Debate over the political philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and over his federalist or confederalist ideas is still very much alive and culminated two years ago, in the staging of a number of conventions and in the publication of many works to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Perpetual Peace.
Peace, or the “end to all hostilities” between states, and the quest to create the conditions by which this may be achieved, are in Kant’s elements crucial to our understanding of what man still has to do in order to be able to realise completely his potential. For this reason, Kant’s reflections on these problems are not limited to the essay which focuses directly on this theme, but can also be found in other writings.
As early as 1784, in the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, Kant writes: “The greatest problem for the human species, the solution of which nature compels him to seek, is that of attaining a civil society which can administer justice universally.
This problem is both the most difficult and the last to be solved by the human race.
The problem of establishing a perfect civil constitution is subordinate to the problem of a law-governed external relationship [among the states] and cannot be solved unless the latter is also solved.”
Just as it is the duty of individuals to break free from the lawless state of nature, so states are duty bound to do the same, through the establishment of a legal system governing relations between them. While the state of nature among individual men is just a supposition, and may never have been a historical reality, the anarchy of international relations is a very real fact and one which characterises the situation in which man effectively lives. All that is needed to overcome the state of nature between individuals, regardless of the fact that force was in fact the means used to break free of that state, is an original social contract: an idea of reason. The contract between states, on the other hand, must be real. While the idea of an original contract has in fact never truly been applied to individual men, it will, in relation to states, find concrete application through the formulation, by them, of a “[universal and perpetual peace treaty]” establishing “[the task of right] within the limits of pure reason”. The aim of this contract will be the limitation, through coercive laws, of the freedom of states, or rather, the overcoming of the absolute sovereignty of states.
Coercion cannot, however, be the means by which this contract is entered into. Indeed, the possible exertion of force in the creation of a cosmopolitan system would suggest that states recognise the right to force other states to break free from the state of nature, in other words the right of states to make war — and this is precisely what they are seeking to avoid. “The right of peoples shall be based on a federalism (Föderalism) of free states”, or rather, based on a contract freely entered into by republican states.
In Perpetual Peace, Kant seeks to identify the conditions needed to create this “civil society which can administer justice universally”. First of all, in order to ensure that it is the people who decide whether or not to make war, the states must be republics. In fact, war itself favours the emergence of this condition: as wars are waged with increasing frequency, involve more men and begin to pervade more deeply the whole of society, leading the state towards self-destruction, “thus sheer exhaustion must eventually perform what goodwill ought to have done but failed to do: each state must be organised internally in such a way that the head of state, for whom the war actually costs nothing (for he wages it at the expense of others, i.e. the people), must no longer have the deciding vote on whether war is to be declared or not, for the people who pay for it must decide”. And each state which has undergone this evolution “may reasonably hope that other similarly constituted bodies” will be prepared to enter into the contract that will give rise to a cosmopolitan organisation.
Herein lies the link between the first and the second definitive articles of Perpetual Peace. Only republics may freely choose to create a cosmopolitan structure, yet at the same time, this second stage is a necessity. If, even though all states were republics, there existed no cosmopolitan system, war would continue to constitute a threat, or a reality, and the freedom and right that the republics themselves were supposed to guarantee would fail to be present. For this reason, the cosmopolitan constitution is the perfect civil constitution — the only one able to guarantee right fully and universally.
The question of the institutional model best able to guarantee peace is dealt with specifically in the Second Definitive Article, and in order to understand this article fully, it is useful first to consider the concept of “the right of peoples” (ius gentium), as intended by Kant in other writings.
