top of page

Kant’s Blueprint for Good Governance

Paweł Grabowski | University of Aberdeen

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Painting by Johann Gottlieb Becker (1768).
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Painting by Johann Gottlieb Becker (1768).

At the outset of the twenty-first century, the Kantian strategy for eternal peace remains a unique gateway to a less combative world stage. Its author, Immanuel Kant, was born in 1724 in Königsberg, then an East Prussian city, today the Russian city of Kaliningrad. Throughout his life, he remained passionately attached to his native city, where he studied, lectured and wrote all of his works. At the end of his prolific career, Kant penned his Toward Perpetual Peace, a major statement on the problems of war and peace that drew its inspiration from the writings of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though published long ago, Kant's work has lost none of its significance. Since its appearance in 1795, scholars have seen in Kant's essay an enlightened programme for the containment of global violence and the promotion of a global civil society based on integrity, honesty and mutual respect. The transparent relevance of the Kantian formula for current political, economic, and social issues makes it especially important. In particular, Kant's appeal to human rights and natural law, alongside his efforts to craft a theory of justice, retains a sense of permanence and validity. Truly, Kant's essay remains a work of high attempt and aspiration – still with a claim on the future.

Kant's house in Königsberg. Painting by Friedrich Heinrich Bils (1842).
Kant's house in Königsberg. Painting by Friedrich Heinrich Bils (1842).

Intellectually, Kant's essay transcended his era’s attitudes, wisdoms and beliefs. These accepted war as a means of carrying on interstate relationships. The international scene at the time was dominated by five great powers: Russia, Prussia, Austria, France and Britain. This constellation of military superpowers regulated itself through a balance of power based on the egoism of individual states. This system had no overriding vision of peace and showed little concern for the sovereignty of other states, among which Poland suffered perhaps most by being partitioned in 1772, 1793 and 1795. But Kant had a novel vision of peace that aspired to dispense with the order of international relations envisaged by the 'enlightened' despots. His proposition sought to tackle the relationship between domestic and foreign affairs through republican government and a pacific federation based on cosmopolitan law.

Further, Kant anticipated today's unprecedentedly interconnected world by refusing to view domestic and foreign affairs through the realist dichotomy. Most intriguingly, the Kantian proposal hinged on teleological reasoning in which nature helped humanity overcome its reluctance to self-regulated republicanism and perpetual peace – Kant's crowning idea. So how did this grand design attempt to reorder global relations?

Picture of Europe for July 1772, satirical British plate. Allegory of the First Partition of Poland, showing Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria agreeing to divide Poland with the tacit consent of Sultan Mustaf; King George III of Britain is pushed to the background (1772).
Picture of Europe for July 1772, satirical British plate. Allegory of the First Partition of Poland, showing Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria agreeing to divide Poland with the tacit consent of Sultan Mustaf; King George III of Britain is pushed to the background (1772).

First off, Kant needed a constitutional regime to accommodate his scheme. Historians often say that there was no credible republican alternative for a large state until the American constitution was agreed upon in 1789. But a large polity in Early Modern Europe – Poland-Lithuania – developed strong republican traditions over two centuries before the American constitution took its shape. Although Poland was the only region outside Prussia Kant ever visited, his essay and other writings show little awareness of the workings of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in its bloom. There is an element of irony here. Kant published his essay in 1795, the year in which his native Prussia – in cahoots with Russia and Austria – completed the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian prodigy gutting and trampling the spirit of sovereignty embodied in the fifth preliminary article of Toward Perpetual Peace. Until a better theory presents itself, one might assume that native wisdom and vicarious experience directed Kant's thoughts to the incipient model of the First French Republic.

Protracted strife in revolutionary France, where a people turned republican despite themselves, nurtured an outcome in line with the republican leanings of Kant's essay. This is where the Revolution begot revolutionaries and induced their minds toward republican mores. But little else ties the essay directly to France. Historians have scoured Kant's writings for clues but have found only two cautious statements in the Conflict of the Faculties (1798) and the Nachlaß (unpublished notes and reflections), alongside scattered remarks. But even the brief statements found do not show that Kant embraced the French Revolution uncritically. His caution perhaps stemmed from the fear of repercussions from the Prussian authorities, but future research is likely to relegate the conceptual allure of the French Revolution to playing second fiddle to a much more variegated story. Be that as it may, Kant's staunch republicanism invites greater confidence and a consideration in light of its salience in the essay.

