Immanuel Kant: Democratic Warmonger?

Dim Peace Theories

Starting in the early 1980s, a number of writers have taken to accusing the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) of having been a friend of democratic imperialism. Actually, that's not quite right, since these characters believe they are paying Kant a compliment. A cynic might say they seek to steal Kant's prestige for a project of their own making.

The project in question is of course the much-mooted u201Cdemocratic peaceu201D theory. Here, on the claim that u201Cdemocracies never fight other democracies,u201D certain scholars have undertaken major – and one suspects, state-subsidized – projects to find empirical confirmation of this alleged fact and to build causal theories to explain the happy correlation between democracy and peace. The empirical worth of these studies seems a bit undermined by fairly constant shifting of the definition of u201Cdemocracyu201D so that the data may fit the theory.

The whole thing looks more and more like a very costly exercise in the true Scotsman fallacy.

Democracies, it turns out, are loveably open, transparent, responsible and responsive to their publics, and never attack one another. They do, it is conceded, attack non-democracies quite often, but this is taken to be further proof of their essential goodness and virtue. Thus the democratic u201Cpeaceu201D consists not so much in the absence of warfare, as in the extension of the heroic u201Czone of peaceu201D obtaining between or among the sainted democracies – by force if necessary.

The division of the world into two zones is a dire accusation when leveled at Soviets, Gnostics, Muslims, and the like.

The utopian goal, then, is the extension of democracy everywhere in the world, at which point there will never again be war, since democracies don't, etc. That, or there will be a good u201Ctestu201D of this rather implausible imposture. But I have said enough about this subject for now. (See my column, u201CKantians With Cruise Missiles.u201D)

Suffice it to say that u201Cdemocratic peaceu201D is everywhere lately, even if rumors of its total intellectual triumph are somewhat exaggerated. The theme has become central to official US lucubrations on foreign policy, the nature of man, and the meaning of life. It is very noticeable in the various reports on Homeland Security (1998–2002), to which I hope to return soon.

The Appeal to Kant

Right now, what interests me is the claim that Kant would have sung in this opera and is, indeed, its inventor. Commenting on the claim by German national socialists that Kant was a positive advocate of war, Ludwig von Mises wrote: u201CIt is nonsensical to consider Kant a precursor of Nazism. Kant advocated eternal peace between nations. The Nazis praise war u2018as the shape of higher human existence' and their ideal is u2018to live always in a state of war.'u201D [1]

So much for one attempt to hijack Kant into the instrumental war camp.

It is true, of course, that Kant is not the clearest fellow. He works on many levels at once. He focuses on the ways in which our practical reason allows us to arrive at transcendental moral truths, such as the Categorical Imperative – the injunction never to use a fellow human being solely as a means. Further, he is concerned with how such moral truths, derived in this fashion, can be implemented in the real world. Stuart M. Brown, Jr. complained, some forty years ago, that Kant tries to derive a moral theory directly from his epistemology and grafts that theory onto political life; since this is unworkable, says Brown, all Kant does in practice is to juxtapose high-toned moral imperatives alongside his own ad hoc opinions about political affairs. [2]

Perhaps. But even if Kant's (possibly) undemonstrated opinions dangle in mid-air disconnected from his overall system of thought, these views were not that uncommon in his day, and other liberal writers had given them sound grounding. In any case, far and away the best thing to do is to read Kant's essay, u201CPerpetual Peace,u201D [3] rather than depend on today's global democrats to interpret it for us. That essay, I think, gives scant, and possibly no, support to the program for which Kant is being claimed.

Kant's u201CPreliminary Articles for Perpetual Peaceu201D

Kant lays his argument out in the form of a treaty. The first article reads: u201CNo treaty of peace shall be held valid in which there is tacitly reserved matter for a future war.u201D This seems straightforward enough, if a bit high-minded.

Second article: u201CNo independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or donation.u201D [4]

Third article: u201CStanding armies (miles perpetuus) shall in time be totally abolished.u201D

It would be rather hard to carry out the global democrats' program of aggression under this restriction.

