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Perpetual War, Perpetual Peace

Kant's shadow looms large. image: erepublik

In another foray into the realm of theory, to complement our Editorial Plan’s discussion of international norms and laws, we turn to a giant in the history of thought, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Though known primarily as a moral philosopher, Kant also wrote on topics germane to international relations and international political theory, in works such as Idea for a Universal History (1784) and Perpetual Peace (1795). Today we look briefly at what Kant had to say about international law, through Amanda Perreau-Sassine’s interpretive essay in The Philosophy of International Law, edited by Samantha Besson and John Tasioulas. Kant’s view of international law, it turns out, has important implications for contemporary discussions.

Perpetual peace in theory

In Perpetual Peace, Kant describes the titular condition — i.e., the permanent eradication of war — as ‘the highest political good’ of all. So how do we get there? The most important requirement for the attainment of perpetual peace, Kant argues, is the establishment of what he calls a “League of Peace” among the states in the international system. This League of Peace, it should be stressed, is not a world-state. Kant is not Alexander Wendt (whose argument that a world-state is inevitable we considered in Week 7 of  the Editorial Plan). In a Kantian world, sovereignty would remain with the constituent states of the League, whose purpose it is to defend and protect that sovereignty.

At the foundation of Kant’s international thought is a distinction between the domestic and international spheres. For Kant, “the moral obligation to institute a juridical state does not apply to the relations between states.” Whereas it is clear that human beings in a state of nature “ought to leave this condition,” the same is not true for states. Whereas the establishment of a domestic state is not only rational but inevitable, a world-state is not. Individual states will not surrender their sovereignty to such an entity. Nor should they, Kant argues. Such a world-state, for example, could become despotic and undermine both domestic laws and the moral freedom they exist to secure. To better understand Kant’s view of international law, Perreau-Saussine points to Kant’s celebrated moral philosophy, which explains (among other things) why we are, in the first place, duty-bound to set up a just system of public laws in single community.

As we may hazily remember from an undergraduate philosophy class, Kantian morality is about ‘self-legislation,’ or the idea that morality consists in being bound by laws of one’s own making, rather than the laws of others, or ‘free’ to do as we please. The key question, for Kant, concerns the circumstances under which free will is genuinely possible, for without free will there can be no real moral responsibility. Free will is not simply about being able to do what we want to do. That, it turns out, is actually a form of unfreedom – of slavery to one’s desires, or ‘nature.’ Indeed, Kant tells us, the only way to act freely — the only way to be truly responsible for our actions at all — is to obey maxims or principles that are unconditionally binding upon everyone — maxims “that could serve in a giving of universal law” — or what Kant called ‘categorical imperatives.’ Acting morally is only possible in this condition of freedom, and vice versa: true freedom is only possible by acting morally in this way.

Ok — enough philosophy. From a political standpoint, it is this image of moral freedom and autonomy that just laws exist to secure, both domestically and internationally. In themselves, just laws don’t promote or encourage morality. Instead, they create the conditions for it. Because our own individual freedom invariably affects the freedom of others, setting up laws is our “unconditional first duty” because we “cannot help mutually affecting one another”. Mirroring Kant’s description of the two sources of moral unfreedom, therefore, are the two sources of political unfreedom: first, where the absence of domestic laws subjects individuals to “the whimsical dictates of an absolute sovereign” (the laws of others) or, second, to “anarchy where there is no clear source of definitive legal judgements” (the law of nature).

And this brings us to international law. As it turns out, the political freedom of individuals in one country “cannot be protected by domestic law alone, given the threat posed by international war.” Just like domestic laws exist to protect individual freedoms from being trampled by the freedoms of others, international law exists to protect systems of domestic laws from being trampled by other states. International law, therefore, exists for the sake of domestic laws, which secure the freedom and moral autonomy of its citizens. Specifically, it exists to protect these things from the war powers of other states. In an important sense, then, the defense of state sovereignty is its highest purpose.