In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant analyses this concept in detail: “The situation in question is that in which one state, as a moral person, is considered as existing in a state of nature in relation to another state, hence in a condition of constant war. International right is thus concerned partly with the right to make war, partly with the right of war itself, and partly with questions of right after a war, i.e. with the right of states to compel each other to abandon their warlike condition and to create a constitution which will establish an enduring peace…
The elements of international right are as follows. Firstly, in their external relationships with one another, states like lawless savages, exist in a condition devoid of right. Secondly, this condition is one of war…
Adjacent states are thus bound to abandon such a condition. Thirdly, it is necessary to establish a federation of peoples in accordance with the idea of an original social contract, so that states will protect one another against external aggression while refraining from interference in one another’s internal disagreements. And fourthly, this association must not embody a sovereign power, as in a civil constitution, but only a partnership or confederation (Föderalität). It must therefore be an alliance which can be terminated at any time, so that it has to be renewed periodically.”
Thus, according to the concept of states, the right of peoples goes this far, as far as the confederation. But Kant concludes the treatise, explaining that, “Since the state of nature among [peoples] (as among individual human beings) is a state which one ought to abandon in order to enter a state governed by law, all international rights, as well as the external property of states such as can be acquired or preserved by war, are purely provisional until the state of nature has been abandoned. Only within a universal union of states (analogous to the union through which a [people] becomes a state) can such rights and property acquire peremptory validity and a true state of peace be attained.”
In On the Common Saying, the right of peoples coincides with the cosmopolitan right, and this emerges clearly where Kant explicitly sets his position, theory or thesis, against practice or hypothesis. In theory, the right of peoples must correspond to the cosmopolitan right, or better still, must lead to its institution since “a permanent universal peace by means of [the] so-called European balance of power[s] is a pure illusion:” perpetual peace is based only on a “state of international right, based upon enforceable public laws to which each state must submit.” “But it may be objected [by empiricists] that no states will ever submit to coercive laws of this kind, and that a proposal for a universal [state of peoples]… does not apply in practice.”
Kant is aware of the difficulties, but is not induced to change his position which, on the contrary, he reaffirms explicitly: “In the normal order of things, it cannot be expected of human nature to desist voluntarily from using force, although it is not impossible where the circumstances are sufficiently pressing. Thus it is not inappropriate to say of man’s moral hopes and desires that, since he is powerless to fulfil them himself, he may look to providence to create the circumstances in which they can be fulfilled. […]
For my own part, I put my trust in the theory of what the relationships between men and states ought to be according to the principle of right. It recommends to us earthly gods the maxim that we should proceed in our disputes in such a way that a universal [state of peoples] may be inaugurated, so that we should therefore assume that it is possible (in praxi). I likewise rely (in subsidium) upon the very nature of things to force men to do what they do not willingly choose (fata volentem ducunt nolentem trahunt). …On the cosmopolitan level too, it thus remains true to say that whatever reason shows to be valid in theory, is also valid in practice.”
Kant knows that states are reluctant to give up their sovereignty, and this reluctance inclines them towards compromise formulae, like the confederal solution, which he considers a “negative substitute” for the world republic. Thus, both definitions, the theoretical and the practical, can be found in Perpetual Peace. Meanwhile, “the concept of international right becomes meaningless if interpreted as a right to go to war. …There is only one rational way in which states coexisting with other states can emerge from the lawless condition of pure warfare. Just like individual men, they must renounce their savage and lawless freedom, adapt themselves to public coercive laws, and thus form a [state of peoples] (civitas gentium), which would necessarily continue to grow until it embraced all the peoples of the earth.”
The Second Definitive Article of a Perpetual Peace, which we publish below, allows us to identify what is, from the federalist point of view, the crucial point in a reading of Kant’s analysis of peace, which can be considered one of the essential points of reference for those wishing to help mankind move a step closer to realising fully the central value of our age. As Mario Albertini has pointed out, Kant’s philosophy on peace “applies perfectly to federalism as it is based on the postulate of a legal order at suprastate level”. Kant had no knowledge of the mechanism of federal government, and this “prevented him… from appreciating the fact that supreme political decisions must, in a situation compatible with a plurality of decision-making centres, have features of unity and exclusivity (sovereignty)”. However, this did not prevent him from envisaging this legal order in a correctly federalist way: in other words, as a power above the level of states.
