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An ideal peace agreement that ends the war once and for all

FRED / Three hundred years after Immanuel Kant was born, the Prussian philosopher's arguments for a rational, clear-sighted pacifism are more relevant than ever. Europe has recently become a place where the opposition between good and evil is routinely invoked to justify irresponsible brutality, and where the drums of war sound ever louder. Kant is known as the author of one of the most famous anti-war essays in the history of philosophy: The Eternal Peace. Kant's cosmopolitanism is based on man's original, common possession of the earth and implies a recognition of a 'right' to visit all places without being treated with hostility.


In another possible world, perhaps more predictable than the one we live in, instead of rushing every morning to check the latest news about Russia's war in Ukraine, I would regularly check the weather forecast. I would be looking forward to a long-planned trip to Kaliningrad to attend the birthday party of my favorite philosopher, who is also supposedly one of Vladimir Putin's favourites: Immanuel Kant. Flights to Moscow and domestic transport were booked until the end of April, and I would daydream romantically, uncritically and somewhat inappropriately for a Kantian about my arrival.

Should I try to imitate Immanuel Kant#'s legendary afternoon stroll through the then Prussian city and setting the clock to his routines, as Königsberg's residents are rumored to have done? Should I head straight for the center and try to find the famous "seven bridges of Königsberg", the mathematical problem analyzed by Leonhard Euler, which laid the foundation for graph theory? Should I stop to take a selfie on the banks of the river Pregolja (formerly Pregel)? Or should I try to visit the 1300th century Gothic cathedral?

Perhaps later. For me, Kant's modest burial place is the most important place in Kaliningrad.

Kant grav

"Immanuel Kant / 1724–1804 / Prominent bourgeois idealist philosopher. Born, lived without leaving and died in Königsberg," reads a Soviet-era plaque, which was placed there shortly after 1947, when the tomb was surprisingly saved from demolition. At the time, Kaliningrad, which had been bombed during the war by both the British and the Soviets, was undergoing reconstruction – the plan was to turn it into a Soviet poster city, to be filled with Stalin statues and Lego-like, purpose-built blocks.

In Kaliningrad/Königsberg, a few years ago, Kant's genius and spirit were used to seal the special union of German reason and Russian passion – which later became known as Nord Stream 1 and 2.

Kant's grave was saved by the miraculous intervention of one VV Ljubimov (probably a fake name). He wrote to Izvestija, the government's official newspaper, to alert the authorities of the imminent danger to the philosopher's tomb. He wanted to remind them that Kant had received positive reviews in dialectics of nature ('The nature of dialectics', 1883) by Friedrich Engels, who praised Kant's "epoch-making work" for breaking with the "petrified", theological view of nature. In a rare case of responsiveness to democracy from below, the Council of Ministers' Committee for Cultural Heritage decided to preserve Kant's grave, and thus also the cathedral in which it is located.

Since then, the relationship of the authorities and the general public to Kant and his thinking, how they negotiate, appropriate and partly distort his legacy – has been an interesting perspective for exploring some of the wider tensions in Russia's relationship with Europe and Europe's relation to oneself.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder stand at Immanuel Kant's grave on the 750th anniversary of the founding of Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, July 2005.


Trade as a prerequisite for lasting peace

In early July 2005, just before the 750th anniversary of Kaliningrad/Königsberg, the local university took Immanuel Kant's name. Both Russian President Putin and Germany's then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder were present. Enthusiastic speeches were made and vigorous handshakes were exchanged. Schröder said that Kaliningrad "is now the westernmost city in the Russian Federation", and while this is still "painful for some, it is history". The city had "a real chance to become a truly European metropolis and overcome the boundaries that have been drawn".

When the tragic past is subordinated to a more hopeful future, one can hear an echo of the old thesis of doux commerce: trade as a prerequisite for lasting fred. In Kaliningrad/Königsberg, Kant's genius and spirit were invoked to seal the special union of German reason and Russian passion that later became known as Nord Stream 1 and 2.

Kant's 300th anniversary

Recently ordered a presidential decree with Putins signature preparations for Kant's 300th anniversary. On a Russian website established for the purpose, it continues to read: "Eminent academics will gather in the city where Professor Kant was born, lived, worked and now rests, to discuss the legacy of the philosopher and the influence his ideas have had on science and the development of modern society."

Kant was a pacifist, but he was not naive.

