Habermas on the Kantian Vision of Perpetual Peace

Statue of Immanuel Kant in Kaliningrad (Königsberg), Russia. Photograph Source: Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5

Habermas develops his own vision of a post-national constellation in intricate dialogue with Kant in a  series of articles from 1998 to 2012. To begin, I will explicate key ideas in his seminal essay written in 2000, “Kant’s idea of perpetual peace at two hundred years’ historical remove.” The occasion for the writing of Kant’s essay was Frederick William II’s withdrawal from the War of the First Coalition in March of 1795 and Kant’s desire to jump into a lengthy debate addressing the issue of perpetual peace (Leibniz, Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Rousseau). A leading Kant scholar, Allen Wood (Basic writings on Kant [2001]), informs us that: “It is perhaps Kant’s most genuine attempt to address a universal enlightened public concerning issues of importance not only to scientists and philosophers but vital as well to all humanity” (p. xxii).

Kant’s program for peace

To set out logically Kant’s exciting (and controversial) program for perpetual peace, Habermas defines Kant’s goal for the “sought-for-‘lawful condition’” (p. 166), describes the actual project, discusses the appropriate legal forms of a federation of nations and queries whether the “philosophy of history” remains a convincing solution. For Kant, the primary goal is the abolition of war: “There is to be no war,” and the “heinous waging of War” must come to an end. While not focusing explicitly on the victims of war, Kant accords primary importance to the “horrors of violence” and the “devastation”, and above all, to the plundering and impoverishment of the country resulting from the considerable burdens of debt that arise from war, and he mentions as possible consequences of war, subjugation, the loss of liberty, and foreign domination. In addition, there is the corruption of morals when subjects are instigated by the government to commit such criminal acts as spying and spreading false information or to commit acts of treachery, for example, as snipers or assassins” (pp. 166-7).

But Kant has no inkling, Habermas points out, of world wars; he was thinking of wars between regimes or states, not ethnic or civil wars, guerilla warfare and terror bombing or wars with political intent. In contrast, the wars of Kant’s time were “limited wars.” The positing of a “peace alliance” was supposed to “put an end to war forever and achieve “perpetual peace.” “But the peace in question is as limited as the war from which it arises” (p. 167). Once war becomes unlimited and universal in the gruesome wars of the twentieth-century, however, Habermas states soberly, only then “does the idea arise that war itself—in the form of a war of aggression—is a crime that deserves to be outlawed and punished” (ibid.).

Kant’s primary task is a delicate one

The primary task facing Kant is a most delicate conceptual and political one. Habermas states that Kant “must specify what differentiates cosmopolitan law from classical international law—in other words, what is specific to ius cosmopoliticum” (p. 168). Basically, Kant argues that the movement beyond “weak recognition” occurs once the “envisaged federation of free states which renounce war once and for all in their external relations is supposed to leave intact the sovereignty of its members” (ibid.). Indeed, Kant “compares the federation of nations to a ‘permanent congress of states’” (p. 169). But, Habermas wonders, how can one guarantee permanence, “on which a ‘civilized’ resolution of international conflict depends, without the legally binding character of an institution analogous to a state constitution Kant never explains”? (ibid.).

What is at stake here? Operating like a neuro-surgeon using laser instruments, Habermas observes that because Kant does not think of the federation of states as an “organization with common institutions” that could acquire “coercive authority,” he must rely “exclusively on each government’s own moral self-obligation” (ibid.). However, the decisive question within the social learning framework is “how the permanent self-obligation of states that retain their sovereignty can be ensured” (p. 170).  All of our thought and actions are bound to historical time. Our horizons are captive to the “knowledge-forms” that have evolved through the ages to a spot in time. In turn, the structure of consciousness itself is bound with evolved economic and political organization forms.

But these cultural, economic and political structures can enter into crisis, rendering old ways of thought outmoded and even deeply unethical. Habermas states that: “Because Kant does not transcend the horizon of his time, it is of course equally difficult for him to believe in any moral motivation for creating and maintaining a federation between free states dedicated to power politics. Kant sketches as a solution to this problem a philosophy of history with a cosmopolitan purpose which is supposed to lend plausibility, through a ‘hidden purpose of nature,’ and to the improbably ‘agreement between politics and morality’” (p. 171). Red flags are waving in the wind. Is Kant sneaking in a providential, though secularized, God? It seems so. Kant wants to combine a cosmopolitan federation of nation-states with the moral kingdom of God on earth.

Why a federation of nation is in each nation’s enlightened interest

Habermas examines Kant’s “three basic quasi-natural tendencies that complement reason and are supposed to explain why a federation of nations could be in the enlightened self-interest of each state: (1) the peaceful character of republics, (2) the power of international trade to forge an association, (3) the function of the political public sphere” (ibid.). Although these assumptions have been  falsified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Habermas still thinks that Kant’s views “nevertheless also support the claim that a conception of cosmopolitan law appropriately reformulated for contemporary conditions might well meet with a supportive constellation of forces, depending on how we ourselves interpret the changed circumstances of the twentieth century” (pp. 171-2).

