In 1989 Jürgen Habermas opined that Carl Schmitt was unlikely to have the same ‘power of contagion in the Anglo-Saxon world’ as had Nietzsche and Heidegger.footnote1 Too deep and unbridgeable was the spiritual gulf that separated the disgraced éminence grise of the ascending Axis power—publicly, at least, a virtual taboo figure within the Federal Republic—from the more liberal climes and political sensibilities of the Anglosphere. Two decades later, such predictions may appear naive. In fact, the trend has been reversed. While the Schmitt reception in German public discourse and in academia—though growing and ever more strident—seems to remain residually tied to certain ethical inhibitions that prevent a full and unqualified embrace of Göring’s former protégé, the Anglo-American Schmitt literature, beyond some notable critical engagements, has generated a less restricted rehabilitation. It either parades an authoritarian and part-time fascist thinker as a precursor and ally of the neo-conservative revolution, re-mobilizing Schmitt’s notion of the state of emergency and his concept of the political; or it reads him as a radical—even critical—voice against a world-historical conjuncture characterized by liberal imperialism that flattens all geopolitical enmities and differences.footnote2 This dual reception has outflanked the Kantian liberal-cosmopolitan mainstream in a pincer movement.

This ongoing Schmitt revival has been punctuated by two world-historical caesurae: the first was Helmut Kohl’s conservative ‘spiritual-moral turn’ plus German reunification; the second, the politics of the post-9.11 Bush presidency. Whereas the first wave of Schmittiana in the 1980s and 1990s was largely restricted to an exploration of his critique of liberalism and parliamentary democracy—and thus confined to domestic political theory and legal studies—this second revival has extended Schmitt’s intellectual reach over the fields of international relations, political philosophy and international legal theory.footnote3 Here as there, Schmitt has been largely de-contextualized and dissociated from his commitment to and complicity with Nazism. Translations, though highly selective, of Schmitt’s voluminous work—most notably the 2003 English edition of Der Nomos der Erde im Völkerrecht des Ius Publicum—have kept pace.footnote4

Schmitt’s double attraction, as a modern classic on the executive state and significant figure against liberal universalism, has prompted a convergence of positions—perhaps in a surprising complexio oppositorum—across the non-liberal political spectrum; if not a convergence of their respective evaluative premises. His critical register presents a common reference point for a shared rejection of an apparently post-political neo-liberal order, expressed in the discourse of globalization, which was abruptly re-politicized after 9.11 in a neo-authoritarian direction, now in the discourse of imperialism and empire. This state of affairs seemed to prove Schmitt doubly right: his trend-line diagnostics of the 20th century as the ‘age of neutralizations and de-politicizations’ could now be conjoined to a near-permanent state of exception—even the exception as the rule—in the conceptualization of the contemporary world-political moment.footnote5 The new constellation comprised a hyper-politicized neo-conservative us administration acting outside the conventional remit of international law, while neutralizing its junior partners across the capitalist zone and externalizing international political opposition from the field of legitimate geopolitics altogether—terrorists, pirates and ‘rogue states’. At the horizon of this apocalyptic vision, sketched by Schmitt, looms a world without a political exterior: Pax Americana. In this context, the Schmittian vocabulary—concept of the political, friend–enemy, state of exception, decisionism, executive government, nomos, pan-regions, pan-interventionism and non-discriminatory concept of war—presents not only an important rediscovery and addition to the mainstream international-relations lexicon, but has become a significant idiom for the social sciences at large, presenting a powerful counter-narrative to conventional imperialist liberalism.footnote6 Carl Schmitt—and no end!

What is the secret behind Carl Schmitt’s contemporaneity and actuality? The argument relies on a broad endorsement of Schmitt’s interpretation of the age of the ius publicum—the body of maxims and praxes of early modern international law that prevailed, roughly, throughout the period from 1492/1648 to World War One—as a functioning system of legal norms, regulating the excesses of inter-state anarchy in a geopolitical pluriverse without erasing the essence of sovereign statehood: the public and sovereign decision to conduct war. This unity of space and law—termed by Schmitt a nomos, in contradistinction to the mediaeval and liberal-capitalist cosmos—revolved around five core categories: the state, as the only legitimate subject of war and peace; secularized and absolute state sovereignty; the executive, as the final arbiter over the state of exception; the idea of iustus hostis, the just enemy; and the associated concept of ‘non-discriminatory war’. According to Schmitt, the monopolization of warfare by states—ius belli ac pacis: the law of war and peace—removed violent conflict from the ideological struggles of ‘civil society’ and re-concentrated organized violence at the level of the state. This arrogation of the monopoly of violence by absolutist states formalized a double distinction: firstly, that between public and private, de-legitimizing and de-militarizing private actors (lords, cities, estates, pirates, military orders) while elevating the public state as the only subject of international law and politics; and secondly, between inside and outside, separating a domestically neutralized and pacified ‘civil society’ from an international sphere of inter-state war and peace. This dualism fortified the distinction between public international law and private criminal law.

