January 4, 2017
merica rules the waves. We send our forces where we want, when we want. But, for the first time since WWII, we will soon face a technologically advanced, massively wealthy, determined adversary. Today China tests us in the South and East China Seas. Given China’s trading interests, the challenge is unlikely to end there. China will not accept America’s naval hegemony, and America will not accept China’s. Understanding the Chinese challenge requires asking questions about sea power we haven’t had to ask for 70 years.
Telos Press’s new edition of Carl Schmitt’s Land und Meer: Eine weltgeschichtliche Betrachtung (Land and Sea: A World-Historical Meditation) provides an essential guide for understanding sea power. Schmitt (1888-1985) was a brilliant, creative, and psychologically damaged lawyer and political theorist. As a Catholic Rhinelander from a modest background, he was a political and social outsider in the Prussian, Protestant-dominated Wilhelmine Reich. The open, liberal—and crisis-ridden—Weimar Republic, with its radical parties, private militia, and political violence, provided Schmitt with both an opportunity and a purpose. Schmitt challenged the liberal-constitutional state’s capacity to respond to internal challenges and sought to ‘repoliticize’ the ‘depoliticized’ liberal legal polity, by reminding his fellow citizens of the inescapable distinction between “friend and enemy.”
Schmitt supported a federal executive strong enough to forestall Weimar’s political disintegration at the hands of anti-republican Nazis and Communists. He associated with conservative, aristocratic soldiers and politicians, who hoped to use—and control—the Nazis. But having legally entered government, the Nazis utilized both extra-legal terror and legal manipulation to sweep away restraints. Schmitt joined the party in May 1933—three months after Hitler came to power—and actively promoted its odious, anti-Semitic laws and propaganda. If one sups with the devil, one must have a very long spoon. Schmitt’s was too short. Aligned with Hermann Göring, Schmitt was resented as an opportunist and threatened by lawyers associated with Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Forced from office in 1936—Göring’s influence protected him from a worse fate—he continued teaching at the University of Berlin. As Hitler increasingly ruled by fiat, Schmitt turned from domestic legal and political theory and focused his formidable intellect on international politics and law.
Land and Sea is Schmitt’s “history of the battle of sea powers against land powers and of land powers against sea powers.” Humans, he notes, are by nature land dwellers. We call our planet “Earth,” though water covers most of its surface. Our natural attachment to a particular portion of the planet is integral to the healthy, conservative values of family, nation, and the moral order.
Nonetheless, men have turned to the sea. The strength of Crete, Athens, Carthage, and Venice depended upon dominion over the water and seaborne commerce. The most profound turn to the sea, though, began with the oceanic voyages of the Europeans, particularly the English and Dutch. A revolution in thought made this possible. Whereas ancient and medieval man saw himself as static, rooted in a specific patch of land, Renaissance and early modern man saw himself as dynamic, incessantly moving through empty space. This change in perspective launched Europe’s great Age of Exploration. The discovered peoples beyond Europe, unprepared for the new encounter, were reduced to the status, legally and politically, of prey.
Since the 16th century the only meaningful “world-historical friend-enemy distinction” was between Europeans themselves. This division began as “world-Protestantism” (England) vs. “world-Catholicism” (Spain). Despite its overseas empire, Spain (and Catholicism) remained spiritually attached to the land. The English, on the other hand, transformed themselves into Fischmenschen—a true sea people. But turning away from the land, though heroic in many ways, changed, and degraded, the Englishman’s very nature—and ushered in Modernity. Schmitt sees Nazi Germany as the great defender of the traditional, rooted land life against this globalizing sea power—a power joined in the 20th century by America.
Modern man’s ceaseless movement fosters commerce, industry, and mechanization, while separating him from tradition. Schmitt engages in some intellectual and historical contortions in discussing the modern world, asserting that Jews as well as Englishmen live as paradigmatic moderns, outside a fixed land attachment. But, of course, the Jews were never a sea-people, and during their dispersal played a negligible role in the Age of Discovery or the clash between Catholics and Protestants. If Jews are unattached to the land, it is not because they have turned to the sea. Schmitt’s confusion might be explained away as pandering to his Nazi masters, but that answer is too pat. In the end it’s unclear if he thinks all modern forces of disruption and dynamism are harmful, or whether the turn to the sea was merely one expression of the revolution which first occurred in men’s minds.
Schmitt provides an intriguing analysis of the link between the sea and the modern project’s culmination in creative, free-thinking individuals moving and acting within a liberal, global order. Land and Sea is primarily a meditation about the space in which we live, and its interactive connection with our minds and identity. How we perceive space, and where we situate ourselves within it, influences our choice of friends and enemies, our economic and political decisions, and how we theorize and wage war. At a time of dizzying and dynamic technical change, instantaneous communication, abolished borders, and global, de-territorialized conflict, Schmitt proves a prescient guide. Land and Sea will interest students of geopolitical conflict, intellectual history, and theories of modernity. It is well worth reading.