I am one of these academicianno. Or rather, I was. In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the international conference I was supposed to attend, the largest gathering of Kantian scholars in the world, was moved to Germany. On the event's (now updated) website it is condemned Russias war of aggression, and it is explained that the decision to no longer refer it to Kaliningrad was changed based on the "legitimate assumption" that the Congress was "acting in the interests of its members and in line with the purpose of the association".

I recently indulged in another thought experiment. Would Kant have canceled his own congress in Kaliningrad? Judging by his reaction to Russia's war of aggression against his own country at the end of the Seven Years' War, it seems quite unlikely.

Although Kant was the first to come up with a definition of the Enlightenment, captured under the motto Saper hears! ('Dare to know'), was not the prominent 1700th-century philosopher and author of Critique of the common sense (1781) known for his personal courage. In 1757 was Konigsberg under Russian occupation, and Kant wrote to Empress Elizabeth pledging her loyalty. In the event of treason, he wrote, I will "immediately notify the authorities, but also try to thwart the misdeed". A professorship in logic and metaphysics had recently become vacant, and Kant needed the support of the authorities (but he failed).

The love of the nation should never be sacrificed in favor of an ordinary chair, some might say. Cowardice is nevertheless not the only explanation for the inconsistency between the radical content of Kant's writings and his more moderate personal behavior. A deeper reason lies in the political demands of his freedom theory.

Kant's theory of freedom

To be free, in the Kantian sense, is to be able to take a critical distance from one's passions and inclinations and ask oneself whether they contribute to 'enlightened' thinking: as Kant puts it, to overcome "man's self-inflicted immaturity".

The enlightenment process rests on three maxims: to think for oneself, to think for everyone else, and always to think consistently. Such maxims, he believed, could be promoted through "the public use of reason", a modus operandi which is fundamental to
different from the 'private' use people make of it in a professional context (for example as students, teachers, doctors, politicians, lawyers or asset managers). While the latter presupposes acceptance of authorities, the former requires a pluralistic, impartial and critical engagement.

Kant criticizes how easily states take on debt to finance war.

It is difficult to relate to Kant's ambitions in a time like ours, there Freedomone constantly threatened by clashes between privatelye interests. Our form of communication is broader and more inclusive than that of the 1700th century (for example, political participation is no longer formally reserved for property owners), but it is also shallower, more assertive and less critical. Dissent manifests itself more in loud individual utterances (preferably recorded on the mobile phone) and less in collective, critical engagement.

Like us, Kant lived in one crisis time which was characterized by great advances in science and technology, but with a collapse in terms of values. Yet he gave reason a role as a universal communicative ability that attempts to find a middle ground between skepticism and dogmatism, between not believing in anything and following trends blindly. This conception of reason seems more difficult to revive in our societies, which are strangled between destructive interests and the individualization of political commitment.

The Wrath of Russian Nationalists

On February 12, 2024, almost two years after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kaliningrad's governor Anton Alikhanov declared during a conference that responsibility for the recent war lay with none other than Enlightenment philosopher Kant. Kant, emphasized Alikhanov, had a “direct relationship with the global chaos, the global neworienteringone that we are now facing" – his work contributed to a "social and cultural situation" in which "the West has broken all agreements made".

It was not the first time Kant attracted the wrath of Russian nationalists. Already in December 2018, when the government conducted an online referendum to rename Kaliningrad's airport, Kant was one of the favorites, until a smear campaign accusing him of being 'Russophobic' led to the vandalism of his statue, painting over his grave and destruction of a memorial plaque marking the place where he had lived.

This time, however, there was a tragic irony in Alikhanov's words that Kant had a "direct connection to the military conflict in Ukraine".

Kant's cosmopolitanism

Kant is, after all, better known as the author of one of the most famous anti-war essays in the history of philosophy: The eternal peace (2015 [1795]). Now that destructive conflicts threaten to spread from Russia/Ukraine to Europe, and from Israel/Palestine to the rest of the Middle East, it is deeply worrying, but perhaps also instructive, to re-read Kant.

The very title of the essay is inspired by the satirical inscription on a plaque in a Dutch inn, where "eternal peace" refers to "the tranquility of the graveyard". Of course, he never knew about nuclear threats. But his warning that "a war of extermination in which both sides are annihilated at the same time […] will only lead to eternal peace in the vast graveyard of humanity", still has an ominous ring to it.

