The Art of War and Diplomacy at the Taipei Biennial—With Latour and Schmitt | Paul Jobin

by Critical Asia

by Paul Jobin, June 2021】

From November 2020 to March 2021, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) hosted the Taipei Biennial, curated by renowned French sociologist of science Bruno Latour and two young curators, Martin Guinard and Eva Lin, with the theme “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet.” Along with Chun-Mei Chuang and other colleagues in Taiwan, I was honored to lend a hand as a consultant in preparing this biennial and to take an active part in the organization of some of its side events.

The opening symposium entitled “New Diplomatic Encounters” focused on the art of diplomacy in the age of a climate emergency and a dramatic extinction of species.[1] Drawing on the concepts of “climate war(s)” and “climate diplomacy” as defined by Latour, I seized this opportunity to ask him to clarify an issue that had puzzled me and that I had been hesitant to discuss with him until then: in a nutshell, are the thoughts of Carl Schmitt—the infamous legal scholar who supported the Nazi regime—really essential for addressing the climate war? Below is a revised version of my remarks as well as the answer from Bruno Latour.[2]

Diplomatic Clashes and Climate Wars

The symposium focused on this question: “How can we engage in new diplomatic encounters when our perceptions of the global climate crisis are so divergent that we seem to live on different planets?” My tentative answer followed Latour’s previous insights on the art of diplomacy in the context of what he calls “the new climatic regime” (Latour 2017, 2018), himself drawing on what Michael Mann has called “the climate wars” (Mann 2013; see also Mann 2021).

If Clausewitz famously defined war as the continuation of politics by other means, he provided no clue as to the role of diplomacy, nor did Sun Tzu’s Art of War (孫子兵法). But to put it simply, we can assume that a war starts where diplomacy ends—when diplomatic talks turn into a clash and negotiations end. Once a war has started, diplomacy is suspended between the belligerents, until both sides consider going back to the negotiating table. In other words, diplomacy is an alternative to war, and vice versa.

In Facing Gaia (2017), Latour invites us to depart from the geopolitics of the Westphalian regime and bring geo back to the center of geopolitics, or what he calls Gaia-politics. In Down to Earth (2018, p. 8), he further notes that people usually feel bored if they are invited to defend Nature; but if one raises the issue of defending a territory, everybody gets suddenly much more excited. Indeed, the so-called “environmental issues” are always relegated to the periphery of politics, and hardly ever constitute the core of policy debate.

In Taiwan, over the past forty years, the environmental movement has greatly contributed to the democratization of the country, developing what I call “a civic eco-nationalism,” i.e., a national identity that includes a rather strong ecological mindset (Jobin 2021a). Despite many recent warning signs, such as a sudden decrease in rainfall, the climate emergency has not become a central issue. So far, the focus of Taiwan’s geopolitics remains the traditional issues of cross-strait tensions with China, including the military and economic rivalry between China and the US. This is understandable, for it is indeed a serious issue, a matter of life and death for the people of Taiwan, and the potential trigger of another world war. But is it not possible for Taiwan and other nations to address the climate war with at least a similar level of concern?

A central part of Taipei Biennial 2020 was placed under the notion of the “Terrestrial,” which Latour introduced in Down to Earth as the capacity for humans to be bound to the earth, i.e., to depart from satellite views of “the planet” and look at “environmental issues” the other way around, from ground level. Among the five sections of the biennial, Planet Terrestrial hosted the largest number of art works, most of them dealing with climate and environmental issues, in particular what geologists call “the Critical Zone” (see Photos 1-3 for some examples of the exhibited artwork).[3]

Due to its unique geological and tropical characteristics, Taiwan offers geologists one of the best possible observatories of the Critical Zone (Jobin 2018). Two major geological plates—the Philippine Sea Plate and the Eurasian Plate—collide to the northeast and west of the island of Taiwan, provoking frequent earthquakes. Moreover, exposure to tropical storms and abundant rains cause recurrent landslides. The conjunction of all these factors explains why Taiwan has the world’s fastest erosion rate, which is a key issue to understanding the Earth’s carbon cycle.