Kant gives a number of reasons for this prohibition. Standing armies u201Cincessantly menace other states by their readiness to appear at all times prepared for war; they incite them to compete with each other in the number of armed men, and there is no limit to this. For this reason, the cost of peace finally becomes more oppressive than that of a short war, and consequently a standing army is itself a cause of offensive war waged in order to relieve the state of this burden.u201D There is also a moral problem: u201CAdd to this that to pay men to kill or to be killed seems to entail using them as mere machines and tools in the hand of another (the state), and this hardly seems compatible with the rights of mankind in our own person.u201D

Kant expresses a preference – not surprising in a republican – for citizen militia, since u201Cthe periodic and voluntary military exercises of citizens who thereby secure themselves and their country against foreign aggression are entirely different.u201D

Given standing armies, other difficulties arise. Any u201Caccumulation of treasureu201D in the hands of the state will necessarily seem u201Ca threat of waru201D because of the importance of money in making war possible. By now Kant seems very much a u201Clow-tax liberal,u201D to borrow a phrase from the 1980 libertarian presidential campaign of Ed Clark.

Fourth article: u201CNational debts shall not be contracted with a view to the external friction of war.u201D Kant is certainly up-to-date in his understanding of the 18th-century state-financial revolution. He also displays a grasp of some associated economic issues.

Thus he writes: u201Ca credit system which grows beyond sight and which is yet a safe debt for the present requirements – because all the creditors do not require payment at one time – constitutes a dangerous money power. This ingenious invention of a commercial people [England] in this century is dangerous because it is a war treasure which exceeds the treasures of all the other states; it cannot be exhausted except by default of taxes (which is inevitable), though it can be long delayed by the stimulus to trade which occurs through the reaction of credit on industry and commerce.u201D It follows, that u201Cto forbid this credit system must be a preliminary article of perpetual peace all the more because it must eventually entangle many innocent states in the inevitable bankruptcy and openly harm them.u201D [5]

Such notions were classical liberal commonplaces, and Kant sounds, in this connection, just like Destutt de Tracy, John Taylor of Caroline, Thomas Jefferson, and many others. And note the link made between fractional-reserve banking, business cycles, and war!

One could scarcely get many crusades for global-democracy-by-bomber-and-cruise-missile off the ground, were this article adhered to.

Even more inconveniently for global democratic campaigns, Kant writes in the fifth article: u201CNo state shall by force interfere with the constitution or government of another state.u201D This holds even if a state has done some evil and u201Cits lawlessness should serve as a warning.u201D The only exception Kant allows is the case of two armed factions, each contending to be the government of a state. Here it might be reasonable for a neighbor to support one side out of prudential considerations.

I suppose this might seem a loophole for covert democratic crusading through backing a regime's internal enemies. But Kant shuts this door in his sixth article: u201CNo 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 (percussores),poisoners (venefici), breach of capitulation, and incitement to treason (perduellio) in the opposing state.u201D

Good heavens! No assassinating: This would appear to rule out bombing the restaurant where, say, Saddam Hussein is fancied to be dining, to say nothing of blowing up the cooks, dishwashers, and waiters – a matter that stirred hardly a ripple of interest in the American press. Forbidding poisoners might have a chilling effect on the use of depleted uranium. No u201Cbreach of capitulationu201D might hinder the u201Carrestu201D and indefinite incarceration of a defeated enemy's civil and military leadership. Lastly, forbidding u201Cincitement to treasonu201D would really cramp the democratic crusaders' style. No more u201Cexileu201D leaders and spokesmen, and folks like Mr. Chalabi would have to go back to their normal business, whatever it is.

After all, says Kant, u201C[t]hese are dishonorable strategies.u201D Finally, still under article six, Kant condemns u201Cthe use of spies,u201D for here, u201Cone employs the infamy of others (which can never be entirely eradicated) only to encourage its persistence even into the state of peace, to the undoing of the very spirit of peace.u201D [6] u201CEven into the state of peaceu201D – is this perhaps an anticipation of one form of blowback?

Not very realistic, you will say. Poor Kant could never sit through an American action film, or even a James Bond one, could he? Perhaps so, but on the other hand, the real Immanuel Kant hasn't done much, so far, to legitimate crusading – by means of aggressive war – for democracy as the key to lasting peace. 

Kant's u201CDefinitive Articles for Perpetual Peace Among Statesu201D

Kant now presents another set of articles or propositions. He introduces the notion that peace u201Cmust be establishedu201D to overcome the perils of the state of nature.

The first article reads: u201CThe civil constitution of every state should be republican.u201D This is because u201C[t]he only constitution which derives from the idea of the original compact, and on which all juridical legislation of a people must be based, is the republican.u201D [7] Of course hisintroduction of social contract theory is not especially helpful, for reasons too numerous to go into here.