Storming of the Bastille and the Arrest of Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789. Painting by Unidentified Artist (circa 1789-1791).
Storming of the Bastille and the Arrest of Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789. Painting by Unidentified Artist (circa 1789-1791).

The first Definitive Article seems to indicate Kant's strong espousal of the republican constitution because it fostered civility, morality and an unrestricted rule of citizens' self-interest. Further, Kant's republicanism embraced peace-inducing provisions such as the citizens' rule, the juridical state, a Montesquieuan division of powers, and above all, the citizens' say on matters of war. The difficulty of deciding on war, according to Kant, made a republic peaceful:

'Besides the purity of its origin, that is, it having sprung from the pure source of the concept of right, the republican constitution also offers the prospect for the desired consequence, namely, perpetual peace. The reason for this is as follows: if (as must be the case in such a constitution) the agreement of the citizens is required to decide whether or not one ought to wage war, then nothing is more natural than that they would consider very carefully whether to enter into such a terrible game since they would have to resolve to bring the hardships of war upon themselves (which would include: themselves fighting, paying the costs of the war from their own possessions, meagrely repairing the ravages that war leaves behind, and, finally, on top of all such malady, assuming a burden of debt that embitters the peace and will never be repaid [due to imminent, constantly impending wars])'.

Once the citizens of an enlightened state (France or America) refrained from futile wars thanks to a cost-benefit analysis, the prospects for peace increased. Republicanism envisaged in the Kantian blueprint served to render men less immoral and less reluctant to treat their fellow countrymen as ends rather than means. It was, therefore, through his republican mechanism that Kant intended to regulate the states' domestic politics. Similar preparatory guidance concerned Kant's conception of states as units representing political communities on the international stage.

Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Carl Alexander, who sold his principality to Prussia in 1791 and sailed off to England. Painting by Georg Anton Abraham Urlaub (circa 1772).
Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Carl Alexander, who sold his principality to Prussia in 1791 and sailed off to England. Painting by Georg Anton Abraham Urlaub (circa 1772).

Kant held that the internal organisation of the states shaped the prospects for a world order. In his day, though, the sought-after peace was eminently in short supply. With harsh words, Kant chastised the Westphalian system in which states behaved like savages wearing themselves out in a condition of perpetual war or feuding. In his view, states hardly ever signed true peace treaties capable of permanent international peace. Because of military logistics or belligerents' exhaustion, the treaties amounted to armistices that postponed the run of hostilities. Expansion-wise states often acquired territories through conquest, barter or purchase – witness Frederick the Great's nephew Carl Alexander, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, who sold his principality to Prussia in 1791 and retired to England (The same margrave leased his troops to King George III of Great Britain for the American Revolutionary War). Warmongering likewise meant that states contracted debts that drained resources that could be spent on roadways, lodgings and victuals. Worse still, national sovereignty was the Westphalian system's baneful gift to Europe, for each state resisted any external legal coercion through its internal constitution. But Kant did not sink under a load of despair. His belief that the anarchic Westphalian state system could be reformed furnished a renovating virtue that depresses the realist take on international politics.

But there is much more to Kant's vast design. New ideas roll in heaps, especially in the Six Preliminary Articles that aimed to wring humanity from the thirsty throat of war. The first article deserves special attention for its topical and occasional quality: 'No peace settlement which secretly reserves issues for a future war shall be considered valid'. Kant's opening article – if not the entire essay – may be read as his outright rejection of the peace deal hatched in the Treaty of Basel (April 1795). The treaty ended a phase of the war between the First Coalition and revolutionary France. In the secret articles of the treaty, France promised, should it gain the Rhine frontier, to help Prussia with compensation on its right bank.

Meanwhile, French troops were to desist from waging war north of a demarcation line separating those German states that agreed to the treaty from those which, following Austria's lead, remained at war with France. The Treaty of Basel was a diplomatic triumph for Revolutionary France, a serious blow to the First Coalition and a source of contempt for Prussia. But the Prussian king Frederick William II had an ulterior motive for covenanting with the French, for he intended to concentrate on Prussia's territorial expansion through the Third Partition of Poland in 1795.

Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last monarch of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Painting by Marcello Bacciarelli (1792).
Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last monarch of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Painting by Marcello Bacciarelli (1792).