In other sections of the Taipei Biennial, such as Planet Security, some of the exhibited artworks brought the climate wars closer to geopolitics in its ordinary definition. Given the constant and growing threat of a Chinese military invasion, from the traditional approach to geopolitics as well, Taiwan can be seen as a very sensitive “critical zone.”[4]

Photo 1. Yu-Hsin Su’s Frame of Reference presents contrasted views of the Critical Zone as studied by geologists in Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge. (Photo: P. Jobin)

Photo 2. Territorial Agency, by John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog, maps the transformation of the ocean in the Anthropocene, with a focus on Taiwan and East Asia. (Photo: P. Jobin)

Photo 3. Aruwai Kaumakan, a Paiwan artist, stands in front of her work Vines in the Mountains. A devastating typhoon in 2009 forced her community to relocate. But her tapestry, which she weaved with her fellow villagers, exudes great vitality. And as the curators of the biennial aptly understood, it means so much more than just an expression of “resilience.” (Photo: P. Jobin)

There is a plurality of wars: wars between countries and empires, civil wars, “ethnic conflicts,” religious wars (and their derivatives such as crusades and Jihad), world wars, “the war of all against all,” “total war,” “just war,” declarations of war against terrorism or against Covid-19, so on and so forth. So why not “climate wars” as introduced by Michael Mann? I admire Mann’s brave struggle against the lobbying of oil majors to deny global warming, and I fully endorse Latour’s “down to earth” redefinition of geopolitics. However, in the case of Covid-19, Latour (2020) distances himself from the “war against the virus.” I have similar reservations about using the war metaphor for the climate issue and its relevance in the particular context of Taiwan and East Asia.

According to public opinion polls, Taiwanese people have been quite concerned about the disasters caused by the climate crisis in the past decade, such as the typhoons and floods that ravaged the south of the island in 2009 (see Photo 3). However, in recent years, and particularly since the outbreak of Covid-19, China has increased its military pressure and ideological warfare against Taiwan tremendously. From Taiwan’s point of view, war is not a metaphor, but a real threat with a high risk of occurrence. In that context, the climate emergency tends to be relegated to a secondary issue.

For the defense of their own sovereignty, countries like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea depend very much on the U.S. Seen from these countries. It is therefore worrying that the presidency of Donald Trump has led the U.S. to the verge of a new civil war, and despite the strong leadership of Joe Biden, the risk will persist as long as the far right-wing of the Republican party continues to stir up conspiracy theories. During the presidency of Barack Obama, although there were racial tensions, there was no such civil division.

On one front, Biden has brought the U.S. back in the climate negotiations, ready to cooperate with China and other countries on the issue. On another front, Biden’s foreign policy has maintained a firm position against China’s military ambitions including Taiwan, and the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Biden and the Democrats intend to fight on the two fronts of climate and China’s authoritarian imperialism. Although this is exactly what has to be done, it is an extremely challenging agenda.

The artwork exhibited in the Planet Security section of the Taipei Biennial carried a taste of these tensions, through a representation of conspiracy theories, the oil lobby and the military-industrial complex (Photos 4-7), problems of national identity, fears of the future and traumas of the past (Photos 8-11).[5]

Photo 4.

Photo 5.

Photo 6.

Photo 7. 
Photos 4-7: Steve Bannon: A Propaganda Retrospective, by Jonas Staal.
(Top three photos by P. Jobin; Taipei Fine Arts Museum courtesy for the bottom one)

Photo 8. Making Friends/ Fire, by Cheng-Te Chin et al.
(Photo: Taipei Fine Arts Museum.)


Photo 9.

Photo 10.

Photo 11.

Photo 12. Photos 9-12: The enemy of my enemy is my friend, by James T. Hong.
(TFAM courtesy for the panoramic photo on top; P. Jobin for the bottom three)

In another section, an installation invited visitors to act as judges of the International Criminal Court to process information about civil wars in Africa.[6] The mysterious astronomic paintings of Ying-Ju Chen (Liquidation Maps) linked the massacres of contemporary Asian history with different stars. All these art works invited the visitors to reflect on how people from different “planets” face violence and war.

Photo 13. Liquidation Maps, by Ying-Ju Chen. (Photo: Taipei Fine Arts Museum)

Latour and Schmitt

A few days before the opening, I had the opportunity to talk with James Hong about his work The enemy of my enemy is my friend, which sketches the scenario of a foreign military invasion of Taiwan, as in a major Hollywood production. Hong conveyed that the title and basic concept of this work are influenced by Carl Schmitt.

This discussion drew me back to the references to Schmitt in the work of Latour. Early occurrences can be found in Politics of Nature (1999 for the original edition in French, 2004 for the English edition), in a couple of footnotes which all refer to The Concept of the Political, Schmitt’s most quoted work. Latour borrows two ideas from Schmitt, which have paved the way to his Gaia-politics and his conception of diplomacy.

