Is Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” achievable?

March 25, 2007

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724, East Prussia. His philosophical sketch of “Perpetual Peace” essentially argues that a popularly chosen and responsible government would be more inclined to promote peace and commerce. Promoting security rather than power would create peace and prosperity; security is not created by conquest to rival countries.

Kant’s thought was adopted by liberal IR theorists and many Western powers. They believed that freedom in trade, speech and social life are fundamental to build up a representative government. By which, a responsible government searching for peace and prosperity will develop and become mature over a period of time. States with these types of governments are likely to be peaceful and also be peace-keeping actors.

We doubt that peace and prosperity can be sustainable easily just by a popular government and prosperity. During colonization times, the Western powers were peaceful and prosperous in their own countries but they initiated colonial wars outside their countries to capture resources for the growth of state’s power and wealth. The UK was a typical example of a country which had a stable and representative government at home but also a colonist government in many parts in the world. Japan had also claimed that they built up peace and prosperity in East Asia by removing the Western colonists by liberation wars. Moreover, there were also wars between governments which were popular in their own countries, such as India and Pakistan. Wars were made on nationalism initiatives. Others may sometimes even for political leadership. The U.S. has been promoting this kind of philosophy and politics, especially in developing countries and former Soviet satellite states.

Kant first proposed that mankind would learn to abolish the institution of war only after a series of increasing devastating conflicts. Kant shared optimism in people’s ability to learn, adjust, and change. For Kant, the source of change is pain, the horrible lessons learned from increasingly destructive wars. Yet even though the Great War effectively pacified large parts of Europe, Hitler and his mimics and acolytes reverted to more primitive ideas to justify a new round of conquests and aggressions.

Communism too sought to strive for eternal peace among the nations and an end to all wars. Karl Marx maintained that only peace could serve as the international principle of the new, communist society,1 while Lenin described communism as the society of “universal prosperity and enduring peace”.2 This provided a rationale for Commmunist countries, such as the USSR, to liberate the world with the belief that the whole world will be peaceful under the communism system.

Unlike Kant, realist thinkers found that internatonal systemic imbalances are at war’s root. Kalevi Holsti3 points out that war cannot be avoided easily just by increasing prosperity, since this might further result in unbalanced growth in economy and political power and major war is the result of imbalances of power. Robert Gilpin4 argues that war grows out of the struggle for hegemony in the international system. Universal laws of uneven economic development and diminishing returns mean the hegemon’s position is always insecure and its relative power position tends to wane over time. Challengers arise and in the extreme stage of competition, major war breaks out. Either the hegemon wins or is replaced by a new hegemon. We have problems with the determinism of these realist accounts of war, but acknowledge that they provide important insights which Kant’s account lacks.

We think that perpetual peace does not come from building increasingly civilized and democratic governments who will look for peace. Wars are initiated by motivation and calculations. War may not be used if states find no value. Japan has gained much more in the post war times after de-militarization than what it had got during pre and World War II times. States will cease to choose war when values gained from resorting to war in the international system are declining.

Van Chui and Raymond Szeto

1 The General Council of the First International 1870-1871, Minutes, Moscow, 1967, p. 328
2V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 27, p159
3Kalevi J. Holsti, “The State, War, and the Sate of War”; Cambridge University Press, 1996
4Robert Gilpin, “War and Change in World Politics” Cambridge University Press, 1981

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5 Responses to “Is Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” achievable?”

  1. fannyl Says:

    I think countries are just trying to “achieve” perpetual peace, no one ever “achieved” it. Wars in today’s world are totally different from Kant’s period of time. We have war on trade, war on terror, war on anything you can imagine. US, a federal country, fought the “war on terror”. There is no war between countries, but war is everywhere, diregard of what kind of government system.
    On the other hand, his concept of alliance may actually stop the war “within” the alliance, but not “between” alliances.
    As a matter of fact, I do hope that we can achieve perpetual world peace like Kant’s suggested. His concept of the “world” is no doubt my favourite.

  2. philipm Says:

    I don’t think that Kant was arguing that civilized and democratic governments pursue peace just for the sake of peace. In fact, he says that people band together in a spirit of cosmopolitanism because of their own self-interest, and gives the example of commerce as one such force that discourages countries from going to war. I would tend to agree with this; the more the economic interests of different countries are interlinked, the less likely they are to do something to undermine their mutual interests, i.e. waging a destructive war.

    In his defense of Kant, Doyle also argues that the reason that liberal states (the civilized and democratic governments Van and Raymond refer to) are less likely to go to war with each other is that they have signed on to international norms that seek to limit conflict. Obviously, this does not stop liberal states from going to war, but you could argue that the desire to be seen, at least, to be respecting international norms slows a state’s move to war.

  3. Shermann Says:

    I agree with Philip that it is the self-interest to motivate people to go for peace instead of war. According to Doyle, the explanation of democratic peace based on principles borrowed from Kant are largely a re-statement of self-interest calculation. People would like to avoid the heavy costs imposed on them. The economic interdepency among countries creates interest groups cutting across national borders to favour peaceful settlement.

    Japan not going to war after the WWII might be explained by its own pacific constitution and the provision of security under the US-Japan security pact. In recent years, Japan is trying to play a more important role in global security and is as ready as other states to go to hotspots like Afghanistan and Iraq.

  4. patricia Says:

    in what ways can this perpetual peace be achieved and what ways not achieved especially with this new trend of wars. wars within states rather than between states and terrorism or contemporary wars are of a nature that makes perpetual peace unacheivable . New kind of war fought on grounds of famine,poverty,lack of resources, migration issues one type of war ended and another coming in its place. can pp achievable. America and euopr have manged to reduce incidence of war but it seems africa is not getting it. come to think of it nowhere in africa is there a country that has sustained even 50 years of temporary peace and this is a continent of many states and not only has OAU,AU or ecominc organisations failed. trying models that have worked elsewhere.

  5. Johnd20 Says:

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