While war remained an indispensable and irreducible manifestation of concrete political communities—indeed: the essence of ‘the political’—it was the crowning achievement of early-modern public law to have channelled generalized collective violence—an ongoing European civil war—into a ‘war in form’, conducted exclusively among legally recognized states according to certain rules and conventions. This move entailed, according to Schmitt, a clear distinction between belligerents and neutrals, combatants and non-combatants, states of war and states of peace. Schmitt referred to these achievements as the ‘bracketing of war’, which he lauded as the civilization, rationalization and humanization of war. Modern inter-state warfare came to be conducted among equals, according to certain inter-subjectively agreed and commonly binding legal conventions—a combination of the right to war, ius ad bellum, and rights in war, ius in bello—which also implied the positive making of peace. The ius ad bellum came to be divorced from ‘just cause’ considerations (iusta causa), which were declared immaterial for determining the legitimacy of war. This gave rise to the notion of a ‘non-discriminatory concept of war’, which superseded mediaeval just-war doctrines. Thus juridically externalized, the reasons for war-declaration were placed outside any legal, moral or political judgement, implying the retention of the status of the enemy, even during the fighting, as a just enemy, rather than a foe, criminal or barbarian. Morality, in that sense, came to be divorced from politics proper. A destructive moral universalism, as expressed in the 15th- and 16th-century wars of religion, was replaced by a salutary moral relativism in inter-state relations. Accordingly, the ius publicum implied a decisive rupture with mediaeval just-war theories, grounded in the moral universalism of the respublica christiana.

This new concept of war—as at once public (that is, restricted to inter-state war), bracketed (that is, circumscribed by rational rules of conduct) and non-discriminatory (that is, morally neutral)—contrasted sharply with the anterior mediaeval practice of violence. Within feudal-Christian Europe, the arms-bearing status of the nobility and, in particular, the instrument of the ‘feud’, rendered all distinctions between the private and the public, as well as between the domestic and the international, futile. Outside feudal-Christian Europe the enemy was categorically rendered as a barbarian, which included, by definition, the threat of his annihilation, exemplified in the Crusades. This shift from the mediaeval ius gentium, or law of the peoples, to the ius inter gentes, law between peoples, established a historically unprecedented and exemplary nomos, capable of combining untrammelled state sovereignty with the anarchy-mitigating effects of international law.

This line of reasoning was powerfully invoked by Schmitt against the post-World War One criminalization of the German Reich as an ‘outlaw nation’, whose political status as a sovereign state was revoked by the Versailles Diktat. As Germany was not admitted to the peace negotiations, and as ‘war guilt’ and ‘war crime’ were not juridical concepts in inter-state relations (nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege), their formulation and intrusion into international law after 1919 transformed public inter-state law into an incipient world domestic law, starting to domesticate, re-moralize and juridify the inter-political by introducing a new ‘discriminatory concept of war’. This re-inserted just-war considerations into the definition of the legality of warfare. This move, according to Schmitt, castrated the essence of the political—the sovereign decision to go to war against an enemy. Versailles thereby abrogated the cornerstone of the classical ius publicum, undermining war’s status as the autonomous, purest and highest form of inter-state relations; it transformed war into a policing exercise, and thus re-domesticated it. Worse, the Wilsonian invocation of the concept of humanity reconnected post-Versailles conceptions of international law to mediaeval just-war doctrines, which contained a tendency towards the total negation of the ‘just enemy’ and its degradation to an enemy of mankind—a non-human. Correlatively, it generated a new and distinct liberal way of war, more total in its aims than the bracketed and limited wars of pre-1914 Europe, since it aimed—next to the killing of non-humans—at the direct transformation of politics, society and subjectivities: the making of liberal subjects.