The first idea derives directly from Schmitt’s famous distinction between a friend and an enemy (Latour 2004, pp. 278-279, n. 64). The second is “the absence of any agreed-on arbiter,” and consequently, war should not be mistaken for a police operation. In addition, the “diplomat is franker than the referee: at least he recognizes that there is a war” (op. cit., p. 283, n. 35). This approach to diplomacy was at the core of the Taipei Biennial 2020, as symbolized by both the opening symposium “Diplomatic Encounters” and the serial events of “Negotiation Theaters” (see Photos 13-14 and the TFAM website).

Photo 14. Theaters of Negotiation, Taipei Biennial. (Photos: P. Jobin)

One of the footnotes in Politics of Nature included a caveat as a half-joke, so characteristic of Latour’s style: “To make his work usable, I have had to undertake a risky genetic manipulation and blend Schmitt’s ‘enemy’ with Hans Jonas’s ‘sense of danger’” (Latour 2004, p. 282, n. 27). Some sixteen years later, in Facing Gaia Chapter 7, Latour follows frankly and extensively on Schmitt. The goal is to re-politicize the ecological issue as a “state of exception,” i.e., a situation of war in which one must clearly distinguish between enemies and allies. This time Latour refers not only to The Concept of the Political, but also several other books such as Political Theology—Schmitt’s major work, as well as The Nomos of the Earth—a rather neglected work among Schmitt’s long list of publications.

To sum up, according to Latour’s reading of Schmitt, in politics, there can be no independent, transcendent judges to decide between winners and losers. War is therefore the ultimate stage of politics: if diplomatic negotiations fail, there is no other choice but to begin a war. In “the Anthropocene, all the dreams entertained by the deep ecologists of seeing humans cured of their political quarrels solely through the conversion of their care for Nature have flown away” (Latour 2017, p. 142). Or as formulated even more abruptly in the Gifford lectures that preceded the publication of Facing Gaia: “The great virtue of dangerous and reactionary thinkers like Schmitt is to force us to make a choice much starker than that of so many wishy-washy ecologists still swayed by unremitting hope” (Quoted in Harman 2014, p.143).

From his very early works, Latour has looked at scientists in action as warriors in an agonistic field (Schmidgen 2015, pp. 35-37). This is best exemplified by the subtitle of the original version of his book on Pasteur, inspired by Tolstoy’s famous novel: guerre et paix des microbes (war and peace of microbes).[7] In Facing Gaia, Michael Mann’s experience of “the climate wars” (Mann 2013) and Carl Schmitt’s theory of the enemy have further encouraged Latour to underline the agonistic dimensions of the climate emergency. Certainly, Schmitt’s theoretical framework enriches and scales up the debate on climate change. But it brings with it a range of problems, starting with Schmitt’s fundamental attachment to Nazi ideology, which might be worth a little more concern than just a quick humorous preamble on Schmitt’s toxic but unavoidable character:

To move ahead with these delicate and risky questions, I am going to turn to the author the least apt to reassure you, the toxic and nevertheless indispensable Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). The Nazi legal scholar can be likened to a poison kept in a laboratory for the moment when one needs an active principle powerful enough to counterbalance other even more dangerous poisons: it is all a matter of dosage! (Latour 2017, p. 228)

This caveat echoes the title of Jan-Werner Müller’s important study on Schmitt’s influence on European intellectuals; Schmitt is basically and forever A Dangerous Mind. The problem is that Latour does not thereafter provide a protocol of use, precautions and dosage of Schmitt.

Do we really need Schmitt that badly?

To be honest, the very name of Schmitt makes me uncomfortable, for I cannot help but be reminded of the Nazi death camps, which continue to haunt the minds of average contemporary European liberals of my generation. For Adorno, Hitler was the fundamental difficulty of postwar philosophy (Heubel 2019). But apart from a brief condemnation of the genocide Schmitt never repented his ethical responsibility for supporting the Nazi system, and he never departed from vile antisemitism (Balakrishnan 2000, Müller 2003).

Another cause of discomfort comes from China. Over the past two decades, the work of Schmitt has nurtured an academic fever, in particular among the Neo-Confucian Maoists who ideologically support the authoritarian rule of the communist party (Xie and Haig 2020). Encouraged by Schmitt’s radical criticism of Western liberalism as well as his praise of Mao Zedong (in Theory of the Partisan), scholars such as Liu Xiaofeng, Gan Yang and Zhang Xudong are fond of Schmitt, especially his conception of the state and his theory of the enemy (Kai and Shaw 2017). There are also relatively marginal political thinkers such as Zheng (2015) who argues that Schmitt’s political theory—as well as Mao’s to a lesser extent—can be beneficial to Chinese liberalism and the transition from an authoritarian state toward democracy.