Republican institutions, he thinks, hold out u201Ca favorable prospect for… perpetual peace.u201D Kant gives these reasons:

… if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared (and in this constitution it cannot but be the case), nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war. Among the latter would be: having to fight, having to pay the costs of war from their own resources, having painfully to repair the devastation war leaves behind, and, to fill up the measure of evils, load themselves with a heavy national debt that would embitter peace itself and that can never be liquidated on account of constant wars in the future. [8]

He next distinguishes between form of sovereignty and form of government. The forms of sovereignty are autocracy, aristocracy, and democracy. The form of government is more important and, here, there are only two kinds: u201Crepublican or despotic.u201D He writes: u201CRepublicanism is the political principle of the separation of the executive power (the administration) from the legislative; despotism is that of the autonomous execution by the state of laws which it has itself decreed.u201D If follows, that u201Cdemocracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotismu201D because, there, u201Ceveryone wishes to be master.u201D [9]

Oops! Another doubt creeps in about Kant the Global Democrat. Kant adds, in fact, that u201Cthe sovereignty of oneu201D would be u201Cthe most bearable of all forms of despotism.u201D [10] In other words, absent a republican constitution, monarchy would be better than democracy. It bears remarking, too, that if u201Cautonomous execution by the state of laws which it has itself decreedu201D is despotism, all modern democracies – with their meddling, activist judges, bloated bureaucracies, and administrative u201Clawu201D – seem to come under Kant's ban.

The second article in this section runs: u201CThe law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states.u201D This sounds promising. Maybe the u201CKantianu201D imperialists can ground their program on this one.

Kant expands here on his understanding of social contract theory. Savages – and all men before the social contract – act without restraint and are constrained, finally, to agree to live in an organized community under law. Brown sees a problem here: u201CThe state of nature argument is designed to make the case of submitting to positive law look like the case of keeping promises and returning borrowed goodsu201D thereby making it possible for Kant to bring civil law under his overall system of morals. But, says Brown, u201Cwe do not voluntarily decide to live under the system of positive laws to which we are born subject.u201D [11]

Kant continues with the observation that, despite the claims of those u201Cirritating comfortersu201D Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel, states do not live under law and are thus like men before the social contract. For Kant, war does not decide right, nor does the notion u201Cof a law of nations as a right to make war… really mean anything.u201D Thus the solution is this: u201Cthere must be a league of a particular kind, which can be called a league of peace (foedus pacificum), and which would be distinguished from a treaty of peace (pactum pacis) by the fact that the latter terminates only one war, while the former seeks to make an end of all wars forever.u201D [12]

Now u201Cfoedusu201D means an agreement or pact. It is the root of the word u201Cfoederalu201D (u201Cfederalu201D), which always carried with it the notion of agreement or treaty, at least until Mr. Lincoln got a good many u201Cof his own peopleu201D killed in order to redefine the word for us.

Kant is keen to get everyone u201Cunder law,u201D and thinks that, just as men have agreed to be under separate states for their protection, so will states come to agree over time, even if the compulsion of Nature plays a role in the process.

This does not seem altogether wrong, but I do not think it will get the u201CNeo-Kantianu201D imperialists where they want to go.

As Kenneth N. Waltz has written: u201C[Kant's] u2018universal International State, or Union of Nations,' turns out to be u2018a voluntary combination of different States that would be dissoluble at any time, and not such a union as is embodied in the United States of America….u201D One might well differ with Kant's understanding of the American union as something non-federal, but for present purposes the key point is Waltz's conclusion that Kant is, u201Cin contrast to Mazzini and Woodrow Wilson… a non-interventionist liberal.u201D [13]

The third article in this section reads: u201CThe law of world citizenship shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality.u201D This means, u201Cthe right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another. One may refuse to receive him when this can be done without causing his destruction…. It is not the right to be a permanent visitor that one may demand.u201D [14]

No open borders, it would seem, for Kant – in agreement, once again, with Tracy and most of the American u201Cfounders.u201D

Kant shares the view of other classical liberals that the growth of international communication and trade is all to the good. But here he makes an interesting observation: u201CBut to this perfection compare the inhospitable actions of the civilized and especially the commercial states of our part of the world. The injustice which they show to lands and peoples they visit (which is equivalent to conquering them) is carried by them to terrifying lengths. America, the lands inhabited by the Negro, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were at the time of their discovery considered by these civilized intruders as lands without owners, for they counted the inhabitants as nothing.u201D [15]

Accordingly, he writes, u201CChina and Japan (Nippon), who have had experience with such guests, have wisely refused them entry, the former permitting their approach to their shores but not their entry, while the latter permit this approach to only one European people, the Dutch, but treat them like prisoners, not allowing them any communication with the inhabitants.u201D [16]

It looks like Kant, if he were here today, would not be likely to sign up for the much-advertised projects of u201Chumanitarianu201D neo-colonialism or the Open Door. In other words, Kant sees that trade is beneficial but denies the right of western powers to impose it on other peoples. Since battering down barriers to trade set up by states and peoples everywhere is a key to u201Cfree tradeu201D as defined by history's winning Anglo-American coalition, it seems possible, at least, that Kant would not endorse it under that definition.