Similarly, the remainder of Kant's articles drew salutary lessons from the ills of Ancien Régime Europe. Importantly, the Second Preliminary Article postulated that no state could be inherited, exchanged or purchased. The right to inherit lands, in particular, could lead to major international conflagrations, as shown by the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) fought in Europe, India and America. Resolute saving action also guides the remaining four articles: standing armies should gradually be abolished; states should not incur war debts as these served only the mercantilist classes; no state was allowed to meddle in the domestic policies of another; the use of spies and assassins should be banned. All considered, the six articles sought to regulate domestic and foreign affairs. In the tangle laid out by Kant, no state could survive in a splendid isolation, and individual freedom could not thrive without order and peace. Domestic constitutions suited the sovereign states' internal needs but carried little weight internationally. Kant's recognition of the cycle of interdependence and its sway over international relations was clearly visionary.

In the Second Definitive Article, Kant listed three types of interstate relations: war or victory, truce and a pacific federation. The latter has recently received more attention than any other aspect of Kant's philosophy. Critics of the war-averse federation usually exploit the Kantian ambiguities, for instance, his attachment to national sovereignty versus his cosmopolitan ideas. From such academic cares, Kant's formula emerges reconceived as a pacific union of liberal republics, a voluntary federation of states, a world republic or a minimal state, to name but a few. But Kant's support for a world republic and a voluntary federation of states resembles the puzzles in theories of other classical thinkers (Thucydides, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, and Rousseau come to mind). The temptation to implant interpretations based on experience unknown in Kant's times routinely heightens expectations. Allowance must also be made for the inflexion of hesitation in theories developed in response to unfolding events.

But the dramatic events at the end of the eighteenth century may have shaped Kant's outlook on domestic and foreign affairs. Kant, however, lacked definitive models to guide him towards a clear recommendation. When his essay saw daylight in 1795, the three liberal models on offer – the Swiss Cantons, the United States and the French Republic – were nothing more than a modest garland of republican primroses releasing their first seeds. The German philosopher kept abreast of the events in France, but indecisiveness sometimes appears in his thinking about domestic and interstate affairs. An acute observer of the international scene, Kant was inevitably constrained by chance events – the enemy of all strategists and political thinkers. He certainly did not anticipate the United States' later isolationism, and it is a moot point how he would have responded to the impact of Napoleon's wars.

Napoleon dictating to Count Las Cases the Account of his campaigns. Painting by William Quiller Orchardson (1892).
Napoleon dictating to Count Las Cases the Account of his campaigns. Painting by William Quiller Orchardson (1892).

So, does the Kantian formula still carry the charm of visionary things? The current run of international events seems to extend the shelf life and relevance of Kant's work into the foreseeable future. The Kantian strategy for good order and governance is a star that still gives much light precisely because it is so high. Some Kantian ideas have already been borne out. Chief among them is the constructive impact of military conflict. The wars of the Early Modern Era stimulated the formation of the modern state and the growth of modern capitalism. There is, moreover, much to be said for Thomas Piketty's evidence and argument that the decline in structural inequality in the twentieth century owed much to the chaos of war and its attendant political and economic shocks. While Kant's claim that republican states go to war less often has yet to be proven correct, his essay still rewards the reader with wise and original insights. The Kantian blueprint obviates concerns and doubts about the use of or abstention from military action. In Kant's view, peace has not been banished. So, is it then still necessary to feed Mars in order to renew the creativity of life?


Further Reading:

  • Jeremy Black, European Warfare 1453-1815 (Basingstoke, 1999)

  • David Cannadine, The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (London, 2013)

  • Yale Ferguson and Richard Mansbach, Remapping Global Politics: History’s Revenge and Future Shock (Cambridge, 2004)

  • Robert Frost, 'The Roads Not Taken: Liberty, Sovereignty and the Idea of the Republic in Poland-Lithuania and the British Isles, 1550–166', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (2022), 1-20

  • Fritz Gause and Jürgen Lebuhn, Kant und Königsberg bis heute. Aktueller Reisebericht und historischer Rückblick (Leer, 1989)

  • Annie Jourdan, La Révolution, une exception française? (Paris, 2004)

  • Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, ed. P. Kleingeld (Binghamton, 2006)

  • Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 2015)

  • Pamiętniki króla Stanisława Augusta. Antologia (Warsaw, 2013)

  • Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge MA, 2014)

Paweł Grabowski is a doctoral researcher at the University of Aberdeen. His research interests include the Jagiellonian polities, the Burgundian Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottomans and the history of knowledge. He is presently examining Polish, German, Dutch and French records for points of ingression into the relations between Poland and Valois Burgundy (1363-1477).


bottom of page