Kant's 'perpetual peace': utopia or political guide?

About the author
Herfried Münkler is a professor and regular commentator on global affairs in the German media.

In the history of political thought Immanuel Kant’s 1795 treatise Perpetual Peace is not unique. It is part of a long tradition of works attempting to answer the question of how war, the scourge of humanity, could be ended.

The possibility of achieving this goal through political means – that is, not waiting for a miracle, such as the creation of a new world, nor the birth of a child-peacemaker as in Virgil – is a concept that can be traced back at least to the Florentine poet and political theorist Dante Alighieri, in his De Monarchia (c. 1313).

Four centuries later, the European universal genius Gottfried Leibniz, in Corpus Juris Gentium (1693) considered this same possibility, as did the Abbé de St. Pierre, who created a detailed plan for the foundation of perpetual peace. At the end of the 18th century, with the publication of Kant’s treatise, a flood of texts addressed the possibility of the creation of a lasting peace in Europe.

Roger Scruton started it, with his characteristically incisive and provocative essay “Immanuel Kant and the Iraq war” (February 2004); Antje Vollmer continued the discussion with “Immanuel Kant and Iraq: a reply” (April 2004)

The hope of perpetual peace at the end of the 18th century was, then, grounded in generations of European thinking. But it arose afresh at the end of a century that had begun belligerently and culminated brutally with Napoleon’s revolutionary wars. Amid fear and uneasiness in Europe, the French Revolution promoted the idea among many, including Immanuel Kant, that reason itself could be realised in politics.

This leads Kant to pose a further question: could such a development also hold true for the foundation of perpetual peace?

Kant’s essay is not a utopian venture. A utopian work, following its classic elaboration in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), is a treatise that compares an existing condition with an imaginary alternative in which the commentator finds himself without being able to explain what path was necessary to arrive there. Kant’s peace treatise is of a different order: rather than “entering” the condition of perpetual peace, it considers the steps necessary to reach this goal. Thus, contrary to a widely-held interpretation, Kant’s work is a political guide rather than the sketch of a utopia, and should be read as such.

From leader to law

Kant’s prognosis differs from Dante’s requirements for lasting peace in Europe, written almost five hundred years earlier. Dante put all hope in the effectiveness of a self-asserting political elite, such as (for example) a Kaiser unlimited by popish opposition in matters of conflict resolution and the negotiation of peace.

Kant renounces the installation of such a political elite. He believes peace in Europe can only be achieved and secured by increasing the importance of the rule of law in relations between states. Moreover, a vital condition has to be met: these states are republics whose citizens – and not an individual or elite – have the last word regarding decisions of war and peace.

Coming soon on openDemocracy: David Held’s major essay on “Globalisation: the danger and the answer”, which starts from Immanuel Kant’s reflection that human beings are “unavoidably side by side”. See also his “Violence and justice in a global age” (September 2001)

Kant renounces the political elite as guarantor and enforcer of law and order for more fundamental reasons than mere political pragmatism. His emphasis on a federation of states able, in cooperation with individual states and their citizens, to take responsibility for preserving the law, is a crucial protection against possible despotism.

A leader of the peace, who would embody in his or her own person the responsibility for international administration and enforcement of justice, would, Kant fears, quickly become a despot.

In a word: if Dante’s plan for peace can be described as imperial, Kant’s design for perpetual peace can be considered republican.

From empire to federation

As the east-west conflict ended and the search for a new world order began in the early 1990s, Kant’s design received renewed attention – and its emerging contrast to Dante’s plan shadowed the evolving differences between European and American visions of what that post-cold war world order should be.

As the decade developed, European visions of world order increasingly seemed more oriented to Kant’s guidelines, while the basis of world order in American politics seemed rooted more in the Dantian than in the Kantian model. It is significant that recent polemics of journalists close to official United States policies are highly critical towards the treatise of Perpetual Peace. An example is Robert Kagan’s On paradise and power, which repeats the familiar claim that Kant’s treatise is nothing more than a utopia – and whose author sees Europe “entering a [Kantian] post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity”, while the United States remains “mired in history”.

For two representative views in openDemocracy of international relations from American and European perspectives during the approach to war in Iraq, see John Hulsman, “The violations of Gerhard Schröder” (December 2002) and Mary Kaldor, “In place of war, open up Iraq” (February 2003)

This, to repeat, was not the case when the essay was written. In the hands of a Kantian, of course, it could have acquired that interpretation in the intervening period. Europe’s political history in the decades after the second world war – from the slow expansion of the European Union to the end of east-west confrontation – could be understood as a step-by-step realisation of Kant’s venture. Yet it would still be misleading to view Kant’s federation of states as a model for the organisation either of European or of global relations.

It is true that the contemporary European balance of power stands in the background of Kant’s considerations. He frequently mentions it in his work on international law. In Kant’s conception, the reciprocity of a peace that ensures security, law and order relies on the tendency towards a balance of power between European states; no balance means no reciprocity. In this sense, Kant’s federation of states does not account for a superpower like the United States; unquestionably a political realist, Kant would have realised that such an overwhelmingly superior power could not be fitted into his projected structure.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and possibly the European part of Nato can justifiably be considered, to a certain extent, as embodiments of a federation of states as Immanuel Kant might have envisioned them. But to apply this concept on a global scale to the United Nations, or to project other developments in this direction, would be a daring step. Both the quasi-imperial position of the United States in the world community, and the phenomenon of “collapsed” or “failed” states on its forsaken fringes, indicates otherwise.

In this situation, Kant would be too much of a realist to follow his own guideline. His plan for peace applies to a European federation of states; he views the large empires on their periphery with distrust. At any rate he does not consider them in his peace project.

From war-cost to peace-benefit

Kant’s Perpetual Peace has generated an immense body of literature, but much of this has almost completely overlooked one of the central features of Kant’s argument: the elementary importance of the rule of law as embodied in the state. Kant consistently remarks that legal interactions take place between states.

For him, this is not a historical limitation, but a point of systematic importance. Only when states have the exclusive ability to wage war does Kant’s observation, the foundation of his entire venture, take effect: that war invariably means more cost then return, even for the victor.

Kant reaches this conclusion via a calculation that measures the costs of war for the entire state territory affected, including those. Only this, believes Kant, permits the conclusion that war is not worthwhile under any circumstances. The cold-blooded calculation of this cost-benefit analysis would, Kant was convinced, increasingly prevail against fictional notions of honour and glory.

Each week in openDemocracy, Paul Rogers tracks the most modern and least classical of wars, the “war on terror”. It is read from the Pentagon to Tora Bora, so why should you miss out? Click here

All these developments, unforeseen in Kant’s venture for perpetual peace, are hardly recognised in the Europe of today. Europeans still focus on civil and transnational wars, from sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia to south-east Asia. The modern world of warfare still eludes them, and so therefore does a vision for peace that speaks to the world of warfare as it has become, as Kant’s did in his own time.

209 years after the publication of Kant’s peace treatise it is possible to conclude that he has been proven correct and yet also mistaken: correct in his expectation that interstate war would disappear with the expansion of commercialism and the democratisation of political systems; mistaken that this disappearance would be identical to the foundation of eternal peace.