But (confusingly) international law is not the only kind of ‘international’ law. There is also ‘cosmopolitan law’ which applies among individuals internationally rather than as members of states. In the League of Peace, Kant tells us, although “no state is entitled to impose international obligations on another,” the rules of international law are “binding in conscience.” Thus, though the behavior of states is seldom altered by the letter of international law, they nevertheless pay “lip-service to the law of nations and the writings of jurists.” This, Kant argues, is because there is “a slumbering idea of juridical right” even in international politics. Eventually, Kant argues, this slumbering idea is what will lead to the establishment of his peaceful federation of ‘republican’ states, which recognizes “the rights of men, as citizens of the world.”

Perpetual peace today?

In practice, Kant sets out six Preliminary Articles, which he describes as ‘prerequisites’ for the League of Peace. In effect, these six articles are the principles of international law that would govern Kant’s ideal League of Peace. They are as follows:

1.   No treaty of peace shall be held valid in which there is tacitly reserved matter for a future war;

2.   No independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or donation;

3.   Standing armies shall in time be totally abolished;

4.   National debts shall not be contracted with a view to the external friction of states;

5.   No state shall by force interfere with the constitution or government of another state;

6.   No state shall, during war, permit such acts of hostility which would make mutual confidence in the subsequent peace impossible: such are the employment of assassins, poisoners, breach of capitulation, and incitement to treason in the opposing state.

Impressively, the spirit of all but one of these principles (if not always the letter) is actually embodied in contemporary international law in some way:

  • Article 1, for example, seems to have been the chief lesson learned from the ill-fated Versailles settlement after World War I, and is largely incorporated into international law under the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
  • Article 2, of course, anticipates the UN Charter’s leading principle of self-determination: “A state is not,” Kant wrote “like the ground which it occupies, a piece of property. It is a society of men whom no one else has any right to command or to dispose except the state itself.”
  • Though Article 3 does not have an exact counterpart in contemporary international law, disarmament is a key concern of the UN. In 1976, the UN General Assembly Special Sessions on Disarmament explicitly acknowledged that genuine and lasting peace can only be achieved through the reduction of arms and armed forces.
  • Article 4, which concerns the accumulation of national debt, is probably the least observed of Kant’s Articles today.  Organizations like the World Bank and the IMF exist to facilitate, rather than curtail, borrowing by governments and can do little to prevent the borrowing of money for belligerent purposes by the most powerful states.
  • Article 5 closely resembles the language of the UN Charter, Article 2(4), which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
  • Finally, Article 6, which sets the confines of legitimate warfare, resembles the core ideas of jus in bello as embodied in the several Geneva Conventions. As Kant wrote: “Some confidence in the character of the enemy must remain even in the midst of war, as otherwise no peace could be concluded and the hostilities would degenerate into a war of extermination.”

Of particular relevance to our discussion of international norms and laws in the preceding weeks is Kant’s Article 5. Though this article generally prohibits interference in the affairs of other states, it makes an exception in the case of civil wars. As Kant tells us, lending assistance to one of the parties in a civil war “cannot be considered an interference in the constitution of the other state (for it is then in a state of anarchy).” Following this argument, the NATO intervention in Libya might have been justified on Kantian grounds under the assumption that Libya was in a state of ‘anarchy’ at the time. Indeed, the status of civil wars is unclear under contemporary international law and bound up with the controversial notion of ‘state failure’ (as we saw on Friday).

Another seeming exception to Preliminary Article 5 appears in the Metaphysics of Morals, where Kant seems to sanction the use of force against what might now be called ‘rogue states.’ The use of force shall be permitted, he argues, against states whose actions aim at the destruction of the League: i.e., at “a maxim by which, if it were made a universal rule, any condition of peace among nations would be impossible and, instead, a state of nature would be perpetuated.” Against such states, he writes, there is a “right of preventive war” even where “the mere menacing increase of power of another state […] can be regarded as a threat.”

Clearly, the United States could have used this argument in support of its 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the unlikely event that it had desired Kant’s blessing, the US might have argued that Iraq’s actions, if universalized, would have meant the destruction of the international system.  That much is relatively straightforward.  A much trickier matter arises, however, if we try to universalize the actions of the US in response. Indeed, many would argue that the maxim of the subsequent invasion, if universalized, would ultimately have the same result. Indeed, echoing Dominic McGoldrick in our discussion of this subject last Tuesday, other nations (if not necessarily Iraq) might have made recourse to this Kantian principle to justify an attack on the US itself.