Sea Power

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Sea Power

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juny 10, 2012, 3:10pm

I have a question regarding sea-power. In Carl Schmitt's Nomos of the Earth book, he seems to make modern 'seapower' (Great Britain, the US) the single most important reason that the modern European System of International Law is currently declining. Of course, Schmitt is perhaps the last great representative of Land-Power (in Europe centering in Russia and Germany) in political and legal thought. Is there anyone writing on the conflict between these two today?


Editat: juny 10, 2012, 8:57pm

I'm afraid that I can't answer your question, but I have a couple for you.

What is Schmitt's reasoning behind his thinking? Also, in what sense does he believe that the "modern European System of International Law" is declining?

It seems a bit odd to me to claim that the European system of international law is in decline when it is being rapidly absorbed and advocated by states all over the world. The only real hold-outs from the entirety of the system are North Korea and Burma (and even Burma seems now to be coming in from the cold). Many states pay lip service to the program but ignore it when it suits them (e.g., China, Russia, Iran, etc.), but that's actually an improvement over what existed 30 years ago when many states rejected the system outright. And many states that only paid lip service to it just 30 to 50 years ago, like Brazil, Argentina, the Philippines, and South Korea, are now firmly entrenched within it.

juny 11, 2012, 5:36am

Schmitt is basically a Euro-centrist. Fundamentally, the 'decline' he has in mind (as I see it) is the fact that European Powers are no longer the only 'Great Powers'. The old system, in his view, does not take this into account. So Schmitt calls for a new system where each hegemon will apply whatever rules it wishes within its own sphere of influence. "International Law", strictly speaking, will now only be in force between the several Großraum, with each hegemon deciding Law within its own 'sphere of influence'. International Law is no longer between states. Thus law (and economics) within the Anglo-American sphere of influence could (Schmitt will perhaps say 'would' and 'should') from that within (oh say) China's sphere of Influence. Europe, of course, is to separated from the Anglo-American sphere. In my opinion, within a given sphere of influence, this implies that the law/economics could be (for instance) liberal, communist or fascist. (Or something else.) What is important for Schmitt is that each hegemon be Sovereign within its sphere of influence. In order to do that each must exclude 'the other'. This last is determined, in the final instance, by he (she/it, legislatures can also be the sovereign decision maker) who is actually Sovereign.

juny 11, 2012, 9:00am

Having looked up this book, I see that it was originally published in 1950. That makes much more sense as an argument from that time period than it does from today. As I said in my previous post, even as recently as 30 years ago there were a good number of states that outright rejected the Western international order. That's no longer the case.

As to Schmitt's argument about land- versus sea-power, I can see how someone writing in the late-1940s might view that as significant. The Soviets were by far the dominant land-power in Eurasia at the time. And for all practical purposes the Communist world did cut itself off from the Western international order. Given the Soviet's overwhelming military superiority and the Russians' historical expansionism, there was every reason to believe at the time that the Soviets would seek to spread their power through military conquest, after which they would push out Western influences, which would relegate the Western order to the fringes of Eurasia and the Americas.

What Schmitt probably didn't foresee was the very rapid advancement in the delivery of nuclear warheads that made military adventurism by the great powers such a risky proposition. The spheres of influence for the Communist and capitalist worlds did shift from time to time, but not nearly as much in favor of the Soviets as was feared by people in the West not long after the end of WWII. The argument about land- and sea-power was largely rendered irrelevant by the advent of nuclear-armed ICBMs, at least as it pertained to the great powers.

Editat: juny 12, 2012, 1:21am

>4 Bretzky1:

You are looking very much at "hard power" like nuclear warheads. Why not include "soft power" also? You may also argue that international trade and other forms of international contact have become far more important since the 1950's. The countries that exclude themselves from the international order are also the countries that trade least and have the toughest restrictions on international travel and internet access. The sea-powers were of course often trading nations.

juny 11, 2012, 11:11am


Certainly trade is by far the leading form of interaction between states today. And even though it was much less prominent in the late-1940s, it still was important. And looking at the situation from Schmitt's vantage point in the late-1940s, there was every reason for the West to be worried about the spread of Soviet influence via economic expansion as well.

In hindsight, however, we know that that was a false worry. Or, at least it was a threat that couldn't last long. Communism turned out to be an utterly miserable way to organize an economy. There are only three states left in the world that have anything close to a full communist economy--North Korea, Cuba, and Laos--and they are all dirt poor. The other two communist states--China and Vietnam--have both switched to a mixed market-socialist economy, even though they do still go through the fantasy of producing five-year plans.