Second Definitive Article of a Perpetual Peace
The Right of [Peoples] shall be based on a [Federalism] of Free States
Peoples who have grouped themselves into states may be judged in the same way as individual men living in a state of nature, independent of external laws; for they are a standing offence to one another by the very fact that they are neighbours. Each [people], for the sake of its own security, can and ought to demand of the others that they should enter along with it into a constitution, similar to the civil one, within which the rights of each could be secured. This would mean establishing a federation of peoples. But a federation of this sort would not be the same thing as a [state of peoples]. For the idea of a [state of people] is contradictory, since every state involves a relationship between a superior (the legislator) and an inferior (the people obeying the laws), whereas a number of [peoples] forming one state would constitute a single [people]. And this contradicts our initial assumption, as we are considering the right of [peoples] in relation to one another in so far as they are a group of separate states which are not to be welded together as a [state].
We look with profound contempt upon the way in which savages cling to their lawless freedom. They would rather engage in incessant strife than submit to a legal constraint which they might impose upon themselves, for they prefer the freedom of folly to the freedom of reason. We regard this as barbarism, coarseness, and brutish debasement of humanity. We might thus expect that civilised people, each united within itself as a state, would hasten to abandon so degrading a condition as soon as possible. But instead of doing so, each state sees its own majesty (for it would be absurd to speak of the majesty of a people) precisely in not having to submit to any external legal constraint, and the glory of its ruler consists in his power to order thousands of people to immolate themselves for a cause which does not truly concern them, while he need not himself incur any danger whatsoever. And the main difference between the savage nations of Europe and those of America is that while some American tribes have been entirely eaten up by their enemies, the Europeans know how to make better use of those they have defeated than merely making a meal of them. They would rather use them to increase the number of their own subjects, thereby augmenting their stock of instruments for conducting even more extensive wars.
Although it is largely concealed by governmental constraints in law-governed civil society, the depravity of human nature is displayed without disguise in the unrestricted relations which obtain between the various [peoples]. It is therefore to be wondered at that the word right has not been completely banished from military politics as superfluous pedantry, and that no state has been bold enough to declare itself publicly in favour of doing so. For Hugo Grotius, Pufendorf, Vattel, and the rest (sorry comforters as they are) are still dutifully quoted in justification of military aggression, although their philosophically or diplomatically formulated codes do not and cannot have the slightest legal force, since states as such are not subject to a common external constraint. Yet there is no instance of a state ever having been moved to desist from its purpose by arguments supported by the testimonies of such notable men. This homage which every state pays (in words at least) to the concept of right proves that man possesses a greater moral capacity, still dormant at present, to overcome eventually the evil principle within him (for he cannot deny that it exists), and to hope that others will do likewise. Otherwise the word right would never be used by states which intend to make war on one another, unless in a derisory sense, as when a certain Gallic prince declared: “Nature has given to the strong the prerogative of making the weak obey them”. The way in which states seek their rights can only be war, since there is no external tribunal to put their claims to trial. But rights cannot be decided by military victory, and a peace treaty may put an end to the current war, but not to that general warlike condition within which pretexts can always be found for a new war. And indeed such a state of affairs cannot be pronounced [unjust, since each party is judge in its own cause]. Yet while natural right allows us to say of men living in a lawless condition that they ought to abandon it, the right of [peoples] does not allow us to say the same of states. For as states, they already have a lawful internal constitution, and have thus outgrown the coercive right of others to subject them to a wider legal constitution in accordance with their conception of right. On the other hand, reason, as the highest legislative moral power, absolutely condemns war as a test of rights and sets up peace as an immediate duty. But peace can neither be inaugurated nor secured without a general agreement between nations; thus a particular kind of league, which we might call a [league for peace] (foedus pacificum), is required.
