Kant, Putin and Perpetual Peace

 Inspired by Marco Aliberti’s a my new book, The Optional Society (https://lnkd.in/e_MC8pwX):

Immanuel Kant was a great thinker on space and time. Yet, his own sense of timing was hardly irreproachable. He published ‘Perpetual Peace’, his blueprint, a few years before the Napoleonic Wars.

225 years after Kant’s masterpiece came out, what does it tell us about the tragedy of Ukraine and about where it will ultimately take us? Does it contain relevant lessons?

One central assumption of Perpetual Peace is that when humankind understands that war is a zero-sum game, humankind will stop fighting. Yet, exactly the opposite is, of course, the case. We need not look to Putin, but only to the darkness of our own souls, to know that exactly getting something at the expense of others is greatest satisfaction. Humans and human societies are relativist and hence getting the greater share of a finite cake fills us with pride. This is immutable, yet common benefit optimisation makes our instincts amenable to regulation.

Whatever his logic, also Kant concluded that regulation of international affairs was necessary for peace but because he was such a strong believer in rationality he saw no need of international enforcement mechanisms. He was not a ‘World Government’ disciple despite being the high priest of political cosmopolitanism. Yet, the bloody sword of Napoleon proved Kant wrong in his lifetime, as the bloodiness of Putin does it today. Ambition and cruelty often get the better of idealistic rationalism!

In the midst of all the sorrow and despair caused by the invasion of Ukraine, it is, however, salutary to note that even without proper formal enforcement mechanisms Putin is being punished in all ways possible short of world war. Yet, the impotence of the Security Council provokes the entirely irrational, but Kantian, thought that such mechanisms just cannot be brought to work. Instead of attacking the absurdity of a warring party having a veto in the Security Council, we tend to resign in the face of its ineptitude. Given how international law is being contorted for all manner of unsavoury purposes, it is high time that we contort it for a laudable one and superimpose on the Charter of the United Nations a most fundamental principle of all law: that you cannot be party and judge at the same time. A decision of the Security Council on war and peace should not need agreement by a peace-breaker.

Ever since the publication of Perpetual Peace there has been broad agreement that Kant was right in saying that international trade is a tool for peace.  Although mostly forgotten, that is the rationale for the European Union. We now use international trade to sanction Putin by formally and informally blocking both what comes in and what goes out. That is right and proper. However, there is a concomitant thought that Europe was wrong in allowing dependency on Russian oil and gas, that, perhaps, it was wrong to deploy international trade in the service of peace. That is a most dangerous perspective because it leads straight to the autarky playbook. The idea is, in its essence, that your enemy should have dependency on you, but you should have none. In a perfect world you would thus be able to punish your enemy without pain to yourself. That, of course, is Kant on his head! The fundamental point of international trade as a peacebuilder is that dependency must be bidirectional. Exactly as we see in Europe today, we inflict pain on Russia whilst inflicting pain on ourselves. But, because there are many co-dependencies, those with many friends can weather the storm better than those with few. Ultimately, Ukrainian heroism aside, that will be the downfall of Russia. Russia’s only significant friend, China, is, of course, no friend at all.

If we look in the rear-view mirror, the problem with the dependency on Russian oil and gas was an optical delusion more than anything else. Russia appeared less dependent on the West than the West on Russia. That this perception is fallacious we are now being shown.  Without own capability to produce enough consumer goods, let alone industrial equipment, and with the supply of money drying up, there is a hard road ahead for Russians even in the short term. Whether their fabled ability to tolerate pain will carry Putin over is more than doubtful.  The staggering incompetence of Putin in building a prosperous Russia was, in sense, the autocrat’s ideal, because the right degree of poverty makes the general population pliable. What the West did wrong was to let Russia sink when the Soviet Union was dissolved rather than help it build a prosperous society with much more extensive bidirectional dependency. Now we have no choice but to throw the ordinary Russians into abject destitution, but we must understand that this will make the task of eventually making Russia a responsible international partner much, much harder. When clouds have cleared and the spectre of totalitarianism removed, we will need a Marshall plan for Russia.

The long-term risk to international society stemming from the rape of Ukraine is, however, not so much Russia, as what nations of good will may take from the conflict. If nations will proceed to build firewalls not only to perceived enemies, but also to assumed friends because they might turn enemy (a Brexit trauma), then the glue provided by international trade will disappear. Kant’s logic will have been given a deadly blow. Recent commentary by the great and the good in international finance to the effect that globalisation is dying suggests that a paradigm change is well afoot.

The threat of ever-decreasing interdependence is not a phenomenon caused only by Russia, of course.  Within less than a generation international trade will be existentially challenged by the rise of automation and 3D printing – putting manufacturing at local level within easy reach except for the most sophisticated manufactures. Listening to international experts, or any expert for that matter, will be replaced by the voice of artificial intelligence, and the metaverse will provide refuge from analogue reality.

3D printing a threat to peace?


What Putin has done is to release a strong impetus towards self-sufficiency that will reinforce existing trends. The paradox we will face in the future is that we will have the ability to make ourselves and our societies largely autarkic and exactly because of the lack of dependency we will, as per the old master, lay ourselves open to war. Fact is that only by staying vulnerable will we be able to avoid mortal wounds!

What we can learn from all this is that we should not rush towards self-sufficiency but nevertheless be aware that it is a destination that it will be hard to avoid in the long run. Ironically, this then brings us full circle to the reason why Kant was wrong to reject strong international institutions in the first place.

When rationality does not give cover and dependence no necessity of cooperation, there is only one way to avoid anarchy and inhumanity and that is to build strong international institutions that can ensure peace and equity – that will force us to turn our gaze towards other societies and make us vulnerable when we forget the dictates of humanity! Kant should have known!