Similar War Theories of Hobbes and Schmitt

1. Introduction
Currently, I’m researching Thomas Hobbes’s (1588-1679) Leviathan (1651) for a book I’m writing. I noticed that Hobbes’s theory of war in one chapter of Leviathan (Book I, 13) resembles that of one of his closest followers, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the controversial German jurist. Schmitt discussed war in numerous places. But the theory of war most similar to Hobbes is contained in his classic essay The Concept of the Political (1927). 

What united both authors was the conviction that war really wasn’t about military conflict as such. It was more a state of mind, of which war offered a ‘limiting case.’ This common view supported their broader philosophical outlooks, both of which were divergent. 

2. Hobbes and Civil War

Hobbes’s main concern is justifying peace and order. To achieve this he contrasts a state of anarchy to one of peace. In the state of nature all men pursue their separate interests and run the risk of clashing with one another. Although Hobbes does discuss the right of sovereigns to make foreign war in numerous passages of Leviathan (e.g. kings are in a “posture of war” with one another (L, I, 13))global conflicts are an afterthought to which Hobbes offers little insight. By far, Hobbes’s leading concern is with the possibility of civil war, the language of which is nihilistic. Warfare is part and parcel of a pre-political condition which occurs when there is no common guardian standing over men and is synonymous with civil war. But the thrust of Hobbes’s polemic with respect to the state of nature is directed against liberty which he says runs counter to law. War is merely another phenomenon which occurs when men are free. 

3. Schmitt and the Political

For Schmitt, war is a ‘given’ whenever there are political units who distinguish each other according to his celebrated friend/enemy criterion. As opposed to many other political thinkers who portray politics as servicing a common good, Schmitt’s concept of politics is inherently sectarian; war thus appears as a natural element of politics. 

Unlike Hobbes, Schmitt never contemplates the idea that there could ever be a state of total anarchy. Even civil war involves well-identified groups (CP, 32). He always sees organization as emerging with respect to war, and this is also true with respect to groups who are outwardly ‘anti-war.’

If pacifist hostility toward war were so strong as to drive pacifists into a war against nonpacifists, in a war against war, that would prove that pacifism truly possesses political energy because it is sufficiently strong to group men according to friend and enemy (CP, 36).

4. Comparative Similarity

While Schmitt doesn’t construct a fictional state of nature, he agrees with Hobbes that the looming threat of war motivates man’s behaviour in critical ways. Let’s compare passages from both Hobbes and Schmitt. 

For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known (L, I, 13).

War is neither the aim nor the purpose nor even the very content of politics. But as an ever present possibility it is the leading presupposition which determines in a characteristic way human action and thinking and thereby creates a specifically political behavior (CP, 34).

These examples reveal the key similarity. For Hobbes and Schmitt, war is not the fact of actual fighting but an aggressive suspiciousness and preparedness for conflict. People are battle-ready, even if not at war. Military conflict doesn’t have independent meaning although it forms a critical element in their outlooks. Hobbesian or Schmittian philosophy sans guerre would be incomprehensible but it would be wrong to see them as reducing politics to militarism. War is the most important consideration for men or political entities but it is subordinate to either (a) the will of man to live at liberty, for Hobbes, or (b) the natural tendency of groups, for Schmitt, to live within the political domain. 

5. Radical Differences 

War is vital to both theories as a perspective but in radically different ways. War for Hobbes is a ‘floor’ to which men can sink in the absence of fear with respect to a common power. Even those who know little of Hobbes have probably read the following lament concerning war in a news article.

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (L, I, 13).

War is merely destruction and uncertainty for Hobbes. His theory recognizes war but is concerned with removing its spectre. By contrast, war for Schmitt is the climax of human existence.

There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings … The high points of politics are simultaneously the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy (CP, 67).

Whereas Hobbes consistently views war as offering a window into man’s psychological deficiencies, Schmitt shows little interest in exploring this aspect. War is an ongoing political reality and is accepted as a given. Men are inherently political; war comes with political territory and is reduced to a means. Schmitt has no interest in abolishing war, forms a realistic view of its existence, and at times glorifies it. Hobbes generally conceptualizes war as a nihilistic condition and he condemns it.  

6. Conclusion

It is perhaps not surprising that Schmitt shows a Hobbesian influence in his assessment of war. His theory of authoritarianism, for example, is largely Hobbesian. Yet Schmitt’s concept of politics is radically dissimilar to Hobbes but the two men yet find common ground in using and conceptualizing war in near identical ways within their variant philosophies. 