First Supplement

In a supplementary section, Kant elaborates his vision of a possible, future peace. Here he sketches out a sort of conjectural natural history of human society, including war. In not-quite-Hobbesian fashion, he reasons that life is completely insecure in a state of nature, forcing men to put themselves under law enforced by states. He believes that similar considerations will drive states to the peaceful u201Cfederationu201D he has already described. [17]

This federation, however, is not a world state. The existence of separate states, even though it permits war, u201Cis rationally preferable to the amalgamation of states under one superior power, as this would end in one universal monarchy, and laws always lose in vigor what government gains in extent; hence a soulless despotism falls into anarchy after stifling the seeds of the good.u201D Even so, u201Cevery state, or its ruler, desires to establish lasting peace in this way, aspiring if possible to rule the whole world.u201D [18]

There is more here on how the gap between morality and practice is likely to be bridged, but I think we have covered the essential points of Kant's essay.

A Not Terribly Pure Critique of Kant's Reasons

As Stuart Brown, Jr., noted, Kant's deployment of social contract theory may not help his case; nor does the rather strained analogy between the internal order of states and a new order among states. Things may in fact work the other way around. States, however they came into being, might just see fit to make agreements to reduce the occasions for war. Whether these states came into being by force or contract need not enter into it.

Kant's program seems far more compatible with Hague conferences and Geneva accords than with any formal world organization – League or UN – with pretensions to act as a private club of self-defined u201Cpeacefulu201D nations making war in the name of peace.

Kant's advocacy of republicanism as the key to peace seems entirely suspect, two centuries on. There is by now plenty of empirical, historical evidence against the notion, as well as theoretical considerations advanced by Hans-Hermann Hoppe. [19] History, in short, has falsified Kant's assumptions about how republics would function in foreign affairs.

Wars have proven popular and, in any case, the day-to-day operations of foreign policy bureaucracies in democracies or republics are as effectively oligarchical and secret as in non-democracies. Greater subterfuge on the part of leaders is necessary from time to time in a democracy, but various great men have risen to the occasion and had their wars, whether the voters wanted them or not. The advantages of democracy in this respect have been exaggerated to the level of mythology.

John Norton Moore, a guru of National Security studies, would disagree of course. Indeed, he is on the cutting edge of those who believe that, with an appropriate dose of public choice economics, the democratic peace theory can be made fully u201Cscientific.u201D Thus he claims, for example, that democracy and u201Cdeterrenceu201D (of non-democrats by democracies) u201Cinternalize the costs to decision elites of high-risk behavior leading to major war.u201D [20]

This looks to be a weak reed. What real costs did the US political elite suffer once the War in Vietnam became u201Cunsoldu201D? LBJ bowed out of the presidential race. Nixon resigned for reasons not directly related to the war. Robert McNamara went to the World Bank.

Not getting reelected may mean a lot to politicians, but it hardy seems enough to restrain them from foreign policy adventurism. Moore's framework assumes a one-sided morality play in which democracies will u201Cdeteru201D bad non-democrats. Judgment is already made in favor of the former.

Who, then, will u201Cdeteru201D US leaders, presiding over the Last Remaining Super-Power, from the normal temptations of power, not to mention u201Chigh-risk behavior leading to major waru201D? I must leave this question to another time. Meanwhile, we must rely, I guess, on the good breeding and manners of unelected, post-constitutional foreign affairs bureaucrats and their political minders.

Democratic Wars for Peace

Kant, even if he is all wet in the areas just treated, has said some very interesting things – things that do not – pace Roger Scruton, Anglo-American apologist [21] – seem to justify bombing people into u201Cliberal democracy.u201D It is fashionable lately to say that the great project of liberal imperialism is to bomb the u201Cbadu201D leaders and not the (sentimentally) u201Cgoodu201D people. The proviso is then added – usually by Michael Novak – that u201Cof courseu201D there is u201Ccollateral damage.u201D

u201CFog of waru201D no doubt.

An unsupported assumption of some sort of right to kill those who do get killed, looms up here, however much it is spun as a simple math exercise or a theorem in consequentialist u201Cethics.u201D This is on par with defending a proposed bank robbery on the basis of one's intentions to uplift the poor with the stolen funds – and so what if a few tellers are shot? Think of the net good.

