Research by Michael Behrent for KÖNIGSBEGR IS DEAD by Max & Gilbert



Perpetual Peace, Inevitable War:
Kant and Clausewitz




Immanuel Kant, Zum Ewigen Frieden (1795)


            The most striking feature of Kant's small essay is how un-Utopian it is for a work arguing that history is moving towards every greater harmony in human relations. Kant blends a strong argument for the possibility of peace, grounded in the rationality of the human ability to act morally, with a frank recognition that selfishness, force and violence characterize most human behavior. The tension between these two views leads Kant to define, first of all, the formal conditions for peace, and then, secondly, to demonstrate how this peace is possible - and is indeed already being realized - despite the forces that would appear to undermine it.

            The first section of Kant's essay presents several preliminary "articles" for achieving peaceful relations between states. These concern practical, contingent measures, rather than abstract principles. They include: never signing a treaty while holding private reservations to break it; never acquiring another state without its consent; disbanding permanent armies; not running up a public debt to finance foreign ventures; not meddling in the internal affairs of another state; and not engaging in hostile acts that undermine confidence between states.

            The second section presents articles for achieving permanent peace. Kant fully rejects the notion that peace is the natural state of human affairs. Peace is a goal of moral action precisely because it must be instituted. This section can be read as presenting the conditions of possibility for peace, i.e., as defining the very meaning of peace, before addressing the question of whether peace is achievable in practice.

            The first article for achieving permanent peace requires that all states adopt a republican constitution. Kant defines such a constitution as one based on the liberty of individuals, a common dependence on a shared legal code, and civic equality.  Such a constitution lends itself to peace because the citizens who are called upon to decide on matters of war are the very ones who would be required to fight it.  The more a community is self-regulating, the more it is inclined to reflect and deliberate before engaging itself in war. Kant distinguishes between what he calls "forms of domination" - i.e., whether rule in a state is by one person (monarchy), several (aristocracy) or all (democracy) - and forms of government, which include a republic, in which the legislature is separated from the executive, and despotism, in which the two power are collapsed together. A system is only republican if the body that makes laws is not the same as the one which applies them: otherwise, a government would only be acting according to its own interest (even if it is a democratic system), not according to general principle.

            The second article is that international law must be based on a pact among nations similar to the one that citizens within each nation institute to create republics. Kant addresses the problem which nagged the "natural right" tradition: it is clear that the origin of society lies in the preference most humans have for civic freedom, involving shared acceptance of laws, over the unbridled, but unstable freedom of the "state of nature"; yet states, in their relations with one another, do not seem to prefer shared laws, and choose to remain in the state of nature. Kant thinks that, unlike in the case of individual human societies, states have no compelling reason to abandon the condition of nature. However, he also thinks that not only does reason condemn the idea of war as a principle of regulating international relations, but that even the most calculating of princes inevitably pays some lip service to the notion of right (Recht, Droit) (e.g., in invading Panama in 1989, the United States reasserted its control over the canal and an important military base, while dubbing the operation "Just Cause"[1]) The solution to an international order founded on right is a peaceful federation, distinguished from an international republic, in that individual constitutions are preserved, but also from a system of peace treaties, in that it is permanent. Kant imagines a viable republic founding this federation, which more and more republics will choose to join over time.

            The third article concerns cosmopolitan, as opposed to international, law. Cosmopolitan law does not concern peaceful relations between states, but rather the right of each person to visit any part of the world - that is, to be received as the guest of any state in the world. This right derives from the fact that humans live on a globe, which is finite and thus forces them to coexist within limited space. The goal - and limit - of this cosmopolitan right is for inhabitants of one state to be able to establish relations with the inhabitants of others. In other words, cosmopolitan right supplements international right by establishing actual relations (and not just peace) between peoples, while prohibiting one nation from invading other.

            Kant makes two adjunctions to these articles.

