Who Are Our Enemies?

Indonesian Muslim protesters burn a mock U.S. flag during a protest in Jakarta

The question, who are our enemies, throws us immediately into the heart of politics. At least that was the view of central figures in the tradition of political thought. “Doing good to friends and harm to enemies” is Polemarchus’s definition of justice in Book I of Plato’s Republic, and while Socrates trips him up on whether he means those who appear to be or those who truly are friends and enemies, as well as whether a just man would harm anyone, the distinction resonates throughout the dialogue. Passing over the famous command in the Gospel to “love your enemies,” Christ’s kingdom being “not of this world,” one finds friends and enemies throughout the writings of Machiavelli, though now defined contingently: Your “friends” are those who depend on you and whom you thus control, while enemies are potential “friends.” George Washington, in his Farewell Address, advises his countrymen against permanent friendship and enmity abroad, adding that to popular governments “the spirit of party” is “truly their worst enemy.”

In 1932, German political scientist Carl Schmitt argued that the friend-enemy distinction defined what he called “the concept of the political.” For Schmitt this difference was existential—the enemy is one who wishes to destroy you and your people, and whom you and your people have permission to kill—and every other opposition, whether religious, economic, cultural, or the like, becomes political precisely at the moment it makes men willing to fight to the death. Schmitt was a critic of liberalism, which he says claims to see only opponents and competitors, not enemies, asserting that in fact liberals treat as enemies those who support pre-liberal institutions, hence their willingness to fight “a war to end all wars.” Liberals, in other words, don’t face the truth about politics and certainly don’t transform politics. Then a young German scholar, Leo Strauss, wrote a response to Schmitt’s essay, agreeing with his critique of liberalism but suggesting that Schmitt, too, remained captivated by liberal premises, recognizing (along with the early liberals like Hobbes) the dangerousness of man, but overlooking the fact that politics involves not only war but rule, and so requires an ordering of the claims to rule—a political regime—not only a battle array. It was no accident that in the decade that followed Schmitt became a tool of the Nazis, while Strauss came to America in exile, making his peace with liberal democracy as the best practicable order in the modern world.

How should Americans answer the question, who are our enemies? Let me suggest the following maxim: Our political enemies are those who would, and also can, destroy our lives, our liberty, and our property. A competitor is not an enemy, at least if he competes by legitimate means, even if the consequence of his success is our loss; a competitor in business may make a more successful product or provide a better service and consequently diminish our profit, but that gives us a reason to strive, not an excuse to fight. Nor is our political opponent an enemy, even if he defeats us at the polls and thus deprives us of honor and office; there is always another election to be contested, and so long as our rights to criticize and campaign remain intact, there is no excuse for taking up arms. This way of thinking supposes, of course, certain common goods—an improving economy in the first example, a peaceful alternation of power in the second—and although it is easy for us Americans to take these for granted, in the grand scheme of history, these are enormous human achievements.

The reader will have noticed that I qualify an enemy’s intention to harm with his ability to harm. Those with bad intentions need to be watched, but to declare them enemies when they are impotent is as likely to empower them—if only with the courage wrought by desperation—as it is to intimidate them, despite our enormous military strength. Whether to declare is a matter of prudence, which perhaps counsels erring on the side of caution when at issue is a terrorist threat to our homeland, while erring on the side of indulgence when the threat is distant. Though enemy terrorists need to be anticipated, other enemies may be watched and weakened without direct engagement, in proportion to their ability to harm. It is important to remember that the Cold War was won with limited fighting overall and none directly between its chief protagonists; in fact, it was won by spiritual resolve and economic strength, with military power in reserve.

