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Putin and the Friend-Enemy Distinction

photograph of Putin walking with security detail

Each May 9th, Russia, alongside several former Soviet Union territories, celebrates Victory Day. This annual holiday, first held in 1945 in the Soviet Union’s then 16 republics, commemorates Nazi Germany’s defeat in WWII. Traditionally, the holiday has acted as a day to remember and give thanks to the 27 million people of the Soviet Union who lost their lives during the conflict.

Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, however, the holiday has morphed from a day of remembrance to a day devoted to projecting political, ideological, and military strength. Unsurprisingly for a strongman dictator, Putin takes center stage in the festivities. Since 2000, he has given a speech in Moscow’s Red Square which, while the specifics change each time, the core remains eternal – patriotic duty requires that Russians remember their historical traditions and that they must continuously fight for their way of life.

These themes of tradition, strength, and duty were boosted in 2014 after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in a supposed attempt to free it from Nazi control. Indeed, during that year’s celebrations, Sergei Aksyonov, the Kremlin-appointed leader of the annexed region, appeared alongside Putin, discussing rescuing the peninsula from Ukrainian fascists. Of course, rescuing people requires weapons, and in recent years, in scenes reflecting those in North Korea, China, or the U.S., Victory Day has come with displays of military might. During the celebrations, an endless parade of soldiers, tanks, missiles, and other military hardware rolls down the streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and multiple other cities.

One might wonder why all this is necessary. Why has Putin sought to isolate Russia from the West, invade its neighbors, and act as if it’s constantly under ideological, and recently literal, attack? It is unlikely that a single answer exists to this question as multiple economic, political, and personal factors have a causal impact. Nevertheless, through German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt’s work, we can likely uncover at least one answer – Putin needs an enemy.

Before getting to Schmitt’s work, we need to acknowledge his background. Schmitt was a member of Germany’s Nazi party, something for which he remained unrepentant. Despite this (perhaps because of it), however, Schmitt’s work has significantly influenced legal and political philosophy. Indeed, his theories are often seen as one of the most substantial and robust criticisms of liberalism as embodied in the West today. Moreover, as Western liberalism is something against which Putin claims to be rallying, even calling it obsolete during a 2019 interview, it makes Schmitt’s work the ideal tool to interpret the dictator’s actions.

According to Schmitt, Liberalism emerged in response to the historical “threat” of unconstrained power as wielded by heads of state unencumbered by systems of checks and balances. In other words, liberal democracies have predesigned norms and rules (in things like constitutions) to prevent the politically powerful – kings, dictators, emperors – from wielding unlimited power. In such states, if a president or prime minister oversteps their authority, the people can wave the constitution in their face and tell them “no.” We saw an example of this in 2019 when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson attempted to prorogue the U.K. parliament, only to be told by the supreme court that his actions were “null and of no legal effect.” Essentially, Johnson tried to exercise power beyond his station, and the U.K.’s system of checks and balances prevented him from doing so.

For Schmitt, however, this system of enforceable restraint of a sovereign’s power is ineffectual because those in political control can declare states of emergencies – what Schmitt terms “states of exceptions” – in which rulers can suspend constitutional rules and reclaim their power. The COVID pandemic provides a useful example, where multiple nations curtailed seemingly uncurtailable freedoms, like the freedom of movement and assembly. While in “normal” times, such restrictions would go against the foundations of what so many liberal nations purportedly hold dear, during the pandemic, those in power reclaimed such all-encompassing controls. This is not to say that doing so was unnecessary or wrong. Instead, it is simply to note that liberalism’s foundational rules and norms are easily discarded when things become challenging, and those policies may not be reinstatable afterwards. For Schmitt, constitutions only prevent sovereigns from acting as they want in non-emergency situations when they wouldn’t behave like that anyway.

According to Schmitt, however, liberalism isn’t bad just because it hides the ruling class’ power under the guise of procedures and rules. Instead, it’s bad because the commonly held goal of liberalism – welcoming differences to the political sphere – runs counter to politics’ very nature. As Schmitt summarizes in his book The Concept of the Political, “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” Schmitt argues that every aspect of politics is, at its core, about being with those you relate to and defending against those who are different. This confrontational philosophy even gets down to one’s sense of identity as we define ourselves not by who we are or what we do or believe, but in opposition to the actions and beliefs of others. Or, as Schmitt writes, “tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are.” As such, liberalism, with its envisioned goal of debating political differences and living alongside those you may vehemently disagree, will ultimately fail because it is politically ignorant.

