A Guide to Perpetual Peace

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’ attack on Israel are just two of the many conflicts that continue to shake the world. War would just seem to be part of human nature. Although making this observation 230 years ago, the polymath Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) then proceeded to formulate a 100-page blueprint for perpetual peace. Professor Rainer Schäfer from the Digital Kant Center NRW in Bonn discusses the practicality of Kant’s concept and its relevance for the 21st century.

Kant views war as the scourge of humanity. In the 1790s, princes waged wars against each other, often out of self-interest. Whilst Russia and Austria were fighting the Ottoman Empire, the newly founded United States had defeated the British a few years earlier. In France, the revolution had radicalized and the young republic was soon locked in combat with a coalition of monarchical states. Kant lived in a bellicose world that repeatedly claimed thousands of victims; peace existed only in the kingdom of heaven.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Kant begins his work with an anecdote. "In the preface, he describes how he passed by an inn called ’Zum ewigen Frieden’ (’Perpetual Peace’).  The jolly Dutch innkeeper had christened it so because it was right next to the cemetery," says Schäfer. "Kant wanted to develop a secular version of this otherworldly concept. In other words, perpetual peace on earth realized through the establishment of justice".

Kant’s theory of peace is based on a hostile state of nature, in which conflicts are interrupted only by temporary ceasefires.  How do you get from this point to a peaceful global world? Certainly not by calling for complete unilateral disarmament, says Schäfer.  "It is naive to argue that states should no longer have the physical means to wage war, because in a bellicose world, states that are obviously unable to defend themselves present an easy target for attack, as was the case in Ukraine.

Kant is thus not demanding that states should no longer want to wage war. Indeed this proposition would contradict his view of human nature. Rather, they should no longer be able to do so," says Professor Schäfer. According to Kant, wars between nations should not just be prevented, but made impossible; he sees that "this is the only way to achieve lasting peace. This in turn requires states to be constituted by law, which Kant saw idealized in the republic for which all states strive."

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While a state constituted by law is legitimized domestically by a form of constitutional law that binds its citizens to the sovereign legal order, the problems start when this principle is transferred to the international sphere. "How can states coexist whilst retaining their freedom to act? as Kant so beautifully puts it," asks Schäfer. This requires a sophisticated system of international law that organizes states as equal actors in a global federation for peace. In this way, states are encouraged to shape policy in a way that establishes the rule of law and serves the cause of peace. Their intergovernmental treaties are completely transparent.

In reality, this normative approach seems to fail the litmus test. Ukraine, which is striving towards democracy and European integration, is currently defending itself against an invasion by authoritarian Russia. "When we look at the United Nations, we see the attempt to establish the sort of international organization for which Kant calls. Yet at the same time, we also see the dangers of which Kant warned.  Relations between dictatorships and constitutional states show that Kant’s system can only work if all states are constituted by law. Otherwise, illegitimate actors will continue to take illegitimate decisions on the inter-state level.

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