Another harsh and well-disseminated criticism of Western liberalism, Zhao Tingyang’s Tianxia theory (2019 [2011]), departs from Schmitt’s theory of the enemy, arguing that this dualistic logic has caused global disasters and that China could provide an alternative model of development.[8] In any case, these intellectuals are very well at ease with the regime of Xi Jinping and the CCP’s policies in Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Hong Kong, as well as plans to “reunify” Taiwan. When I evoked these problems during the opening conference of the Taipei Biennial, Latour reacted as follows:

The definition of war and peace is determined by the fact that there is no independent, superior referee. There used to be, and it was called “natural law.” But this has been called into question by the climatic transformation. So, we [cannot] choose between types of wars, the geopolitical war and what I could call the Gaia-political war, for these are simultaneous. The pandemic has added another form of war. There is no way to escape that situation, for instance by focusing on the geopolitical one. All these wars are embedded in one another, and this is the tragedy in which we find ourselves.

The notion of occupying another land is also true of the way, for instance, European CO2 is invading other countries in the Pacific. This problem also applies to economic choices made by every country, which include for instance how the globalization of Taiwan’s industry occupies other lands. So, there is no way you can choose your war. You can choose your enemy, but you cannot choose not to fight all of those at once. In addition, in the case of ecological wars, we are divided among ourselves. I would love to fly to Taipei, but I am shamed by my own grandkids for taking the plane.

Abandoning the abominable Carl Schmitt is not the solution I would agree on. Carl Schmitt is very badly understood, and the only thing I refer to here is precisely that the enemy is the most difficult thing to detect, precisely because it is confused with other forms of hatred. So, of course a show like this one is an experiment in exploring friends and enemies. […] And Taiwan is an absolutely crucial site for understanding interlocking controversies.[9]

All right then, I get your point, Herr Master! So I will try my best to read this terrorist thinker Schmitt. But I will be very careful, with a pen in my right hand and a reminder in my left of the problem of ethics—which is at least as unavoidable as identifying the enemy. I am encouraged in that direction by Emmanuel Levinas whose family in Lithuania was almost entirely massacred by the Nazis. After the war, Levinas distanced himself from Heidegger and gradually made a major shift from ontology to ethics. To my limited knowledge of Latour’s long list of publications, he never refers to Levinas; perhaps he finds him too anthropocentric, although Levinas’ ethics of responsibility might also be found in the gaze of a gorilla or another non-human.

In addition to Latour, many other important European philosophers, such as Derrida, Mouffe, Žižek and Agamben have engaged with the work of Schmitt, with more or less critical distance. In his second intellectual biography of Latour, Graham Harman (2014) devotes one chapter to Schmitt, whom he presents as an “interesting reactionary” on “Latour’s right flank.” Yet, according to Harman, Latour’s reading of Schmitt is quite similar to that of radical left-wing Chantal Mouffe who has framed Schmitt as a dangerous but worthy challenge. In contrast, Žižek—another icon of the radical left— addresses a criticism of Schmitt that misses the target for it confuses politics and ethics.

But is it that easy to separate ethics from politics? War itself is not totally detached from ethics. Otherwise, the worst becomes acceptable. Since World War II, there have been efforts to impose some minimum rules through the condemnation of genocide, mass murder and sexual violence, and the prohibition of chemical weapons. Of course, there is no great referee to impose punishment, except for the necessarily imperfect diplomacy of the United Nations and its arms like the U.N. Human Rights Council—currently discussing the situation in Xinjiang—or the U.N. conferences on climate change.

Where is the enemy?

In conclusion, let us follow Latour on the simultaneity of climate and conventional warfare and see how we can identify our enemies on these two fronts. Once the enemies are identified, how should we prepare ourselves? Moreover, given the limitations of time and resources, what trade-offs should be made?

In the case of Taiwan, threatened by a military invasion from China, the enemy is relatively easy to identify. However, the Taiwanese are not united in that enmity, as exemplified by their political parties, with an ambiguous KMT generally unwilling to criticize Beijing’s fundamentally aggressive behaviors, but quick to blame the DPP for provoking it (Jobin 2021b).