            The first, and most intriguing, adjunction concerns the guarantees of perpetual peace. According to Kant, the main guarantee is nature itself. Though it is beyond the limits of reason to detect a higher purpose in nature, it is nonetheless inevitable to impute a finality to it.[2] Kant's basic argument is that the conditions that make war seem inevitable are the very same ones that will guarantee a perpetual progression towards peace. Nature has seen to it that humans can live everywhere on the globe's surface (e.g., Arctic moss makes life possible in polar areas); has made humans hostile to each other, leading to wars which force them to spread throughout the world; and, moreover, war itself has forced humans to band together into nations, ruled by laws. Republics do not, as critics have claimed, have to have angels as members in order to work. The problem of forming a republic is, in fact, inherently resolvable: humans with opposing interests must, often because of the very pressures of war itself, join together to submit to common rules in order to survive. In other words, nature requires even devils to act in a way that suggests that they were motivated by the intentions of angels. Nature seems to want right to prevail. Moreover, nature also appears to support the idea of peaceful federation (rather than universal monarchy) by dividing peoples through language and religion, and to support cosmopolitan right through the spirit of commerce. Though right (and hence peace) is a human institution, everything in nature seems to encourage it, even if in very roundabout ways.[3]

            The second adjunction is a "secret article": it is that leaders should secretly agree to consult philosophers about the formal conditions of peace. This article should be secret because leaders, concerned with decisions that could lead to war, may consider consulting philosophers to place limits on their own authority. In fact, what Kant is really calling for is open public debate, a free civil society and a state that consults public opinion. The implication is that public debate among philosophers can define the conditions of peace in a way that leaders concerned with power and contingent exigencies cannot.

            In several appendices, Kant asks the question of whether politics can ever be moral - or, as he puts it, of whether politics and morality can agree on the question of perpetual peace. Kant distinguishes between "political moralists", who define as moral their practical skill in governing, and "moral politicians", who govern in accordance with moral principles. Kant's basic argument is that while the average leader fall into the category of the political moralist, who conceives politics as a skill and whose goal is to increase his own power, his actions are ultimately self-contradictory: he cannot help but act according with certain maxims, the "sophistry" of which would become apparent if they were ever acknowledged as such (e.g., "Deny all one's misdeeds"). Ultimately, according to Kant, the reason why it is possible for politics to be moral is simply because morality itself is possible. Morality, for Kant, is the ability for humans to act according to rules.[4] Rules that defeat their own purpose or that undermine their own foundation are immoral: I cannot decree as a rule of my action (what Kant calls a "maxim") "Seize power by whatever means necessary", because, as a rule, it would command everyone to seize power, making power impossible. It also follows that moral rules have to be expressed in formal language - in other words, to be "universalizable."[5] Because politics and morality both involve the formulation of rules and their practical application, Kant thinks that they are ultimately compatible.

            As a formal test of the morality of politics, Kant suggests the formula of publicity: any notion of right that cannot be made public is unjust. In international right, for instance, the notion of a preemptive military strike must be deemed unjust: one could never publicly announce a plan to launch a surprise attack on another country, because to do so would negate the act itself. Kant, once again, thinks that immoral actions are ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating, because those who commit them act according to rules that they could not accept being followed by others: for Kant, it is thieves who pay the greatest respect to the sanctity of private property, just as conquerors assume most people are peaceful and usurpers demand respect for the law. Morality is the ability to follow rules, the validity of which is verified by their publicity.





Carl von Clausewitz,  Vom Kriege (written between 1816 and 1830, published in 1830)


Clausewitz does not, like Kant, see himself as a philosopher of war: he is not concerned with the role of war in nature's plan, or the conditions of possibility of peace. His point of departure is that war exists. Its meaning and purpose lend itself to reflection.

Clausewitz belongs to the Machiavellian tradition in political thought: he is not concerned with "right", i.e. with the "ideal" or "natural" political order, but with the question of how rulers can best achieve their ends.