We can see a similar ideology play out in Putin’s Russia. Those things deemed different or non-Russian are being systematically erased from mainstream Russian culture. A prime example of this has been the growing efforts to wipe out the LGBTQ+ community within the nation’s boundary. Since coming to power, Putin has reversed much of Russia’s progress on LGBTQ+ rights since the Soviet Union’s fall. In Putin’s Russia, if you don’t conform to the stereotypical gender roles of masculinity and femininity, you are not a friend but an enemy. And this mentality of conformity applies beyond one’s sexuality.

Ultimately, those that embrace diversity and difference are, according to Schmitt, weak. He argues that these societies lack the cohesion to form established collective identities. Without this collective identity, the nation has no sense of self and cannot effectively manage its internal or external affairs; it’s like trying to herd cats, dogs, dolphins, ants, oak trees, and sparrows simultaneously. This ineffectualness means that liberal states, according to Schmitt, are sitting ducks, just waiting for those who can enforce a collective identity to do so; through military power or ideological inception. His answer is to reject liberalism and embrace the friend-enemy distinction. It is to unify the populace over which one rules by giving them an enemy against which they can collectively define themselves, strengthening the state and cementing one’s position of power.

In the case of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is to position his nation as the saviors of the Donbas and its associated regions. The Russian military is not invading another country to expand its territory but to fight an enemy against which the whole nation can get behind – Ukranian Nazis. It is to rescue those people living in eastern Ukraine who are, according to Putin, truly Russian and bring them back into the fold of others like them. Indeed, the more one explores the actions of Putin and his government over the past two decades, the more one sees an embodiment of the political and legal philosophy Carl Schmitt thought made for a strong nation.

None of this is to say that Schmitt or Putin are in the right. On the contrary, both seem just terrible people with truly uncomfortable capacities for inflicting harm upon others. Nevertheless, the ideas of the former seemingly describe the latter’s actions rather well. And understanding Putin’s actions is essential to making sense of the world in which he operates.

Can Assassination Ever Be the Right Thing to Do?

blurred photo of man aiming rifle

On March 10th, Facebook modified its free speech policy to allow for some calls to violence directed against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

More strikingly, a week earlier, Senator Lindsey Graham explicitly called for the assassination of President Putin.

Politically, it is ill-advised to blithely call for an assassination in the middle of a tense diplomatic situation, and Senator Graham’s actions were criticized by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

And yet one cannot help but feel the emotional impact of a Clint Eastwood-esque narrative in which all one has to do is kill some bad guy and geopolitical problems go away. Senator Graham called on the Russian people rather than the CIA, but it nonetheless raises the unsettling question: is there a (moral) place for assassination in international politics?

The question is not as far from contemporary practice as it seems. Democratic nations like Israel have utilized political assassination. Ostensibly the United States has formally banned political assassination since the signing of Executive Order 11905 in 1976, yet it makes frequent use of “targeted killing” in its international policy, usually of actors designated as terrorists, but also of Iranian General Soleimani. The straightforward reply is that these actions are unethical, but the morality of assassination is not as straightforward as one would hope and is deeply revealing about international ethics.

The intuitive ethical appeal of killing political leadership is that the harm is, in theory, localized. It has not gone unnoticed that those who declare war rarely fight in them, and the harms of war (like the harms of sanctions), tend to refract over the most vulnerable members of society. Assassinations, by contrast, suggest the possibility of getting at those responsible and few others. Defenders of ethical assassination – like political philosophers Andrew Altman and Christopher Wellman and Eamon Aloyo and military strategist Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters – invariably allude to the possibility of lesser and more targeted harms.

In their discussion of political assassination, Altman and Wellman, write “once one agrees that armed intervention is sometimes admissible, it becomes very difficult to argue consistently that assassination is always morally impermissible.” The idea here is a parity of reasoning argument. If we think a political leader is so reprehensible as to justify the brutality of armed intervention, then why not assassination? Is assassination somehow morally worse than war? For that matter, is assassination worse than oppressive sanctions?

When pushed for reasons, it becomes difficult to draw these boundaries in a principled way.

Before embarking on this discussion, it needs to be emphasized that the argument that claims “IF armed intervention is justified, THEN so is assassination” must clear an exceedingly high bar. It is perfectly legitimate to question whether armed interventions are ever ethical, especially unilateral interventions. In their account, Altman and Wellman stress that such decisions would need to be made by the international community rather than single actors, and still they worry, rightly, whether such decisions would be subject to abuse. As in the case of the assassination of General Suleimani by the United States, it is all too easy to imagine international assassinations as a mere cynical extension of national interest. Hypothetically, assassination could be justified even in cases where armed interventions are not justified, but that would require different and stronger arguments than parity of reason.

The question that follows then is: Is there anything specifically morally abhorrent about assassination that does not apply to armed intervention more generally?

