To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch
. One of many essay
s by German philosopher Immanuel Kant
, best known perhaps for his monumental
yet impenetrable Critique of Pure Reason
. I have the pleasure of owning a Hackett
(the kings of the $1 textbook
) edition of Kant
's essays translate
d by Ted Humphrey
of Arizona State University
; these are impeccably
translated so as to preserve some of the punch
, and are thus quite easy to read. This essay seems to be read widely in academia
, but is perhaps not so well known to the philosophically minded man in the street
Kant's aim is twofold: to describe some practical points about how a lasting peace among nations may be achieved, and to argue that nature herself, in her wisdom encourages conditions to arise which make perpetual peace possible. It should suffice to provide an outline of his main points (as the work is well organized), but I encourage anyone interested to pick up a copy of this essay—it's a short 20 pages or so.
"First Section, which contains the preliminary articles for perpetual peace among nations"
- No treaty of peace that tacitly reserves issues for a future war shall be held valid. This is a good point—any treaty which leaves open questions which may be settled by a future conflict is not really a peace treaty, but a temporary truce. It was based on this point that I concluded that the Arab-Israeli Oslo Accords would ultimately fail. It is bittersweet to be thus proved right.
- No independent nation, be it large or small, may be acquired by another nation by inheritance, purchase, or gift. This seems odd today, but of course was not so strange in a past dominated by hereditary monarchies. Kant holds that the nation does not belong to its sovereign, but to its people, and therefore may not be unilaterally surrendered.
- Standing armies shall be gradually abolished. Kant, as did many of his contemporaries, believed that standing troops represented a threat to liberty. In this he is quite akin to the Enlightenment thinkers of his day. He gives it another spin, though: by keeping an army, a country may look like it is spoiling for a fight, and may thus draw one upon itself.
- No national debt shall be contracted in connection with the foreign affairs of a nation. Kant looked askance at England, whose well developed credit system, in his view, gave the nation a war chest which surpassed anything its adversaries could muster. Again, a nation employing such a system may be suspected of spoiling for a fight. Kant encourages defensive alliances against such countries.
- No nation shall forcibly interfere with the constitution and government of another. Wow. This is the shortest of his points—he states, simply, that sovereignty is sovereignty, and unless you want someone else mucking about in your backyard, you'd better stay out of your neighbors'.
- No nation at war with another shall permit such acts of war as shall make mutual trust impossible during some future time of peace: Such acts include the use of Assassins, Poisoners, breach of surrender, instigation of treason, in the opposing nation, etc. Another simple point—if you want them to ever trust you again (say, at the negotiating table) don't do anything for which they won't forgive you.
These rules are all well and good, but Kant has more in store.
"Second Section, which contains the definitive articles for perpetual peace among nations"
- The civil constitution of every nation should be republican Another deceptively simple point: if a government is responsible to its citizens (especially come election day), it will think long and hard about sending the children of the electorate off to war.
- The right of nations shall be based on a federation of free states Kant views nations as sovereign individuals, and suggests that it is on this basis that they deal with one another. His concept is not a "nation of nations," as this would undermine the sovereignty of the members. Instead, he calls for treaties of peace to gradually give way to a worldwide league of peace, whose aim is to forestall future war.
- Cosmopolitan right shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality. Kant turns sociologist here, and suggests that the movement of people should not be hindered by borders, as such movement will lead to the exchange of ideas and thence to closer contacts between neighbor nations.
And then we have this famous bit: First supplement on the guarantee of perpetual peace Kant here goes on at great length about the history of arctic peoples and such, but comes to a famous conclusion: "The spirit of trade cannot coexist with war, and sooner or later this spirit dominates every people." In short, you will not want to piss off your trade partners by killing them. Furthermore, he argues that nature has put people in close proximity to each other so that trade is possible. Thus, perpetual peace is a future certainty.
By now Kant has laid out his grand design, and in the following sections addresses some criticisms at some length. But he concludes very strongly, formulating (in the manner of the Critique of Pure Reason) his "transcendental formula of public right":
All actions that affect the rights of other men are wrong if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.
In short, governments should be motivated by the public good in all actions, particularly in those involving war and peace. Perhaps not a revolutionary formulation in today's eyes, but one must remember that this was a new concept back in 1795. Perhaps it is a concept that should be more vigorously defended in modern times.