Sovereignty and Grand Strategy: Some Observations on the Rise of China and Decline of the Americans

Aaron Zack’s “Sovereignty and Grand Strategy: Some Observations on the Rise of China and Decline of the Americans” appears in Telos 181 (Winter 2017). Read the full article at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue in our online store. Individual subscriptions to Telos are now available in both print and online formats.

The rise and decline of great powers are not solely material in nature but also moral, political, and cultural. Many modern theorists emphasize the material factors in rise and decline, but older political thinkers focused on moral-political explanations. Carl Schmitt defines the essence of the political as the distinction between friend and enemy. A rising sovereign will effectively distinguish between friends and enemies and act in the interest of a political community. A decaying sovereign will gradually lose its capacity to both make a rational distinction between friends and enemies and act in the interest of the (fading) political community. True grand strategy therefore depends upon a robust sovereign—a decayed sovereign faces difficulty in implementing an effective or optimal grand strategy.

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Telos 181 (Winter 2017): War and Civil War

Telos 181 (Winter 2017): War and Civil War is now available for purchase in our store.

Consider the question: has American political life ever been as polarized as it is today? If the most appropriate answer is: yes, of course, in 1861, then the problem has been named and we are left with little comfort. The evaporation of anything like a bipartisan consensus in the political class leaves us staring at a battlefield, with few common bonds or shared attachments. Politics has become the internalization of war by other means. This is our version of the crisis of parliamentary democracy that Schmitt described in the Weimar years. Congressional Democrats are unwilling to cross the aisle to find room for compromise in the Trump era, but this only repeats the animosity among Republicans toward the Obama agenda eight years ago. Each party seeks its own advantage, which exclusively means the other party’s disadvantage, as the national good slips beneath the horizon. Each party focuses on mobilizing its base for votes and fund-raising, which means that each has an irresistible incentive to avoid solving those problems that are the most effective vehicles for rallying their supporters: when they held the majority, the Democrats preferred to keep the “dreamers” vulnerable, so as to be able to recycle them in future campaigns, just as the Republicans chose to punt on health care. Each issue is too successful in attracting voters, too valuable to give up.

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Liberal Democracy and “Other” Democracies

The following paper was presented at the conference “After the End of Revolution: Constitutional Order amid the Crisis of Democracy,” co-organized by the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute and the National Research University Higher School of Economics, September 1–2, 2017, Moscow..

The idea of liberal democracy only makes sense because of a basic contradiction between liberalism and democracy. As a description of a form of government, democracy designates a government by the people, whose decision-making power would not be restricted by any higher authority. The power of democracy derives from its ability to mobilize a majority of the members of a political order for collective goals. This rule by popular will can also entail a freedom from higher authorities, including such entities like monarchs and aristocrats, but also ecclesiastical or moral authorities that would establish basic values for guiding decision-making. Since democracy alone would lack constraints on the popular will, liberalism, as a set of principles that include protection of minorities and freedom of expression, is needed to provide the limitations on democratic decision-making that protect democracy from erratic and changes in the public mood. As such, liberalism sets a limit on democratic power, and the basic contradiction between democracy and liberalism maintains a dynamic equilibrium between popular will and liberal principles that can be stabilizing due to its flexibility.

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Call for Papers: The 2018 Telos Conference in New York

Constitutional Theory as Cultural Problem:
Global Perspectives
January 19–21, 2018
New York, NY

The International Center for Critical Theory and the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute will jointly host a conference entitled “Constitutional Theory as Cultural Problem: Global Perspectives,” to be held at New York University, New York, from January 19–21, 2018.

The challenges faced by the liberal democratic model in the 21st century have made constitutional theory into an urgent topic of global concern. Both the second Iraq War and the revolutions of the Arab Spring frustrated hopes of an easy trajectory toward liberal democratic constitutional orders. If there was the hope that liberation would mean the establishment of liberal democracy, the result has been that emancipation from tyranny does not naturally lead in a particular political direction. Such a conclusion presents fundamental problems for a constitutional theory that is built around a liberal democratic model.

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Populism or National-Populism? A Critical Approach to Cas Mudde's Perspective on SYRIZA's Populism

Cas Mudde’s book on SYRIZA’s “failure of populist promises,” which recently appeared in Greek, lends itself to multiple, successive readings of the current Greek populist experience in a comparative setting. One of the leading political scientists currently researching the populist phenomenon in both its radical-right and radical-left varieties, Mudde combines thorough knowledge of his subject matter’s ideological premises with a thorough analysis of his factual material, namely, the empirical cases he sets out to investigate. Indeed, it is to Mudde that we owe the term “pathological normalcy,” denoting the current form of radical-right populism in Europe. Mudde has used this term to explain the phenomenon of “mainstream thought” radicalization employed by the “populist radical right” with a view to exploiting a social and identitarian malaise that is widespread in several European countries. It is also to Mudde that we owe a number of thought-provoking and, in many respects, pioneering comparative studies (many of them co-authored or co-edited with his fellow political scientist Cristόbal Rovira Kaltwasser) about the differences between European and Latin-American populisms, in which Mudde demonstrates the latter’s rather inclusionary practices as opposed to the former’s rather exclusionary ones. Moreover, we owe him a very insightful discussion of the different outcomes produced when populist political parties come to power.

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Looking Beyond the Westphalian Nation-State: Challenging the Modernist Vision of History with Alternative Political Orders and Worldviews

The emerging exhaustion of the Westphalian paradigm of state sovereignty intimates the profoundly contestable and contingent character of modern, Western claims for a universal model of history. Over several centuries, the state has embodied and enforced foundational postulates, such as the pre-eminence of the individual knowing subject, and the imagined divide between religious and secular realms of existence and authority (with the latter sphere effectively internalizing the sacred import of the former). At present, though, the state’s tenuousness, and yet in key instances fierce tenacity, amidst a world of potent transnational forces, portends the urgency for alternative conceptions of the meaning and arrangement of human life. Contemporary Middle Eastern quandaries are especially illustrative of this predicament: for example, the disintegration (as in Iraq, Syria, Libya) or, then again, coercive retrenchment (viz., Egypt) of state formations and nationalist identities; or, to take another sort of instance, the chimerical prospects for coexistence, or even bare existence, among conflicting national communities, as in Israel/Palestine. Are there political paradigms beyond the Westphalian state that could help to integrate plural traditions in pursuit of less exclusionary, and more just, historical possibilities?

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