One strategy to clarify the specific problem with assassination is by appeal to international law. The landmark international treaty on the rules of war, the Hague convention of 1899, declared it “especially prohibited” to “kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army.” This sentiment against assassination has been reflected in later law like the Geneva Convention treaty of 1977. These laws concern assassination in war, but presumably assassination would not be outlawed during war time but permissible during peace time. The limitation of this response is that it grounds an ostensible ethical difference in a merely legal one, which can be changed with the stroke of a pen.

A slightly different spin is that a prohibition on assassination is needed to constitute effective international government and law in the first place – that absent this basic decency any international order becomes a nihilistic race to the bottom. As the blowback to Senator Graham’s comments shows, even talk of assassination is corrosive to serious international politics. This line of argument is more compelling, but for full strength it assumes that potential targets are (at least partially) participating in international governance, which may not always be the case. Presumably an international order would not be threatened by actions directed at those fully outside it, as long as there was internal agreement.

A second category of response is that assassination is wrong because it is the ethically wrong way to do war. The military ethics tradition of just war theory (if taken as more than an oxymoron) concerns itself with both justice in the declaration of war and right conduct in war. Right conduct is classically characterized by not targeting, and minimizing collateral damage to, civilians. This concern is reflected in prohibitions for weapons incredible in their destructive scope, like chemical or biological agents, and/or indiscriminate in their targeting, like anti-personnel landmines. However, the intuitive argument for assassination is precisely that it (in theory) minimizes collateral damage and civilian casualties, so by the standards of just war theory assassination appears more moral.

An alternative focus is the “treachery” alluded to in the Hague Convention. Modern understandings and law regarding just war are rooted in older discussions of chivalry and honor. From this perspective, the differentiating wrongness of assassination is that it is uniquely treacherous and dishonorable. Assassinations often involve subterfuge and target someone other than a soldier on a battlefield. However, the same concerns would apply to other common military tactics such as drone strikes and night raids. Moreover, if the assumption about the more limited harms of assassination is correct, forbidding assassination on the grounds of its treacherousness places the “honor” of leadership above the lives of soldiers and civilians.

The final way to characterize the wrongness of assassination is not by appeal to principle, but to challenge its claims to minimizing harms. High-profile political killings are as often the start of atrocities as the end of them, igniting retaliatory violence or wars for succession. In one of the most extensive historical investigations of political assassination to date, historian Franklin Ford concluded “[political assassination’s] demonstrable tendency has nearly always been to besmirch the perpetrator’s credentials, while undermining his chances of any lasting political success.” Similarly, another evidence-based analysis found high levels of instability and violence after successful assassination for governments without well-ordered succession – and assassinations of course do not always succeed, with failed assassination coming with their own consequences.

Even in cases of stable succession there is still no guarantee that the assassination will lead to positive change. This is the problem with the “bad guy” narrative. No matter how morally reprehensible, political leaders do not simply carry their country’s domestic and international problems around with them, to be neatly cleaned up after they fall. By focusing on singular villains we can neglect to appreciate the context behind political actions and the larger structures that maintain and exert political power. Nonetheless, especially in more dictatorial regimes, political leaders do have decision-making powers. The challenge however is to get political decision-makers to decide differently, not simply to eliminate them and let politics play out as it may.

Assassination then appears at the very least no more ethical than armed intervention, and because of its deleterious effects on international legitimacy, likely worse. It is not good ethics and it is not good politics. Nonetheless, advocates of assassination are right that there is something monstrous in the way conflicts between governments are settled via the lives of their people. As Lieutenant Colonel Peterson put it, “national behavior [of states] reminds me of those feudal squabbles in which minor nobles dueled by killing and raping each other’s serfs and burning offending villages.” Assassination, although itself impermissible, suggests an alternative vision for international ethics – thinking small. In a world of sanctions and cyberattacks, why can we not tailor these to target leadership and other influential actors more specifically? Russia is a test case, with sanctions starting to directly target oligarchs and legislators. However, not just in Russia, but everywhere, how would political decisions or actions change if every politician needed to worry about being embroiled in the conflicts they helped to create?

Considering the Consequences: Withdrawing from the INF Treaty

Photograph of Reagan and Gorbachev shaking hands and holding a document

In a very dramatic speech on February 1, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the US is suspending its obligations under the INF Treaty effective February 2 due to Russia’s continuous violation of the Article XV of the treaty, which obligates parties “not to produce, possess, or flight-test a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile system with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.” Russia followed the US decision just hours after the Secretary Pompeo’s speech.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 in order to prevent both the US and then the Soviet Union from developing an entire class of nuclear weapons, leading to a gradual removal and destruction of more than 2600 missiles. The Treaty was celebrated as one of the most advanced and consequential agreements between the two world powers that aimed to bring more security to the North Atlantic Area, and most importantly to calm down the tensions caused by the Cold War. The purpose of these missiles was to threaten the possibility of nuclear war in Europe, as they were not easily noticeable on radars due to their short flight times and unpredictable flight patterns. Notably, this treaty was not only important for Europe, as it also imposed a ban on using “all types of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles” anywhere in the world.

