and goodness of these elements of the new legislative state are for him not objective properties but part of the way they are represented in order to maintain their legitimacy. The representational aspects of these political transformations are not merely background or accompaniments but are in fact motivating and fundamental. As opposed to the story of an increasing rationalization in the move from monarchy to democracy, Schmitt sees a replacement of one representational strategy for another. He does not reject this representational aspect of power, but on the contrary criticizes the idea of self-identical presence as an ideological denial of the representational and aesthetic quality of democratic structures. Schmitt considers the justness of laws, the wisdom and incorruptibility of legislators, and the goodness of the general will to be representations that are established to legitimize republican state authority in the same way that glory and honor did the same for absolutism. The difference is that while absolutism consciously embraced its representational function, liberal democracy tries to deny the representational basis of its own form of rule.

This argument for the primacy of representation in establishing a new governmental system is not an argument against democracy, however. The role of the people in a democratic government as recipients of the representation is crucial. For in complementary opposition to the principle of representation, Schmitt isolates another tendency toward “identity” that is grounded in the people and that maintains a defining influence on the possibilities of representation. “In the same way, there can be no state without structural elements of the principle of identity. The formal principle of representation can never be established purely and absolutely, i.e., in ignorance of the always in some way present and existing people. This would be in any case impossible because there can be no representation without a public and no public without a people.” [5] The reception moment of representation requires there to be real people, who for Schmitt place a constraint on the possibilities of representation, even in an absolute monarchy.

The dialectical relationship between the decision of the sovereign and the identity of the people establishes an intimate link between authority and popular opinion, and the interaction of both is what results in political power. In practice, the immediate expression of popular will can only come about through an “acclamation” that cannot have a creative effect but can only be an affirmation or a rejection of some previously proposed action or structure. “The natural form for directly expressing the will of a people is the affirming or rejecting shout of the collected crowd, the acclamation. In large, modern states the acclamation, which is the natural and necessary vital expression of every people, has changed its form. Here it expresses itself as ‘public opinion’ (see below). But in general the people can only ever say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, approve or reject, and its ‘yes’ or ‘no’ becomes more simple and more elementary the more it is a matter of a fundamental decision about its own collective existence.” [6] Because the popular will can only be expressed as a “Yes” or a “No,” this will is dependent upon the authority of some agent in order to constitute itself as a specific structure. But while the popular will is dependent on this agent to make the decision necessary to establish a political order, this decision in turn can only be effective if (1) the people already exists as a political entity and (2) the people accept the authority of that agent to determine the type and form of the people’s political existence.

The interaction of representation and identity establishes the homogeneity that is the prerequisite for a particular state to exist. This idea of homogeneity is often criticized as a form of repression, but in fact Schmitt is pointing only to the fact that every state will have to have one crucial ideological point that will become the determiner of friends and enemies. On other measures of identity, the state can then relax. Against Schmitt, the liberal position often claims that it is not a positive ideology but just a mechanism for allowing all ideologies (and thus heterogeneity). But if liberalism is willing to allow a plurality of religions or ethnic identities, it is not willing to allow different political systems that would contradict liberal principles. For the U.S., the ideology enshrined in the Bill of Rights amounts to a measure of friends and enemies both domestically and in terms of foreign policy. Because of its specific history, liberal democracy in the U.S. has become the entire basis of its population’s political homogeneity to the extent that, should liberal principles somehow be subverted, the U.S. would surely disintegrate. In this respect, the U.S. is perhaps unique in its total dependence on liberalism for its identity and its inability to fall back on ethnic identity as an alternative basis of political identity. The consequent total commitment on the part of the U.S. to liberal ideals perhaps accounts for the vehemence with which it promotes these ideals in the rest of the world.

This is not to criticize this ideology but to recognize it for what it is and understand that, when the U.S. engages in Iraq with a neoconservative goal of establishing liberal democracy, it needs to understand the liberal policies that it is trying to set up as a particular ideology. Francis Fukuyama has recently pointed out the naïveté of the neoconservative approach by pointing out that “The [Iraq] war’s supporters seemed to think that democracy was a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform.” [7] But even more than building institutions, liberal democracy must enter with both a set of personalities who can establish liberal ideology’s representational authority and corresponding elements of Iraqi identity that would make it possible for Iraqis to fight and die themselves to defend this authority. Unfortunately, for such a project to be successful, the U.S. would have to rely on both local figures to create the requisite authority and a structure of identity that already is conducive to the establishment of liberal institutions. As Colin Gray notes, the likelihood that a foreign occupier can accomplish such a feat through a military occupation in the face of local resistance is virtually nil. “It would be inappropriate for the U.S. superpower to commit a large fraction of its armed forces, its Army in particular, to COIN duties. That activity can be performed successfully only by those who truly have the benefit of local knowledge and who intend not merely ‘to stay the course,’ but literally to stay. Americans can help (as well as sometimes hinder). But history and common sense both tell us that, inevitably, the more active American soldiers are in providing security for local clients, the more they undermine the political legitimacy of those clients.” [8]

