#6.1: the nomos of the earth

"We cling to the hope that we will find the normative order of the earth."

In 1950 Carl Schmitt published a work with this title; perhaps my little essay is a sort of sequel. Nomos is a Greek word meaning “essential order,” roughly equivalent to what was once called “natural law,” but at the level of nations rather than persons.

There are two good reasons for you to start your new job, as the prince of Columbia, with a firm understanding of this great subject: the nomos of the earth.

One: as a serious person, you never do anything without understanding the law. This is even true when that law is unenforced—like the nomos of the earth. John Austin, the legal positivist, called international law “not law, but morality.” Be that as it may, law or action which conflicts with morality is no reed to lean on. Rather, the natural law of nations is the formal context within which every true and worthy regime must operate.

Two: with the territory and powers of the old United States, your regime is in the best position to found that next nomos. The nomos of the earth, though natural, is arbitrary. It will not find itself or found itself. It must be found, then founded. This is both one race you want to win, and one you definitely don’t want to lose.

The natural law of nations

Again, the nomos of the earth is the natural law of nations. Since Schmitt’s book is both copyrighted and (as Schmitt himself would agree) outdated, a better primer is a period prequel: Vattel’s Law of Nations, that bible of the old European multipolar order, the jus publicum Europaeum, whose death—or perhaps, killing—Schmitt was lamenting. Vattel was the primary reference text of America’s own founding statesmen.

Vattel’s subtitle is “Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns.” Few today read this once-standard reference, since the international law of Vattel (and his many predecessors, whom he only summarizes) is no longer operational. Nor is there any way to restore this classical international law, even though the modern international law that displaced it pretends to be the original, because the details of Vattel are specific to a preindustrial world that no longer exists.

Yet reading Vattel remains a good exercise, especially for an American or a European, because it shows you the difference between a true multipolar order and the unipolar order that replaced it—but still, with history’s usual chutzpah, pretends to be it.

Anyone who reads Vattel in our century can see that his law died long ago—because of how thoroughly and systematically it has long been broken. For example, Vattel writes:

A people which places itself under the dominion of another is no longer a state, and can no longer avail itself directly of the law of nations. Such were the nations and kingdoms which the Romans rendered subject to their empire; the generality even of those whom they honoured with the name of friends and allies no longer formed real states. Within themselves, they were governed by their own laws and magistrates; but without, they were in every thing obliged to follow the orders of Rome; they dared not of themselves either to make war or contract alliances.

This description obviously applies just as well to both Soviet and American “allies.” We shall return to Vattel’s acid-test for sovereignty under classical international law: the jus ad bellum, the sovereign right to make war.

The heart of modern international law is the right of the international community, which just happens to be shaped rather like the 200-year-old Anglo-American empire, to distinguish between ethical and unethical war, and use the former to stop the latter.

(If you want to annoy a diplomat, ask him to explain the difference between “global leadership” and “world domination.” Smile at him the whole time, as if you know exactly what he’s saying. If your man somehow stammers to a finish without just tipping the table and lunging at you in a blind rage, try him next on “democracy,” which is good but “politics” is bad—but why? Make sure there’s some Mace in your purse.)

As Schmitt observes, this unipolar design is not just in conflict with the classical law; it is actually a resurrection of the medieval law of nations, with its concept of “just war.” Naturally it was the Vatican which decided whether a war was just—and shifting this onus to the Truman Building only reflects Washington’s role as the Fourth Rome.

Compare this resurrected, and hilariously self-serving, neo-medieval Anglo-American just-war theory, with the neutral and scientific Enlightenment perspective of Vattel. The 18th century sees right through the 20th:

Every nation in fact maintains that she has justice on her side in every dispute that happens to arise; and it does not belong to either of the parties interested, or to other nations, to pronounce a judgment on the contested question. The party who is in the wrong is guilty of a crime against her own conscience; but as there exists a possibility that she may perhaps have justice on her side, we cannot accuse her of violating the laws of society.

Or as Francis Bacon put it, earlier and more theologically:

Wars are no massacres and confusions, but they are the highest trial of right, when princes and states, that acknowledge no superior on earth, shall put themselves upon the justice of God for the deciding of their controversies by such success as it shall please Him to give to either side.

Welp—God apparently decided that He didn’t like Nazis. God, as Bismarck observed, always had a soft spot for the United States. Schmitt did work for Hitler for a while, though it didn’t really work out. Schmitt did not have a soft spot for the United States.

The next multipolar nomos

Yet even Schmitt, even in 1950, foresaw that the America which stood knife in hand over the corpse of the nomos of old Europe—which well deserved its fate, since all nations are Cain and none is Abel, history being in Maistre’s words a vast bloody altar—would in the next century be granted the sacred duty of carving, from the repugnant, hypocritical carcass of its own 20th-century empire, the next nomos of the earth. 

That order must be genuinely, and stably, multipolar. Most historical developments in civilization have come from multipolar orders which shared a supranational nomos or jus gentium: the ancient Mediterranean, Warring States China, Renaissance Italy, etc.

The evidence for this pattern of success is so strong that we need not even explain its mechanism. It may be related to the reasons why competitive markets produce more effective organizations than monopolistic markets. In the multipolar world, each pole is competing with the others and under tension to perform.

Yet it was geography that made the old multipolar world, and geography is dead in a ditch with a silicon bullet in its head. Vattel never dreamed of a world without silence or distance, a world where Peking eats fresh Maine lobster, Saudis blow up New York, and Mongolian mule herders rent Internet sex from camwhores in Capetown.

Nature is reality, so technology is part of nature. The natural law is the law of reality, which includes technology. And the fundamental problem of the new nomos is the reconciliation of modern technology—especially in transportation and communication—with premodern decentralization.

So the nomos of the earth is international law—”but not as we know it, Jim.” The “international law” of the 20th century, though it claims its legitimacy as the historical heir of classical European diplomacy, is an impostor. It would horrify Vattel. It is a false nomos: a unipolar order demanding the respect due only to multipolar orders. And oddly, this transition seemed to involve being conquered by the other hemisphere— as if what happened was not just unimaginably noble, but also unimaginably sordid.

Arguably, most of the world’s chaos today is caused by the falsity of this unipolar order, whose center of gravity once was London and now is Washington. Yet we cannot simply revert to Vattel, because Vattel was writing for the vanished premodern world. The past can inspire us; it can teach us; but it can never be our destination.

Technical advances and the law of nations

There are three major technical changes in the problem of applying the “Principles of Nature “to the “Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns” in the 21st century. These changes are in transportation, communication, and war.

Military technology is the most interesting. Transportation and communication just get faster; war is hard to extrapolate. It is not enough to design a new nomos for the early 21st century. A nomos is not a disposable product. It should still fit the late 21st, even the 22nd. And weapons are part of technology, which is part of nature.

So—on the way to designing the new nomos of the earth, already half an exercise in science fiction, we have no choice but to take a stab at imagining futuristic weaponry. H.G. Wells mixed these genres too; his “tanks” aged better than his Stalin interview…

[The rest of Chapter 6, whose draft is about 15K words right now, will come out as quick bites like this one—which will all be paywalled, because we have finally gotten to the fun part of Gray Mirror. This should be your cue to…]

[It’s also worth noting that for this brief moment in time, your friends can find Gray Mirror through the Substack leaderboard—#15 in politics, last I checked. This might strengthen your confidence, which is only human, to the point where you dare to…]

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