Kant’s first argument asserts that “international relations lose their belligerent character to the extent that the republican form of government prevails within states, because it is in the interest of the population of constitutional states to compel their governments to pursue peaceful policies …” (p. 172). Sadly, Habermas observes that the nation-state would not turn out to be more peaceful than its predecessors. Nor could Kant “foresee that the mass mobilization of recruits inflamed by nationalistic passions would usher in an age of devastating, ideologically unlimited wars of liberation” (ibid.).

As many commentators have pointed out, Kant’s second argument saw hopeful promise in the “growing interdependence of societies generated by the exchange of information, persons, and commodities, but especially by the expansion of trade, a tendency favourable to the peaceful unification of peoples” (p. 173). In Kant’s own words: “For spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold of every people, and it cannot exist side by side with war. And of all the powers (or means) at the disposal of the power of the state, financial power can probably be relied on the most. These states find themselves compelled to promote the noble cause of peace” (cited, p. 173).

This noble cause of peace would be shattered within nation-states as class conflict ripped apart national unity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also fragmented the world socialist movement in World War I, who were marching under the banner of “internationalism.” The workers of the world didn’t unite (nor did nations); they were swept into frenzied nationalist fervour and killed each other. Habermas rightly concludes: “Throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, European governments repeatedly exploited the mobilizing power of nationalism to deflect conflicts outward and to neutralize them with foreign policy successes” (pp. 173-4).

Trapped within the horizon of thought in the late 18th century, Kant’s astonishing mind could not have gazed down history’s blood-stained alleyways to see how the global economy (ruled by the US with China close behind) would become so immensely powerful (ruled by mega-corporations) that it determined the policies weak nation-states would adhere to and had the military and financial might to force unjust and unwanted policies on various nation-states.

Kant’s third argument is highly significant for Habermasian thought. “To the extent that the political public sphere has a surveillance function, it can prevent the implementation of ‘shady’ policies that are inconsistent with publicly defensible maxims by exposing them to public criticism” (p. 175). Habermas does, in fact, notice that the educators Kant had in mind were philosophers—the “public teachers of the law,” who could “freely and publicly discuss the maxims of waging war and instituting peace” and can convince the public of citizens of the validity of their basic principles.

“Kant surely had the example of Frederick II and Voltaire in mind when he wrote this moving sentence. “It is not to be expected that kings will philosophize or that philosophers will become kings; nor is it to be desired, however, since the possession of power inevitably corrupts the free judgment of reason. Kings and sovereign peoples (i.e. those who govern themselves by egalitarian laws) should not, however, force the class of philosophers to disappear or to remain silent, but should allow them to speak publicly. This is essential to both in order that light may be thrown on their affairs and … is beyond suspicion” (cited, p. 175). Kant gives “critical intellectuals” a guiding role to inform the public.

These days philosophers are more modest than Kant regarding the primary pedagogical role of the philosopher. Nonetheless, Habermas applauds Kant’s worry about censorship of power. Alas! Habermas states that Kant “could not foresee the structural transformation of the bourgeois public sphere dominated by the electronic mass media and pervaded by images” (p. 176). But Kant was bold and far-sighted enough in thinking to see that a global public sphere was “only beginning to emerge as a result of global communication: ‘The peoples of the earth (!) have thus entered in varying degrees into a universal community; and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one of the world is felt everywhere. The idea of a cosmopolitan right is therefore not fantastical or overstrained; it is a necessary right of humanity. Only under this condition [namely, that of a functioning global public sphere—J.H.] can we flatter ourselves that we are continually advancing toward a perpetual peace” (cited, p. 176). Travelling the treacherous road to cosmopolitan world order, one feels like John Bunyan’s pilgrim who faces numerous dangerous places and persons along the road to distract and sideline his destiny.

The presence of a global public sphere is axiomatic

The presence of a global public sphere is axiomatic for the post-national constellation project; it is axiomatic and incredibly difficult to achieve. Habermas considers that the Viet Nam and Gulf wars captured the attention of the world public sphere. Massacres with one’s TV dinner—these ghastly images cracked open our little worlds. Writing in the late 1990s, Habermas senses, as well, that UN-sponsored conferences on ecology, problems of population, poverty and global warming thematized “problems important for human survival for the global public, that is, by an appeal to world opinion” (pp. 176-7). The least we might say is that a new type of organization—the non-governmental organization (NGO)—created and mobilized “transnational public spheres is at least an indication of the growing impact on the press and media of actors who confront states from within the network of civil society” (p. 177).

