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Immanuel Kant and Iraq: a reply to Roger Scruton

About the author
Antje Vollmer is vice-president of the German Bundestag (lower house of parliament), and a member of its Alliance 90 / Green parliamentary group.

Roger Scruton marks the bicentenary of the death of Immanuel Kant with a singular argument: that the philosopher of “perpetual peace” and intellectual architect of the idea of a League of Nations bound by international law could have supported the United States-led war in 2003 to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

In responding, let me start with a point of agreement: Immanuel Kant very clearly expressed his opposition to a war of aggression, a category that includes a preventive (or to use a term of more recent origin, “pre-emptive”) war. As Roger Scruton writes: “Kant indeed believed that war can be legitimately embarked on only as a defensive measure, and that pre-emptive attack is not defence.” So far, so good.

Antje Vollmer is replying to Roger Scruton’s openDemocracy article “Immanuel Kant and
the Iraq war”
. In this article, Roger Scruton referred to Antje Vollmer’s own essay (in German) “Immanuel Kant im Irak” in the newspaper Tagesspiegel (4 January 2004)

But Roger Scruton then pursues a line of argument that I do not find convincing, and even less so in the light of what we now know about the circumstances surrounding the Iraq war – one that leads him to “see good Kantian reasons for the view that the civilised world, faced with the dangers that now confront it, should take pre-emptive measures when dealing with rogue states like Saddam’s Iraq.”

The first area of disagreement between us concerns the relevance of Kant’s understanding of the unity of states in a new international association: does this represent merely an ideal, or something that humanity could actually achieve? For Roger Scruton, this indicates only a Kantian “‘Ideal of Reason’ – an idea that we must bear in mind, by way of understanding the many ways in which mortal creatures inevitably fall short of it.” In my view, this is the direction in which humanity must develop if we are to survive: towards a global community operating within the framework of a common overarching system of law. I do not believe that this is an ideal, an abstract product of wishful thinking alone, but rather a very concrete aim that answers the deep needs of our current condition – even if it is likely to take generations to realise.

The second area of disagreement concerns the application of Kant’s ideas to the Iraq war. This conflict illustrates the fact that, in an era of globalisation, a war of aggression cannot be successful against the threat of terrorism. Yet Roger Scruton invokes precisely this politically failed enterprise to support his theory that Iraq corresponds to Kant’s understanding of a “just war” – “war conducted for the sake of peace….a paradigm of legitimate belligerence.”

The illusions of war

Roger Scruton approaches his case by outlining a series of hypotheses derived from Kant’s characterisation of the differences between a republic and a despotism; he then applies these to the United States and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq respectively, on the basis that “the actuality of…the parallel is sufficiently close”. I will outline in greater detail the four specific areas where I disagree with this argument.

First, in outlining the nature of a manifestly despotic state, Roger Scruton itemises the old Iraqi regime’s crimes: repression of its people, the eradication of minorities, attacks on its neighbours.

The recent history of Iraq is undoubtedly the history of a despot and murderer who has committed countless crimes that must not be diminished. It is also true that some of these crimes had already been answered by military action (the war over Kuwait in 1991 is a prime example); others had been countered by international security guarantees (the no-fly zones followed by support for Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq). Before the war of March-April 2003, there was no real and current cause for fresh accusations of culpability against Iraq.

In order to manoeuvre around this awkward reality, the United States prepared to attack Iraq by presenting two quite different arguments: that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, able to be employed at any time, and that Iraq was one of the roots of international terrorism. A war against his regime would kill two birds with one stone.

For details of Antje Vollmer’s career, political work, writing, specialist policy areas, and Green party activities in Germany, see her own website

Neither of these arguments were validated by the outcome of the war. No weapons of mass destruction have yet been found in Iraq, and it was not possible to track down the cradle of terrorism (far less close connections with al-Qaida) there. Indeed, it was only in the aftermath of the war that such networks started to arise within the country. It is hard to see Immanuel Kant giving his consent to an initiative based on such bad faith, inaccuracy and misjudgement.

Second, Roger Scruton describes a great power wishing to spread republican government across the world; it is not difficult to recognise this as referring to the contemporary United States. The idea is certainly one worthy of support. But, contrary to what he suggests, spreading the idea of republicanism by means of war is emphatically not something which Immanuel Kant would have supported.

Third, Roger Scruton describes this republic (by inference, the United States) as a power aiming to spread peace, and believing it can liberate the people suffering under despotism with only minimal losses. Today, it appears that the US was wrong in this supposition. Almost a year after the declaration of victory in the war, no end is in sight to the loss of human life. It is now clear that no detailed plans existed for the post-war order in Iraq. Besides, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is the root of all conflicts in the Middle East. This must be the starting-point for any strategy to bring peace and democracy to this region. In this light, it is difficult to believe in the United States’s declared intention of bringing peace to the Middle East, or in the notion that Immanuel Kant would have given credence to its dangerous enterprise.

Each week for over two and a half years, Paul Rogers has written an informed, careful, incisive report on the latest developments in the “war on terror” – only in openDemocracy. Can you afford to miss it?

Fourth, Roger Scruton claims that the republic engaged in war precisely in the hope of bringing democracy and lasting peace to the region. The flaw in this reasoning is that only the populations of individual states, through their own endeavours, can achieve democracy. From the outside, we can contribute knowledge about democracy and its institutions, together with our own experiences; but war itself, waged from abroad, cannot bring democracy and lasting peace. Of all thinkers, Immanuel Kant would have understood this.

The rule of reason

The war did take place, claiming thousands of victims. In Iraq itself, the situation remains extremely dangerous and explosive; and in many other countries there are new terrorist attacks of worrying dimensions that seem at least in part related to the conflict there. Whatever the true intentions behind the war may have been, the Middle East and the world today are not truly safer, more democratic or more peaceful than before the Iraq war. I think this runs contrary to all Immanuel Kant’s expectations of the successful application of human reason.

Immanuel Kant’s thoughts on world peace, on a global community and a system of law which applies to all states in the League of Nations, remain extremely relevant: as the number of nation-states has grown, fewer and fewer of them are successful in building stable, rule-of-law structures and institutions. Yet we in the developed world too seldom either criticise the systemic deficits in the emerging countries or try to engage in dialogue about them. There is an absence both of general, binding principles and of detailed legal arguments to help identify the states deserving of being singled out for criticism. Instead, exerting pressure on states too often occurs in an apparently arbitrary fashion (why Iraq and not Zimbabwe, for example?) and under the distorting spotlight of world attention, in a way that can serve to hinder internal reform.

Immanuel Kant believed that the citizens of individual states should themselves, through enlightenment and reason, come to realise the sense of republican government and international law and then establish them through their own initiative. Here, Kant saw the French Revolution – despite the excesses in its name – as a positive example.

The world community must move away from purely moral arguments, expressed in media campaigns and war lies, and towards an international policy rooted in reason and offering the highest possible level of objectivity. This much-needed shift is guided by a categorical imperative providing maxims based on judgment not hysteria, consistent humanity not hypocritical moralism. Such a policy is one that Immanuel Kant would have approved of, for it places reason above all else – including for those in positions of political responsibility.


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