Has Donald Trump been reading Carl Schmitt in secret? The thought came to mind the other day when the US president was concluding his two-day "working visit" to the United Kingdom with a series of impromptu statements before flying to Scotland to play golf. It was by using the term "foe" to describe Russia, China and even the European Union that Trump reminded me of Schmitt.
"We have many foes," Trump asserted while implicitly casting himself as the embodiment of a total state that represents the people, the ordinary folk, the Joe down the block, as opposed to the sneering and self-serving elite.
US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, on July 13, 2018 in Aylesbury, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Schmitt was born in 1888 in a German Catholic family and trained as a jurist, ending as one of the most original political thinkers of the last century. His aim was to extend the Hobbesian theory of the state as a necessary evil without which no civilized society could be developed let alone maintained. At the time Schmitt was refining his theories, first expressed in a slim book "Leviathan", the Weimar Republic in Germany was in its death throes as the very concept of statehood was torn to pieces by radical groups on both the left and the right.
Schmitt believed that because politics was an arena in which the choice was between "friend" and "enemy", a strong state was required to protect all, and enable rival ideas and groups to compete for power in the context of a social contract based on the law. Schmitt thought that the Nazi Party, which had won the general election in 1933, might prevent the dissolution of the German state and provide the framework in which "friend" and "enemy" could be identified.
That assumption led him to enlist in a party that proved to be miles away from his deep-held beliefs. Less than three years later, Schmitt was expelled from the party and became a "non-person" until the end of the war.
It was from the 1960s onwards that Schmitt started to make an at first timid comeback on the academic and political scenes. Interestingly, he attracted interest from both left and right. The French philosopher Raymond Aaron, the patron saint of the liberal right in Western Europe, put Schmitt on a pedestal for his laser-like penetration of the deepest mysteries of political power. On the left, the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has built some of his key theories around his reading, or some might say mis-reading, of Schmitt.
Schmitt's thoughts could be used in a variety of context, to criticize political correctness, to discredit weak, neither-here-nor-there, coalition governments, a globalization that effaces the personality of every nation by creating a "great everywhere" in which all cities and countries resemble each other, and a constant search for victims rather than heroes that encourages everyone to find and cash on any real or imagined grievance fomented by what Trump calls "fake news".
In 2012, during a visit to China, I was surprised to learn that Schmitt had become something of a best-seller in the People's Republic. Among his readers and admirers, I was told, was the new party chief and head of state, Xi Jinping.
I am not sure that Trump has actually read any of Schmitt's books, although some of them are available in English thanks to expert translations and introductions by my old friend professor George Schwab.
Trump's use of Schmittian shibboleths may have been inspired by some members of his entourage. Whatever the case, it is important to know how those concepts and similar concepts based on them are used. Depicting a rainbow of political positions, Schmitt puts what he calls the "foe" or "hostis" in Latin at one extreme of the political spectrum.
In its boldest form, the "foe" is the force that wishes not only to defeat you in a contest or even a war, but strives to destroy you. Because of its epistemological roots in Catholic theological lexicon, the "foe" is a concept better suited to religious conflict than political confrontation. Thus to describe Russia, China and the European Union as "foes" is clearly trans-Schmittian.
At another level, especially in democratic societies, the choice may be between "friend" and "enemy". Here, the enemy does not want to wipe you out or even to force you to submit to all his wishes. He wants to deny you a bigger share of power which he wants to keep for himself.
Seen in that light, the United States today has neither "foe" nor an "enemy", at the level of a state, although in the latter case some like the Islamic Republic in Iran, the wayward leftist clique in Venezuela, and, at least until recently, the weird set-up in North Korea, do speak of "the American enemy." The reason they can't qualify as "enemy", even less as "foe", is that they do not have the wherewithal for playing in the same league as the US.
If we wish to use the Schmittian method, we could say that the US has a number of "adversaries", one rung below "enemy" and two rungs below "foe." Before the Helsinki summit, I would have put Russia in that category, at least because of its behavior in eastern and central Europe and the Middle East. Now, however, a possibility exists that Russia might be transformed into a "rival", or as Trump puts it a "competitor", three rungs below "foe" and one below "adversary".
China is certainly a competitor, at least in economic domains and more recently, with Xi Jinping's claim that China is also offering an alternative to the Jeffersonian model promoted by the US. In a sense, the Chinese model of a "strong state" is closer to Schmitt's ideal than America's outwardly chaotic democracy.
The case of the European Union is more difficult to gauge, as most of the 28 members are also allies of the United States. Some could even be described as "friends" on the side of the Schmittian spectrum opposite the slot given to "foe". While some EU members act as "rivals" or "competitors," one of them is willing, or at least capable, of behaving as an "adversary" let alone a "foe."
The task of diplomacy and political leadership is to go through the Schmittian spectrum, turning foe into enemy, enemy into adversary, adversary into rival, rival into ally and ally into friend. May be, just may be, in his unorthodox way Trump is trying to do just that. So, let's give him a chance. What do you say?
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.