The US has first warned about Russia’s violation of the treaty in 2014, and since then has been imposing various policies and sanctions trying to leverage Russia to comply with the treaty. Russia has rebutted those claims, asking that the US provides evidence, while also giving a list of US violations. As time passed the US allies started to increasingly align with the US assessment and ultimately “concluded that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system.” The Euro-American front seemed to be clear in their position towards Russia, but some of the first reactions coming from Europe seem hesitant to completely side with President Trump, as most of those countries view this treaty as a pillar of their security architecture. Several questions arise after the withdrawing from the treaty: what are the major consequences of the withdrawal, and was the decision to withdraw more opportune then the policy of trying to leverage Russia back to compliance?

The array of consequences are still debated, especially the results of this decision on the peace and security in the world. America’s European allies have already expressed their disaffection with President Trump’s decision as they fear that Russia is once again going to be able to target all parts of the European territory. Another fear also accompanies that of the Russian attack: the decoupling of US and European security. European allies have relied for a long time on US interest in keeping Europe safe, but President Trump has often emphasized that this responsibility is now on Europeans themselves. The transatlantic area has been under a strain for a quite some time, and the withdrawal is going to provide just another kick in the already tense relationship. There is a lot of discussion on whether NATO is going to be able to balance between the allies as the new challenges arise, but the next steps have yet to be seen.

Another important factor is that the US will now be free to develop intermediate range missiles as a deterrence mechanism against China, but this might also indicate a beginning of a new arms race. China has not been part of the INF, and as such was not restrained to develop intermediate-range missiles which led to China’s missile arsenal consisting of approximately 95% of intermediate-range systems. However, the fact remains that if US and China commence the arms race, the chances of a potential new INF treaty that would include China, Russia, and European allies seems less likely especially as the US will need to ensure support both from Europeans and Russians in order to compel China to join.

The previous administration pursued the approach of targeted policy and sanctions to try to convince Russia to get back to compliance to the INF Treaty. Although this approach did not result in Russia’s policy reversal and decision to comply, one question remains open: why did the US withdraw without a readily available alternative, and would remaining a party to the treaty make any future negotiations easier? In case of the START I Treaty, Russia and US readily replaced the expiring treaty with its refreshed version New START, just half a year after its expiry. Exiting the treaty obligations while the treaty was still in force, despite the fact it had been violated by one party, makes it much harder to renegotiate as it opens space for potential disagreements on things that the previous agreement had established and clarified, and most importantly allows for a period of arms race before any new potential agreement is reached. Consequently, one must take into account the long lasting process that goes into negotiating any kind of arms deal, especially between two world powers. In evaluating the consequences of the withdrawal one ought to take into account the possibility of renegotiating the status quo.

The full range of consequences of the US and Russian withdrawal are not yet clear, but we can only hope that we are not going to repeat the mistakes of our past.

Trump’s Russia and Putin’s America

President-elect Donald Trump’s comments on Russian President Vladimir Putin have been a hot topic of discussion for months now. Trump has praised the Russian president’s leadership skills, noting that a renewed US-Russian cooperative relationship would be beneficial to both countries and to the world, specifically when it came to fighting ISIS. A Russian hack on the Democratic National Committee that resulted in thousands of leaked internal e-mails may have also influenced the election in Trump’s favor, leading to questions about the Putin-Trump relationship and concerns over election ballot hacking. Now that Trump stands to assume the presidency in a little less than two months, many Americans wonder what our future relationship with Russia will be. In order to understand what may come in the future, it is important to understand the beginnings of the Russian Federation – and how the United States may have had something to do with Russia turning from the West in the early 1990s.

Continue reading “Trump’s Russia and Putin’s America”

Call them Daesh: Names, Meaning and ISIS

One thing that I noticed when I first heard media coverage of an Islamist group rising to power in Syria was that it was continually referred to as “the group calling itself ISIS” or “the group known as ISIL”.  If it had been one media outlet or one program, it might have slipped by.  But it wasn’t: it was a standardized fixture of official coverage of the group.

In recent months, particularly since the deadly Paris attacks that claimed the lives of 129, there has been a seemingly strategic shift to the word “Daesh” to describe the organization.  Why does this matter?  And what impact does it hold for the future of Western relations to the Middle East?

Continue reading “Call them Daesh: Names, Meaning and ISIS”