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🔗 Mini book review: “The West Divided”, Jürgen Habermas

Written in the early 2000s, “The West Divided” is a collection of interviews, newspaper articles and an essay by Habermas about post-9/11 international politics and the different approaches taken by the US through the Bush administration and the EU, through a philosophical lens.

The structure of the book helps the reader, by starting with transcripts from interviews and articles, which use a more direct language and establish some concepts explained by Habermas to the interviewers, and then proceeding with a more formal academic work in the form of the essay of the last part, which is a more difficult read. Habermas discusses the idealist and realist schools of international relations, aligning the idealist school with Kant’s project and the evolution of the EU, and opposing it to the realist school proposed by authors such as Carl Schmitt, a leading scholar from Nazi Germany. Habermas proposes a future of the Kantian project which lies in the ultimate development of cosmopolitan (i.e. worldwide) juridical institutions, such that cosmopolitan law gives rights directly to (all) people, rather than as a layer of inter-national law between states.

It was especially timely to read this book in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and to have this theoretical background at hand when watching John Mearsheimer’s talk from 2015 on “Why Ukraine is the West’s Fault”. Mearsheimer, an American professor in the University of Chicago and himself a noted realist, gives an excellent talk and makes a very important point that in international conflict one needs to understand how the other side thinks — instead of “idealist” vs. “realist” (which are clearly loaded terms) he used himself the terms “19th century people” to refer to himself, Putin, and the Chinese leadership, as opposed to “21st century people” to refer to the leaders in the EU and in Washington.

It is interesting to see Mearsheimer put the European and American governments in the same bucket, when Habermas’s book very much deals with the opposition of their views, down to the book’s very title. Habermas wrote “The West Divided” during the Bush administration, and the Mearsheimer talk was given during the Obama years, but he stated he saw no difference between Democrats and Republicans in this regard. Indeed, in what concerns international law, what we’ve seen from Obama wasn’t that different from what we saw before or afterwards — perhaps different in rhetoric, but not so much in actions, as he broke his promise of shutting down Guantanamo and continued the policy of foreign interventions.

As much as Mearsheimer’s analysis is useful to understand Putin, Habermas’s debate that there are different ways to see a future beyond endless Schmittian regional conflicts is still a valid one. And we get a feeling that all is not lost whenever we see that there are still leaders looking to build a future of cosmopolitan cooperation more in line with Kant’s ideals. Martin Kimani, the Kenyan envoy to the UN said this regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

This situation echoes our history. Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon, with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.

Today, across the border of every single African country, live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural, and linguistic bonds. At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial, or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later.

Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited, but we would still pursue continental political, economic, and legal integration. Rather than form nations that looked ever backwards into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known. We chose to follow the rules of the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations charter, not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.

We believe that all states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration with peoples in neighboring states. This is normal and understandable. After all, who does not want to be joined to their brethren and to make common purpose with them? However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force. We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.

Words to build a new future by.


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