Rudy-Don: “All’s Fair in Love and War”

Over the weekend, Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani caught the attention of the public by essentially advocating plunder. The invasion of Iraq was a poor foreign policy decision, they said. But once the decision had been made, Trump insisted, the US should have taken Iraqi oil for its own benefit. This was how it used to be done, Trump went on. Giuliani modified this position. Iraqi oil, Giuliani suggested, should have been ‘controlled’ because this would have prevented the rise of ISIS (such a moot and incoherent point, I won’t even go there). As if that weren’t enough to stir a public relations hornets nest, Giuliani mused that “anything is legal” in war.

You know though: Trump and Giuliani put their finger on something. Example: two armies go to war. Let’s say two enemy combatants meet each other on an urban street. They can do things to each other – killing the obvious act – and use their surrounding environment in ways that would be illegal normally. There still remain ‘rules’ of war. A city can’t be razed to the ground. A wounded soldier must receive medical aid. These are merely courtesies, however. Soldiers and their superiors will do anything to win wars. Cities do get razed. Wounded soldiers are shot in cold blood. Those facts are as true for the US as much as for leaders like Saddam.

Plunder too is considered unseemly in modern warfare. But yet, Iraqs wealth was plundered through the oil for food programme that followed the 1990-1991 conflict when Iraq was sanctioned. These were very punitive sanctions for an invasion of Kuwait, an invasion that had a casus belli (cause of war). The casus belli was that Kuwait had called in many of its loans that it had made to Iraq during the war with Iran. Saddam had some justification in annexing a neighbour who had posed an existential threat to the integrity of Iraq. He was treated unjustly, in any event. Look at how much territory Israel has annexed or laid claim to since 1948 yet it has never faced sanctions for disrupting the peace, despite the flimsy reasons for some of its land seizures. And, furthermore, after the Iraq war, the wealth of the tragic Gulf nation was controlled by the US. So Trump and Giuliani are kinda endorsing the policies that were followed. It seems like they either haven’t read any books on Iraq or bolstering a widespread opinion that the US is continually being ‘ripped-off’ by sly foreigners.

How about the general claim that everything is legal in war? Was this the way things used to be? Yes and no. It really came down to how different the warring armies were in cultural, religious and political terms. When the Crusaders first invaded the Mid-East, there was a lot of plunder and blood spilt. As the two sides became acquainted with each other – the Crusaders thinking of the Levant as home – some semblance of order governed wars.

Wars between two sides long ago could be as gentlemanly or as brutal as their differences allowed. There were no international rules of war but it wasn’t total anarchy all of the time. Yet, some wars could have humiliating outcomes for the losers.

This is not the world we live in today, though. Under the influence of Roman law, European states began to develop an elaborate international legal system around the 17th century. By the early 20th century, this was extended to non-European countries like Japan and Turkey because European nations were by far the most wealthiest and powerful and these nations wanted to integrate into the neo-Roman system. Later still, we had an entire international system governing war.

Of course, no legal system is set in stone. Trump and Giuliani have pointed out that there is an alternative way to manage inter-state relations. It is one where the winner takes all or the victor subjects the vanquished to his will. But here is my problem: what were the Nuremberg trials about? Weren’t they to try war criminals? But there are no war crimes for Giuliani. What about the invasion of Kuwait in 1990? That was an illegal invasion, we were told. But there are no illegal invasions for Giuliani. How about Iran ‘illegally’ developing nuclear weapons? They would be deployed in a war but banning such weapons, implies Giuliani, is absurd because the ban would cover a situation where there no bans. Similarly, Putin didn’t invade Crimea illegally but Trump obviously would agree on that score.

Of course, the US has flouted rules of war consistently. The bombing of Tokyo, the dropping of the A-bomb, the bombing of Vietnam, the 2003 invasion of Iraq … all illegal, if we adhere to Giuliani’s definition of wartime conduct. But the US marches under the banner of legality. It says that it is bound by rules of war, as are other countries. Its global legitimacy rests in the idea that the US is not some Mongol-type plunderer, but a civilised keeper of the peace.

The Trump-Giuliani thesis is not wholly illogical but would be the death of modern international law. Even dictators like Saddam cleaved to international law. They registered their soldiers, engaged in international diplomacy, agreed to respect treaties, and made themselves liable for war crimes. Saddam did not head a ‘rogue state.’ If the US ditches international law, it also forfeits its ability to judge on the rightness of a war. Countries it invades would be at its mercy, but the US could not use international law as an excuse for an intervention. Is this newish-oldish order better than the one we have?