Quite bracing, to be sure, but where is Immanuel Kant in all this?

On our u201Cnaveu201D reading of his famous essay, Kant has sprung forth as a classical liberal, who 1) opposes standing armies, 2) believes that overstuffed state treasuries lead to war, 3) opposes public debt connected with foreign affairs, 4) opposes intervention in other states' internal affairs, 5) condemns assassins,poisoners, breaches of capitulation, and incitement to treason in opposing states, 6) rejects free immigration, and 7) rejects the Open Door of imposed trade while praising commerce.

Since liberal imperialism – or u201Cdemocracyu201D by invasion – relies on all or most of the items on the above list, Kant makes a pretty poor forefather to that cause. His two articles – onrepublicanism and the u201Cfederation of nationsu201D – whereby the democratic peace warriors claim Kant as their prophet – won't hold the weight. Naturally, we can't utterly rule out the possibility that a secret reading of Kant by a qualified Straussian or some beltway Hermes Trismegistus could square this circle.

An Internal Split Within Liberalism

If Kant was less than absolutely clear, he was not alone. The problem of war was a serious one for those who wished to realize the liberal program of freedom, peace, and prosperity, and the problem became more acute as time went on. One group of liberals reasoned, on the dubious analogy with domestic law enforcement, that only world government could reduce or eliminate the scourge of war. From William Gladstone to Woodrow Wilson, down to Lionel Robbins and many others, this misplaced analogy and a failure to look deep into their own imperialisms betrayed liberals into collective security.

Having taken up world organization as the u201Cnew international lawu201D (see my u201CThe United Nations Charter and the Delusion of Collective Securityu201D),such liberals stoutly refused to face up to the paradox of making war in the name of peace.

Another line of liberals – from Richard Cobden, Frdric Bastiat, and Gustave de Molinari, down to John Bassett Moore, Edwin Borchard, Herbert Hoover, and Robert A. Taft – called for fleshing out the system of international agreements, with no final military enforcement mechanism. They thus chose the seemingly slow path of foedus, that is, compact, very much in the spirit of Kant.

If the devotees of US imperialism need a u201Cliberalu201D pedigree, they are much better advised to start puffing up the reputation of the muddled John Stuart Mill, who was indeed an interventionist. (See my u201CJohn Stuart Mill and Liberal Imperialism.u201D)

The debate is hardly u201Cover,u201D even if liberal imperialists, liberventionists, and the democratic peace mob, have had a good run lately in crafting ideological cover for the foreign policies of certain English-speaking state oligarchies.

Interestingly, democratic peace theory very nearly reverses the insight of liberals like Cobden, namely, that constant warfare tends to undermine freedom and democratic procedures at home. Instead, the peace bombers posit u201Cdemocracyu201D as an eternal essence of particular states, states favored by them, which can only become more democratic, not less. The notion of institutional blowback is thereby taken off the table and may never petition for redress of theoretical grievances.

The final paradox, if this nonsense – theoretical and applied – long continues, will be a less-and-less democratic United States imposing bogus democracy worldwide. You couldn't blame Kant for that, even if Monty Python's charges against him were true. As for democratic peace mongering, it will take another essay to do justice to that.


[1] Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944), pp. 140–141.

[2] Stuart M. Brown, Jr., u201CHas Kant a Philosophy of Law?u201D, Philosophical Review, 71, 1 (January 1962), pp. 33–48.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, ed. Lewis White Beck (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957).

[4] Ibid., pp. 3–4. In quoting Kant's u201Carticles,u201D I have removed italics, except for Latin terms, as well as capitalization of ordinary words.

[5] Ibid., pp. 5–6.

[6] Ibid., pp. 7–8.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Ibid., pp. 11–12.

[9] Ibid., pp. 13–14.

[10] Ibid., p. 15.

[11] Brown, u201CHas Kant a Philosophy of Law?u201D, p. 46.

[12] Ibid., pp. 16–18.

[13] Kenneth N. Waltz, u201CKant, Liberalism, and War,u201D American Political Science Review, 56, 2 (June 1962), p. 337.

[14] Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 20–21.

[15] Ibid., pp. 21–22.

[16] Ibid., pp. 22–23.

[17] Ibid., pp. 24–32.

[18] Ibid., p. 31.

[19] See Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy, the God That Failed (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001).

[20] John Norton Moore, u201CSolving the War Puzzle,u201D American Journal of International Law, 97, 2 (April 2003), p. 287.

[21] Roger Scruton, u201CImmanuel Kant and the Iraq War,u201D February 19, 2004.

February 25, 2004