It is essential, in this context, that war is never for Clausewitz anything but a means for achieving an end. War is not an end in itself. This is the primary meaning of Clausewitz's most famous assertion. Rejecting the assumption that "war is to be equated with the end of political relations and that with it, an absolutely new state of affairs is established", he affirms "to the contrary" that "war is nothing other than the continuation of political relations through the intervention of other means." "Other means" signifies that political relations do not end with war, that they are not transformed by it into something completely different, and that the course of a war must never be anything other than the imprints of politics. Practically, this means that generals and field commanders must never be given free rein, and must always remain subordinate to the goals defined by the cabinet and its ministers.

As a means, war is thus necessarily subject to an end, which is always political. The military leader is always, in this regard, a specialist or a technician; political leaders alone operate on the level of generality. One might imagine, Clausewitz says, war as having its own "grammar", but not its own "logic".

To the extent that it is a means, war can never be perpetuated for its own sake: its end is always to bring a return to the state of peace. The concept of "victory" (Sieg) belongs only to a tactical vocabulary, to military "grammar". Victory, in other words, is relative only to the accomplishment of military goals, which themselves are only means to a larger end. Victory is never a political goal: the only political goal of a war is a return to a state of peace.

Peace, as Clausewitz understands it, means the balance of power. Peace is best guaranteed by the coexistence of states with comparable power, and not by the existence of a single political entity to which all are subordinated. Indeed, it is the attempt to achieve the latter - which Clausewitz calls "empire" - which leads to instability and war, as Napoleon's efforts to conquer Europe confirmed.

According to Raymond Aron, Clausewitz's basic insight was that the state cannot exist solely for the sake of perpetuating war. However, this statement itself was an ideal, assuming that the purpose of the state was to define the interests of society in its totality. In the 20th century, Aron argues, the implicit synthesis of Clausewitz's insight becomes unravelled: Generals like Ludendorff and political leaders like Hitler argued that the state could not not put itself in the service of war (i.e., they made war an end in itself), while revolutionaries like Lenin and Mao rejected the notion that the state could ever represent society in its totality (thus making possible the inversion of Clausewitz's formula - "Politics is the pursuit of war, but by other means" - and its application to class struggle).[6]

Thus while rejecting a philosophical approach to war and favoring the question of political skill over that of right, Clausewitz nonetheless overlaps with Kant at several levels. Like Clausewitz, Kant implicitly says that war can never be an end in itself: its ultimate purpose is to bring about peace. Clausewitz, like Kant, also tends to equate rationality with the definition of general goals, as opposed to private, particular needs and interests. Moreover, both thinkers see the solution to peace as lying in the idea of a federation of states, seeking peaceful relations with one another while remaining juridically independent.




Michael Behrent


Copyright © 2002, TABULA RAZA


[1] The name of the operation at the time lent itself to considerable derision: did it mean that the operation was a "just cause" in the sense of a goal that was morally right, or that it was an arbitrary, unilateral act? Question: "Why the hell did you do that?"  Reply: "Just 'cause." But I ramble.

[2] The question of "finality" or "purposefulness" in nature - i.e.,  "teleology" - is the object of the second part of Kant's third critique, The Critique of Judgment (1795), which is a critique of teleological reason.

[3] In this way, history appears as the solution to the disjuncture between what "is" and what "ought" to be, through the medium of twists and turns that have moral consequences unanticipated by those who initiated them - an idea that Hegel would later call "the ruse of reason."

[4] This is one of the main insights to Kantian moral thought, which Kant developed notably in Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals and the second critique, The Critique of Practical Reason (1788).

[5] This is the idea of Kant's famous conclusion of his moral philosophy: the existence of a "Categorical Imperative" that is the formal criteria of all morality. It stipulates: "Act in such a way that you could will the maxim of your action as universal law." The other feature of Kantian moral thought, alongside  its formalism, is its definition of morality as duty: to be moral is to act in accordance with one's duty, as defined by reason. In this sense, Kantian morality is considered deontological, making the intention of the actor the criteria of a moral action, rather than utilitarian or consequentialist, which defines morality in terms of the outcome of an action.

[6] Raymond Aron, Penser la guerre, Clausewitz. Volume II: L'âge planétaire. (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 61.