This pessimistic assessment of U.S. possibilities for foreign intervention is probably entirely correct for the situation of the U.S. presence in Vietnam in the 1960s. Both the ability of Ho Chi Minh to assume the mantle of a Vietnamese national liberator and the corruption and lack of popular support for the Republic of Vietnam doomed any U.S. nation-building projects there to abject failure. In Iraq today the situation is perhaps not as dire, partly because the U.S. does not have to contend with external intervention as powerful as that coming from China and the Soviet Union in the Vietnam War and partly because there is as yet no clear authority in Iraq with the legitimacy to unite all Iraqis against the U.S. and its allies. But the U.S. can only succeed if it is able to adjust its goals away from building a liberal democracy from the ground up and toward a more limited goal of preventing external powers such as Al Qaida and Iran from unduly influencing the consolidation of Iraqi self-rule in a form that may or may not match up with liberal conceptions.

There are several reasons for why the U.S. ahs been unable to duplicate in Iraq the success it had in occupying and rebuilding Germany after World War II. The situation in Germany was different to the extent that the U.S. forces could immediately ally themselves with liberal democratic as well as anti-communist elements in German society. [9] The homogeneity of post-war German society that resulted from the continuing unifying force of German nationalism, and which was further solidified by the Nazi persecution and eradication of perceived enemies, reduced the likelihood of sectarian conflicts within West Germany. [10] Moreover, the communist threat posed by the Russians was especially helpful in preventing resistance to the American occupation because it deflected anti-occupation sentiment away from the U.S. [11] The threat of communism created a common ideological agenda that mitigated open conflict between Nazis and the proponents of liberal democracy.

But these situational differences were only part of the story. The most important reasons for U.S. failures in Iraq as opposed to West Germany have to with the blunders that the U.S. made as a result of their inability and unwillingness to understand and engage with the cultural situation into which they were entering in Iraq. When the U.S. forces first entered Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein from power many Iraqis who later joined the insurgency “adopted a wait and see attitude; that is to say, they wanted to see whether the Americans were going to be liberators or occupiers.” [12] But the initial actions of the U.S. forces against the Sunnis who were the most nationalist elements of Iraqi society quickly turned the Sunnis against the U.S. A key example here is the contrast between the U.S. treatment of the Nazis in post-war Germany and their treatment of the Sunnis in post-war Iraq. Only the highest level Nazis were prosecuted and punished after the war, while many lower level functionaries as well as the mass of former Nazi party members were left alone and sometimes even remained in administrative positions after the war as judges, government bureaucrats, and university professors. [13] By contrast, the policy in Iraq was not just to purge Baathists but to remove Sunnis in general from the positions they had before the occupation. Given the 80-year history of Sunni domination of administrative positions in Iraq, the purging of Sunnis from power was not just a move against Saddam Hussein, but, from the point of view of the Sunnis, who constitute about 20% of the Iraqi population, a disenfranchisement of their entire group. [14] The practical social and economic effect was to overturn at a stroke established hierarchies and institutions. While the specifically Sunni grievances in this regard could not be avoided because they would be bound to lose the power and influence they previously enjoyed once they were no longer a privileged group in Iraqi society, the U.S. exacerbated their humiliation and loss of status by dissolving national institutions such as the Iraqi army with which they identified. Because the army had a longer history as a symbol and institution of Iraqi national identity and was not simply a creation of Saddam Hussein, many Iraqis perceived its disbanding as a U.S. assault on Iraqi identity. [15]

Just as the transition to post-apartheid South Africa could not have proceeded peacefully without maintaining the stability of South African institutions in which whites had dominant positions, the transition in Iraq to a new situation in which Sunnis were no longer guaranteed their positions could only be peaceful if certain existing institutions were maintained. As it was, the Sunnis felt disenfranchised and the effect has been that “the insurgency has been the Sunni Arab means of political participation.” [16] In fact, the Sunni resort to political violence has been a result of their intuitive insight into the problem of liberal democracy that Schmitt describes in Legality and Legitimacy. As he outlines, in a situation where political homogeneity has broken down, such as an Iraq that is divided by antagonisms between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, a formation of a parliamentary majority will simply mean the tyranny of the majority over the minority.

