“The sovereign is he who decides on the exception,” said conservative thinker Carl Schmitt in 1922, meaning that a nation’s leader can defy the law to serve the greater good. Though Schmitt’s service as Nazi Germany’s chief jurist and his unwavering support for Hitler from the night of the long knives to Kristallnacht and beyond damaged his reputation for decades, today his ideas have achieved unimagined influence. They have, in fact, shaped the neo-conservative view of presidential power that has become broadly bipartisan since 9/11. Indeed, Schmitt has influenced American politics directly through his intellectual protégé Leo Strauss who, as an émigré professor at the University of Chicago, trained Bush administration architects of the Iraq war Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky.
All that should be impressive enough for a discredited, long dead authoritarian thinker. But Schmitt’s dictum also became a philosophical foundation for the exercise of American global power in the quarter century that followed the end of the Cold War. Washington, more than any other power, created the modern international community of laws and treaties, yet it now reserves the right to defy those same laws with impunity. A sovereign ruler should, said Schmitt, discard laws in times of national emergency. So the United States, as the planet’s last superpower or, in Schmitt’s terms, its global sovereign, has in these years repeatedly ignored international law, following instead its own unwritten rules of the road for the exercise of world power.
Just as Schmitt’s sovereign preferred to rule in a state of endless exception without a constitution for his Reich, so Washington is now well into the second decade of an endless War on Terror that seems the sum of its exceptions to international law: endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy. Yet these many American exceptions are just surface manifestations of the ever-expanding clandestine dimension of the American state. Created at the cost of more than a trillion dollars since 9/11, the purpose of this vast apparatus is to control a covert domain that is fast becoming the main arena for geopolitical contestation in the twenty-first century.
This should be (but seldom is considered) a jarring, disconcerting path for a country that, more than any other, nurtured the idea of, and wrote the rules for, an international community of nations governed by the rule of law. At the First Hague Peace Conference in 1899, the U.S. delegate, Andrew Dickson White, the founder of Cornell University, pushed for the creation of a Permanent Court of Arbitration and persuaded Andrew Carnegie to build the monumental Peace Palace at The Hague as its home. At the Second Hague Conference in 1907, Secretary of State Elihu Root urged that future international conflicts be resolved by a court of professional jurists, an idea realized when the Permanent Court of International Justice was established in 1920.