In the case of the climate emergency, however, it is not that simple; there exists a multiplicity of enemies. Or as Latour further added in an interview:

The two kinds of wars, geopolitical and geological, both have their indivisible physicality. The carbon emissions of China and the United States surround and occupy the island of Taiwan, which is therefore confronted at the same time with the geopolitical and environmental wars from the two hegemons. But unlike wars in international relations, the front line of environmental wars is more difficult to clearly depict. Therefore, we must think of the two wars together. (Liu 2020)

In Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan, the authors draw on Hobbes’ famous political model and Schmitt’s reading of Hobbes to introduce their concepts of “Climate Leviathan” as a global capitalist regime, and “Climate Mao” as its anti-capitalist equivalent. Under that theoretical framework, we can see Taiwan’s late nationalism as a borderland between the Chinese and U.S. empires (Wu 2016), or a hot critical zone, a high-risk area.

In the competition for global hegemony between the two empires, Taiwan is always at risk of being abandoned to its own fate. This will not happen as long as Taiwan can maintain American support, thanks in particular to its semiconductor industry, which plays a vital role in the supply chain of many industries—including armaments (Jobin 2021b). As Latour reminds us, this global supply chain carries a heavy carbon footprint of its own.

Moreover, the semiconductor industry needs abundant clean water. Given its subtropical location, well exposed to typhoons from the Pacific Ocean, frequent rains used to be taken for granted in Taiwan. Exceptionally, the summer of 2020 was marked by the absence of typhoons, and since then rainfall has been so scarce that Taiwan had to face its worst water shortage in fifty-six years. As one might expect, this phenomenon is likely due to climate change. This water shortage also implies a multidimensional security concern, for rice farmers have been sacrificed on the altar of semiconductors (Cui 2021). The combination of all these factors should make it clear that traditional geopolitical concerns are now completely entangled with the climate emergency.

Covid-19 is another reminder of the proliferation of enemies. The causes of the pandemic remain unverified, and given China’s secrecy, we will probably never know the full picture. The WHO team of researchers concluded on a mix of factors centered on a zoonotic contagion from bats to humans through pigs or another animal, but likely not the pangolin (Zhou et al. 2021). And an accidental release from a lab such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology cannot be excluded (Bloom et al. 2021).

In any case, investigations on the contemporary proliferation of zoonoses emphasize the destruction of ecosystems. Natural habitats supporting biodiversity, such as tropical rain forests, host both the causes and the solutions to viruses; their destruction therefore means more frequent interactions or “epidemiological bridges” from wild animals (like bats) to farm animals (like pigs) and humans (Quanmen 2012, Keck 2020). Or as Chun-Mei Chuang (2020) aptly puts it, “life is an infection,” and the Anthropocene is also a Virocene: “As an intermediary, viruses often transform the modes of connection between individuals, populations, species, and within ecosystems and affect the ecosystem’s overall health.”

Consequently, vaccines are only ex post and provisory measures, certainly not preventive and long-term solutions as holistic approaches focused on ecology recommend. If the pandemic is “a dress rehearsal” for ecological change (Latour 2020), the climate war cannot be reduced to only one enemy, “for the battle fronts are multiple and cross each one of us” (ibid.).

* Acknowledgments to Rebecca Fite for proofreading.

Paul Jobin, Academia Sinica, Taiwan


[1] See the program of the opening conference “New Diplomatic Encounters: Taipei Biennial 2020 Symposium.” See also the presentation and the catalogue of the exhibition: Taipei Biennial 2020 “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet, and for a virtual visit:

[2] A first version of this paper was initially published in Chinese (see Jobin 2020b).

[3] See also the Taipei Biennial website: Planet Terrestrial.

[4] On this dual aspect of the critical zone in Taiwan, see Jobin 2018, 2020a. On the Critical Zone in general, see the catalogue of another exhibition also co-curated by Latour, at ZKM in Germany: Latour and Weibel 2020. This magnificent book was selected by the New York Times as one of the best art books of the year.

[5] See also the Taipei Biennial website: Planet Security.

[6] See Franck Leibovici and Julien Seroussi’s “muzungu (those who go round and round in circles).”

[7] Latour 1988, for the English edition.

[8] For a critique of Zhao Tingyang’s biased understanding of Tianxia, see Heurtebise 2020.

[9]New Diplomatic Encounters: Taipei Biennial 2020 Symposium” (Video recording), Taipei, 21 November 2020.


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