It would differ from a peace treaty (pactum pacis) in that the latter terminates one war, whereas the former would seek to end all wars for good. This [league] does not aim to acquire any power like that of a state, but merely to preserve and secure the freedom of each state in itself, along with that of the other confederated states, although this does not mean that they need to submit to public laws and to a coercive power which enforces them, as do men in a state of nature. It can be shown that this idea of federalism, extending gradually to encompass all states and thus leading to perpetual peace, is practicable and has objective reality. For if by good fortune one powerful and enlightened people can form a republic (which is by its nature inclined to seek perpetual peace), this will provide a focal point for federal association among other states. These will join up with the first one, thus securing the freedom of each state in accordance with the idea of [right of peoples] and the whole will gradually spread further and further by a series of alliances of this kind.
It would be understandable for a people to say: “There shall be no war among us; for we will form ourselves into a state, appointing for ourselves a supreme legislative, executive and juridical power to resolve our conflicts by peaceful means.” But if this state says: “There shall be no war between myself and other states, although I do not recognise any supreme legislative power which could secure my rights and whose rights I should in turn secure”, it is impossible to understand what justification I can have for placing any confidence in my rights, unless I can rely on some substitute for the union of civil society, i.e. on a free [federalism]. If the concept of [right of peoples] is to retain any meaning at all, reason must necessarily couple it with a [federalism] of this kind.
The concept of [right of peoples] becomes meaningless if interpreted as a right to go to war. For this would make it a right to determine what is lawful not by means of universally valid external laws, but by means of one-sided maxims backed up by physical force. It could be taken to mean that it is perfectly just for men who adopt this attitude to destroy one another, and thus to find perpetual peace in the vast grave where all the horrors of violence and those responsible for them would be buried. There is only one rational way in which states coexisting with other states can emerge from the lawless condition of pure warfare. Just like individual men, they must renounce their savage and lawless freedom, adapt themselves to public coercive laws, and thus form a [state of peoples] (civitas gentium), which would necessarily continue to grow until it embraced all the peoples of the earth. But since this is not the will of the nations, according to their present conception of [right of peoples] (so that they reject in hypothesi what is true in thesi), the positive idea of a world republic cannot be realised. If all is not to be lost, this can at best find a negative substitute in the shape of an enduring and gradually expanding [league] likely to prevent war. The latter may check the current of man’s inclination to defy the law and antagonise his fellows, although there will always be a risk of it bursting forth anew. Furor impius intus — fremit horridus ore cruento (Virgil).
(Prefaced and edited by Roberto Castaldi)
* The quotations and the text of the Second Definitive Article of a Perpetual Peace, below, are taken from Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991 (ed. by H. Reiss and translated by H.B. Nisbet). The square parentheses indicate changes made by the writer of this preface.
 I. Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 93.
 I. Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose (Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Propositions), pp. 45, 46, 47.
 I. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 174.
 I. Kant, Perpetual Peace, pp. 103-4.
 I. Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 102.
 I. Kant, On the Common Saying: This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice, p. 91.
 I. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 165.
 Ibidem, p. 171.
 I. Kant, On the Common Saying, cit., p. 92.
 I. Kant, On the Common Saying, cit., pp. 91-2.
 I. Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 105.
 M. Albertini, ll federalismo, Bologna, Il Mulino 1993, p. 22.
 Thus a Bulgarian prince, replying to the Greek Emperor who had kindly offered to settle his dispute with him by a duel, declared: “A smith who possesses tongs will not lift the glowing iron out of the coals with his own hands.”
 At the end of a war, when peace is concluded, it would not be inappropriate for a people to appoint a day of atonement after the festival of thanksgiving. Heaven would be invoked in the name of the state to forgive the human race for the great sin of which it continues to be guilty, since it will not accomodate itself to a lawful constitution in international relations. Proud of its independence, each state prefers to employ the barbarous expedient of war, although war cannot produce the desired decision on the rights of particular states. The thanksgivings for individual victories during a war, the hymns which are sung (in the style of the Israelites) to the Lord of Hosts, contrast no less markedly with the moral conception of a father of mankind. For besides displaying indifference to the way in which [peoples] pursue their mutual rights (deplorable though it is), they actually rejoice at having hannihilated numerous human beings or their happiness.