The reader also may have noticed that I wrote of threats to our lives, liberties, and property, not to those of everyone everywhere. The attitude that would make America responsible for universal protection would simultaneously condition her liberty of action upon universal approbation, asking of us more than we can achieve and constraining us more than we can accept. We see this attitude now on one side of the political spectrum, now on the other, and both should be resisted. At the same time, we are a country with interests spread around the globe, with real ties to the people of all nations, and these interests include not only matters of particular advantage but matters of principle governing the relations of all peoples: for example, an interest in the freedom of the seas from piracy, in the flow of capital around the world and in free trade for all peoples, in human rights, in religious liberty. Because we are a great power with far-flung interests, we cannot ignore real problems in places where Americans are involved, not least because our inaction will often be interpreted as weakness, even when we mean only to allow others room to choose. We cannot right every wrong and will do wrong if we try, but we do have responsibilities where wrongs develop in the wake of our deeds.

So, then, to name names, who are our enemies? Al-Qaeda, to be sure, and since that is an amorphous and shifting organization, perhaps we should refer more generally to Islamic terrorism, whose principal target we are. The difficulty in identifying this enemy should not obscure their intention—dramatically successful in the surprise attacks of September 11, 2001—to destroy our lives and property and to threaten our liberty. Differences between the Bush and Obama administrations over how to identify dangerous terrorists and how wide to cast the net to subsume those who aid and abet them should not obscure the consensus about fundamental enmity here. Are the various dictators in the Islamic world also our enemies? Those who supported terrorism were, while others proved to be our allies against these, and still others sometimes helped, sometimes hindered. There is no simple yardstick by which to measure friends and enemies in this part of the world (although their civility or incivility toward our ally Israel is a critical indicator). It is good counsel to be wary of dictators as friends, both because their hold on power is often tenuous and because their regimes usually contradict in their own affairs the principles for which we are known to stand. Such concerns are allayed insofar as we can nudge those with whom we deal toward constitutional government—a better standard than mere majority rule in many places.

Is China our enemy? Now and again there is a voice that urges us to imagine so, and it is important to remember that their regime remains a one-party dictatorship that is hostile to many human rights—but for the most part, the commercial and cultural ties between our countries grow more intricate every year. They may be our competitor in many respects on the world stage as the century progresses, but it is an element of American magnanimity that we welcome their development, indeed welcome the development of economies and cultures around the world, confident that all peoples benefit from mutual exchange, ourselves of course included. How about Russia? Events unfolding in the Ukraine as I write have reminded Americans of Cold War rivalries, but it is important to recognize that Russian aspirations, however imperial, are no longer revolutionary in the manner in which Communist and for that matter Fascist aspirations were revolutionary: The totalitarians’ expansion knew no limit, and they meant to subject our regime to their plans of global conquest. That does not appear to be true any more of either Russia or China, although we ought to be wary of the corrupting influence of oligarchs on the workings of the world market, and we ought not easily acquiesce when they bully their neighbors who are also our friends.

I’ve written at some length about our enemies abroad. Do we also have enemies at home? We certainly see domestic opponents more clearly and feel the effects of their political victories more immediately most of the time, and it is easy to find opponents’ policies a threat to our liberties and property—that is, each side feels the threat of the other, which sometimes seems to challenge a whole way of life. Nevertheless, so long as the practices and basic principles of our constitutional democracy are respected, our opponents might be our competitors, but it would be wrong to call them enemies. Remember the wisdom of Washington: the greatest enemy, he said, is not the other party, but the spirit of party, and that might infect our political friends as well as our political opponents. American power in the world depends upon our ability to debate the most serious matters in an atmosphere of civic friendship and then to stand together behind those principles and policies we share.

James R. Stoner, Jr. is Garwood Visiting Professor and Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program for 2013-14 and Professor of Political Science at Louisiana State University. He is the author of Common-Law Liberty: Rethinking American Constitutionalism (Kansas, 2003) and Common Law and Liberal Theory: Coke, Hobbes, and the Origins of American Constitutionalism (Kansas, 1992), as well as a number of articles and essays. A Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, he has co-edited two books, The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (with Donna M. Hughes, 2010), and Rethinking Business Management: Examining the Foundations of Business Education (with Samuel Gregg, 2007). He served on the National Council on the Humanities from 2002 to 2006, chaired his department at LSU from 2007-2013, and served as acting dean of the LSU Honors College in Fall 2010. He earned a B.A. from Middlebury College and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University. He can be reached at jstoner@princeton.edu

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