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Cultural Critique 54 (2003) 120-147

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Human Rights as Geopolitics
Carl Schmitt and the Legal Form of American Supremacy

William Rasch

Dates, dates, dates. 1917, 1945, 1989. The wars of the world seem to have been reduced to a squabble about dates. 1 For Jürgen Habermas, the year 1945 is pivotal. As he puts it, the Allied victory "permanently discredited an array of myths which, ever since the end of the nineteenth century, had been mobilized against the heritage of 1789." The unconditional surrender of Germany in 1945, then, stands for the unconditional surrender of "all forms of political legitimation that did not—at least verbally, at least in words—subscribe to the universalist spirit of political enlightenment" (Habermas 2001, 46). The year 1989 is merely an afterthought. If, in 1945, after the collapse of their fascist and militarist regimes, Germany, Italy, and Japan were integrated into the new universalist order, then 1989 simply represents the year in which former communist regimes, which in any event paid the all-important lip service to the ideals of 1789, were effectively and not just verbally integrated into that order. Ernst Nolte (1997) likes all three dates because they form the beginning and end dates of a series of consecutive civil wars, a European civil war between bolshevism and fascism from 1917 to1945, and a global civil war between liberal capitalism and communism from 1945 to 1989. Thus for Nolte, 1945 is pivotal only in the sense that it represents a crucial transition, an intensification not a culmination that only finds its ultimate resolution at the end of the "short twentieth century." Nolte, in other words, conflates Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union by calling the defeated enemy of the twentieth century "totalitarianism," while Habermas persists in seeing communism as an admittedly imperfect Enlightenment ally in the fight against the uniquely evil, fascist counter-Enlightenment. [End Page 120]

Carl Schmitt, who may be said to be the inspiration for those, like Nolte, who speak of European and global civil wars, witnessed the events of 1917 (which in Germany were the events of 1918-19) and 1945, but unlike his friend Ernst Jünger, his long life did not quite stretch to the contentious year 1989. Nevertheless, it is clear that, for all their importance, neither totalitarianism nor fascism would have been his crucial terms. It is also clear that he would have been closer in his assessment to Habermas than to Nolte, for the year 1945 represents the final victory of a particular manifestation of the universalist spirit. In retrospect, 1989 was only a mopping-up operation. More specifically, for Schmitt the events of 1917, personified by Lenin and Wilson, signal the eclipse of a centuries-old Eurocentric world that had more to do with the events of 1492 and the ideas of 1648 (Peace of Westphalia) or 1713 (Peace of Utrecht) than those of 1789. Given the demise of this concrete, spatially articulated, Eurocentric order, the question he asks is simple: what will be the shape of the world to come? Writing in 1955, at the height of the friend/enemy conflict that we called the Cold War, Schmitt imagined three alternatives. First, one of the two contestants could win a clear-cut victory. "The victor would then be the sole ruler of the world. He would take, distribute, and use the entire planet, land, sea, and air, according to his plans and ideas." Second, under the hegemony of one or the other power (and Schmitt thought that this type of hegemony could only be exercised by the United States), a managed, global balance of power could be established. That is, regional blocks would form, ultimately subject to American supervision. The realization of this alternative would represent a transfiguration of the nineteenth-century British form of global hegemony. Third, a truly symmetrical regional balance of power could be achieved. "It could happen that several regional powers or blocks [Großräume] could be formed, which would bring about a balance of power and thereby a world order" (Schmitt 1995...


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