Writers like David Held (Global covenant: the social democratic alternative to the Washington Consensus [2004]), Richard Falk (On humane government: toward a new global politics [1995] and Habermas himself have placed great emphasis on the way global civil society comes close to being a stand-in for a global parliament. This “strong thesis,” however, has drawn critical commentary. James Schmidt (Radical cosmopolitanism: the ethics and politics of democratic universalism [2013[), for instance, raises three salient questions regarding global civil society’s anti-democratic tendencies. First, the nation-state does lose some of its decision-making authority when institutions like the WTO, NAFTA or IMF make their own autonomous decisions: this “entails a massive loss of democratic self-determination” (p. 138). Second, many lauded NGOs “make moral appeals to those in power with some power on behalf of those with no power. As the paradigm examples (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Medecins sans frontieres) illustrate, for all the good they do, the groups of civil society are generally composed of well-situated people from the metropole who seek to represent the interests of a large number of voiceless people on the periphery to even better-situated people in the metropole” (p. 139).

These civil society associations engage more in a kind of consultative process with decision-makers than a dialogical one that permits ordinary folks to enter the conversation circles. They also adopt more of an advisory role rather than that of a grassroots struggle for power: they aim to persuade those in power to be more enlightened and create a more humane world. Third, and perhaps most telling, global civil society advocates tend to offer ideal blueprints without any discussion of the “mechanisms for realizing that future or recommends measures—morally inspired reforms by the powerful—that contradict the very principle of equality on which its aspirations are based” (p. 142).

Reformulating Kant’s idea of a cosmopolitan order

Given the  critical comments on Perpetual peace, Habermas avers that “Kant’s idea of a cosmopolitan order must be reformulated if it is not to lose touch with a global system that has changed fundamentally” (p. 178). Here, “sparks of hope” can be fanned to keep us struggling towards building the cosmopolitan world order. Wilson’s League of Nations and the United Nations give tangible form to cosmopolitan ideals. If Kant’s proposal is to be revised for our time, Habermas surmises, we must focus on three aspects: (1) “the external sovereignty of states and the altered character of relations among them; (2) the internal sovereignty of states and the normative limitations of classical power politics; (3) the stratification of world society and the globalization of dangers that necessitate a reconceptualization of what is meant by ‘peace.’”  Kant’s concept of a permanent federation of states is, as we have seen, inconsistent” (p. 179). By this Habermas means “cosmopolitan law must be institutionalized in such a way that it is binding on the individual governments” (ibid.).

Unless sanctions can be applied justly and legally to the community of peoples, the cosmopolitan order will unravel even further than it has today. A viable federation needs “common institutions which assume state functions, that is which legally regulate the relations between its members and monitor their compliance with these rules” (ibid.). For instance, the UN Charter, with prohibition Article 2.4, forbids offensive wars. Although the Charter is responding to a “transnational situation,” the UN lacks its “own military forces; it does not even have forces it could deploy under its own command, let alone have a monopoly over the means of violence” (p. 180).

This is a much-repeated lament. And the UN Security Council, while it is supposed to counter-balance the UN’s lack of power to impose sanctions, had led to decades of stalemate between superpowers, given the biased, self-interested use of the veto. Christina Lafont (“Alternative visions of a new global order: what should cosmopolitan law hope for?” [2008]), an eminent and prolific historian of deliberative democracy, affirms that there is widespread agreement within the global community that “international justice requires guaranteeing peace, security, and the protection of human rights” (p. 44).

Diogenes and Cicero may have used the phrase “citizen of the world” long ago, but Habermas suggests that Kant “conceived of the cosmopolitan community as a federation of states, not of world citizens” (p. 180). This seems like a strange inconsistency. The reason has primarily to do with Kant’s anchoring of law in general on individual rights-bearers. For Habermas, in contrast, the “point of cosmopolitan law is, rather, that it bypasses the collective subjects of international law and directly establishes the legal status of the individual subjects by granting them unmediated membership in the association of free and equal citizens” (p. 181). We become, as it were, dual citizens. Now we have moved on to very controversial ground. “The most important implication of a form of law that bypasses the sovereignty of states is the personal liability of individuals for crimes committed in the course of government and military service” (ibid.).

As but one vivid illustration of how current times have bypassed Kant, Habermas mentions how the UN has its “own mechanisms for establishing that human rights violations have occurred” (ibid.). Still, the “weak link in the global protection of human rights remains the absence of an executive power that could enforce the General Declaration of Human Rights” (p. 182). Further, we await universal commitment to the International Court of Justice. Lafont (2008) argues incisively that to “achieve” the goals of Habermas’ model, he will need to lay the “minimal social and economic conditions necessary to achieve the human rights goals of the UN Charter” (p. 46). The mobilization of moral capital to transform the global order confronts an anarchic Neo-liberal disordering of the world and a profoundly fractured global community. I dream—with Kant—that the philosophy of history and human nature carry the seeds of a movement beyond the warring nation-states. Let’s hope and watch for the blooming.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.