Soft power, of course, includes other things besides just economic interaction. There are cultural and scientific aspects as well. It was in science that the Soviets presented the strongest soft power challenge to the West. But given the nature of the Soviet-Western confrontation, which was over influence in the "non-aligned" world, scientific excellence probably had very little influence. Third World states were looking for a way to drag themselves out of grinding poverty, which ironically, given how things turned out, gave the Soviets an advantage over the West. And as to cultural competition there was no challenge. Totalitarian systems like communism simply cannot compete in the cultural sphere with states having a liberal democratic system. Cultural excellence requires freedom. And what few productions of cultural excellence that do come from totalitarian states are usually statements in opposition to totalitarianism, which only shines a spotlight on the discrepancy.

Editat: juny 12, 2012, 11:27am

Trade may be the leading form of interaction between states, but there are other processes at work.

The Europeans enjoy the defence leadership of the United States. At the same time Europe has incorporated half of the Warsaw Pact into the European Union. Both Europe and the United States have opened up their countries for large groups of Latin Americans (in the US) and people from Islamic countries (Europe). Both have opened their markets particularly for East Asians. The US has accepted a large trade deficit for long periods of time.

American imperialism is "modest". It is not a direct land grab that you can easily rally against. As long as it is not challenged America is mostly more interested in maintaining a status quo.

Editat: juny 12, 2012, 5:23am

Schmitt is a fascist with a deep loathing of liberalism, especially in its Anglo-Saxon form. Thus he wished to decouple mainland Europe from Great Britain and the US. This loathing would've survived the end of the Cold War. Therefore, for Schmitt, I believe this would still be an issue. For him, the cosmopolitanism and universalism that is (in his view) inherent in modern Anglo-American Sea-Power is what must be stopped. I believe that much contemporary Neo-Eurasianist thought (see, for instance, the likes of Alexander Dugin and Lev Gumilev) draws inspiration from Schmitt. I think it would be uncontroversial to say that they look at the world through the lens of land-power.

Now, in World Systems Theory there is a marked post cold war tendency to believe that the far east (especially China) is going to be the next Hegemon. Along these lines see, for instance:
ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Andre Gunder Frank
Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the 21st Century, Giovanni Arrighi
I have found, btw, the studies of trading networks (both modern and pre-modern) by World System theorists to be quite compelling. One of the things that I wanted to discover, after reading the above two books, is whether or not China could be considered a land power or a sea power. On balance, if I understand the contemporary consensus correctly, China over most of her history is a land-power.

Why is that important to me? The dominant trading Hegemons (Venice, the Dutch, Great Britain, US) from the early modern period onwards have all been sea powers. My question is: what happens (in International Law and Economics) when the Hegemon is no longer (at least primarily) a Sea Power? And so, what I wanted to discover when I started this thread is, outside of the small circles of Schmitt studies and neo-Eurasianism, whether or not anyone is writing about this. I suppose that what I am after is the *ethos* of 'land-power' as compared to that of 'sea-power'.

#4 In Schmitts 'Theory of the Partisan' not only does Schmitt take into account Nuclear weapons, he points out the inability of Great Powers to use them. Schmitt would argue that *in fact* a Great Power will only use Nuclear weapons to defend its homeland. If Nuclear weapons cannot be used (except to defend the homeland) for humanitarian reasons then it is they that become irrelevant, - unless someone were stupid to invade the US. I don't see anyone doing that...

juny 13, 2012, 1:33am

If a hegemon is a country with a sphere of influence around it, I would consider China neither a land power nor a sea power.

Since the end of the Tang dynasty China as a state has not shown a profound interest in any country outside its borders, with the probable exception of Tibet. Its expansion was westward, into areas that were a threat to its national security, and it tried to occupy such areas. The influence of China on kingdoms paying tribute was very limited.

Lately, the Chinese navy is protecting international trade alongside other countries near the Horn of Africa. You may doubt however if that is an expression of China’s development as a sea power, or just an expression of its new international orientation. So far there are no countries within a sphere of influence.

That said, if I had to choose between the two options I’d say China has been more a land power than a sea power. China’s attitude has led to large minority areas within its borders, where China sets the tone. China has always been a country with centralised standards, although not always universally successful in implementing them.