The only ways to avoid such a tyranny and the resulting threat of civil war would be to either influence political identity to create homogeneity, based for example on Iraqi nationalism, or to settle for a federalist division of Iraq into relatively autonomous regions. The U.S. solution, however, was to dismantle the nationalist institutions that were the only previous basis of nationalist sentiment and unity, however compromised they might have been by Saddam Hussein’s rule. To the extent that the U.S. dissolved Iraqi national institutions, Sunnis began to perceive the U.S. forces, particularly after the disbanding of the Iraqi army, as the enemy in Iraq. In the wake of this undermining of national institutions and identity, however, the U.S. did not pursue the federalist strategy that remained but instead tried to set up a new centralized government, which would inevitably be dominated by the Shia majority in Iraq. Thus, by destroying the only institutions that promoted a nationalist political identity and at the same time installing a centralized liberal democracy that was fated to be ruled by one majority group against a previously privileged minority, the U.S. set up, according to the logic that Schmitt describes, the conditions for the descent into civil war.

The primary reason for this contradictory policy was the U.S. failure to understand, first, that liberal democracy requires political homogeneity in order to function properly and, second, that liberal democracy is not a naturally occurring phenomenon that immediately sets in when an authoritarian ruler is removed. Instead, the establishment of liberal democracy also requires the development of a certain political identity that would support the authority of liberalism as a representation of that identity against, in the case of Iraq, alternative representations of identity based on national belonging, religious belief, or tribal affiliation.

On this point, the success of the 2007 U.S. military surge is instructive because, as the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, [17] this success has not been due so much to an increase in military force as a transformation in strategy away from the use of force and toward the reliance on existing local tribal and religious institutions as the basis of security and order. Instead of defending themselves and government officials within fortified areas, soldiers have been deployed in the surge in order to make agreements with existing sheiks and clerics using local procedures and rituals with the goal of fighting against foreign radical Islamists. The success of this strategy can perhaps indicate a direction away from the forceful establishment of liberal structures and toward a new respect for existing local traditions and institutions.


1. Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, trans. G. L. Ulmen (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1996), p. 17.
2. “Es gibt also keinen Staat ohne Repräsentation, weil es keinen Staat ohne Staatsform gibt und zur Form wesentlich Darstellung der politischen Einheit gehört.” Carl Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, p. 207.
3. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 242.
4. Carl Schmitt, Legality and Legitimacy, trans. and ed. Jeffrey Seitzer (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004), 7.
5. “In gleicher Weise gibt es keinen Staat ohne Strukturelemente des Prinzips der Identität. Das Formprinzip der Repräsentation kann niemals rein und absolut, d. h. unter Ignorierung des immer irgendwie vorhandenen und anwesenden Volkes durchgeführt werden. Das ist schon deshalb unmöglich, weil es keine Repräsentation ohne Öffentlichkeit, keine Öffentlichkeit ohne Volk gibt.” Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, p. 208.
6. “Die natürliche Form der unmittelbaren Willensäußerung eines Volkes ist der zustimmende oder ablehnende Zuruf der versammelten Menge, die Akklamation. In modernen Großstaaten hat die Akklamation, die eine natürliche und notwendige Lebensäußerung jedes | Volkes ist, ihre Gestalt verändert. Hier äußert sie sich als ‘öffentliche Meinung’ (unten #18, S. 246). Immer aber kann das Volk im allgemeinen nur Ja oder Nein sagen, zustimmen oder ablehnen, und sein Ja oder Nein wird um so einfacher und elementarer, je mehr es sich um eine fundamentale Entscheidung über die eigene Gesamtexistenz handelt.” Schmitt, Verfassungslehre, pp. 83–84.
7. Francis Fukuyama, “After Neoconservatism,” New York Times Magazine, February 19, 2006, p. 65.
8. Colin S. Gray, Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt? (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, March 2006), p. 11.
9. Anne Sa’adah, “Regime Change: Lessons from Germany on Justice, Institution Building, and Democracy,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50:3 (June 2006): 313–14.
10. Ibid., pp. 308–9.
11. Ibid., p. 312. Richard L. Merritt, “American Influences in the Occupation of Germany,” Annals of the American Academy 428 (November 1976): 96.
12. Ahmed S. Hashim, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006), p. 19.
13. Sa’adah, “Regime Change,” pp. 314–15.
14. Hashim, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, pp. 78–81.
15. Ibid., p. 74.
17. Greg Jaffe, “Midlevel Officers Show Enterprise, Helping U.S. Reduce Violence in Iraq,” The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2007, p. A1.

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