The essay takes the form of an ideal peace treaty. This contains a number of points which will not only lead to a temporary halt in hostilities, but to the end of the war once and for all. Kant criticizes how easily states adopt debt to finance war. Debt, he believes, is legitimate for peaceful projects, but when it comes to international conflicts, has money "a dangerous power" because, "combined with politicians' propensity to fight", they "increase the possibility of doing so".

The most famous passages in Kant's essay on eternal peace are those where he describes how the rights of nations must be based on a "federalism between free states". Kant's proposal was a response to a challenge that had plagued Europe since the decree of "perpetual peace" was passed in the Diet of Worms in 1495 – and which had led to a ban on private feuds, which were common in the Middle Ages. What was the point of using the state's coercive power to guarantee peace in one's own country if the citizens' safety was constantly threatened by international war? How to handle warfare between larger units that now had a monopoly on the use of force?

Abbé de Saint Pierre's proposal was a federation of European states that included Russia.

Inspired by the work of his predecessors, including Abbe de Saint Pierre#'s proposal for a federation of European states that included Russia, Kant's project was perhaps the most ambitious. The Prussian philosopher insisted that the standard 1700th-century categories of private, public and international law had to be supplemented by a new one, which he called "a cosmopolitan law".

Kant's cosmopolitanism takes as its starting point man's original common possession of the earth and implies a recognition of the individual's 'right' to visit all places without being treated with hostility. It is also specified that since global interaction and international intercourse have now gone so far that "a violation of the right in one place on earth is felt everywhere", the term 'cosmopolitanism' is not a question of ethics, but of politics. Since private, public, international and cosmopolitan law are mutually dependent on each other, the others also collapse when one of them is questioned.

Kant was pacifist, but he was not naive. In a well-known essay from 1943, The Future of Pacifism, distinguished the British philosopher Bertrand Russell between an absolute and a relative version of pacifism. The former, Russell believed, is the argument that "it is wrong in all circumstances to take human life". The other, on the other hand, consists in the fact that "the devilry of war is almost always greater than it appears and which excites the population at the moment the war breaks out". Although some wars were worth fighting, in cases such as World War I, the "destructions resulting from the war" outweighed the disadvantages of making the necessary concessions to avert a war.

Kant's system resists such calculations: His pacifism is more about principles than about consequences. For both Kant and Russell, pacifism is nevertheless not the same as "turning the other cheek", as the early church fathers did, and to which the 'just war' tradition developed as a reaction. For just war advocates, turning the other cheek only made sense when it came down to it vold against individuals, not when it involved an attack on a whole group of innocent people. As Augustine, one of the early advocates of just war, put it: "It is the injustice of the adversary that imposes on the wise man the duty of waging just war."

The position was as prominent among 1700th-century jurists as it appears to be among 2000st-century liberal politicians. In response to this was the type pacifism Kant proposed (and inspired Russell) part of a political argument. Pacifists are fully aware of the risks of complacency, and of the argument that a pacifist stance risks encouraging further aggression. What they are trying to highlight is the danger of escalation and the fact that it is historically rare for wars to end in total victory for just one side.

They highlight the danger of escalation and the fact that it is historically rare for wars to end in total victory for just one side.

The war metaphors are everywhere

Kant's essay on eternal peace is often cited as a source of inspiration for EU: a project that was born out of the ashes of the Second World War, where former mortal enemies came together in a common commitment to peaceful institutions. For all its limitations, the EU has been crucial, not only in steering Western European politics away from nationalism and towards fraternization, but also for disillusioned states struggling to come to terms with their communist past.

Europe has recently become a place where the opposition between good and evil is routinely invoked to justify irresponsible brutality, and where the drums of war sound ever louder. Governments around the world are once again at a standstill arms race, and market shares in the military industry are skyrocketing.

The war metaphors are everywhere: Some find enemies within Europe's borders and agitate that migrants pose a threat to traditional values, while openly advocating the deportation of asylum seekers. Others envision external enemies and urge us to "mentally prepare" for a "pre-war era," as Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently warned against. Meanwhile, those who advocate compromise and nuance are at best subjected to ridicule and trolling, at worst for censorship and repression.

Nothing is further from Kant's spirit than the dogmatic way in which we are asked to accept war in all its forms: political, social and cultural. Perhaps this is precisely where the father lies. Perhaps the war is fought in our consciousness – before it is implemented in reality. Perhaps we become convinced that good and evil are obvious, that the right must win and the wrong punished, that war – in the world of ideas, in politics, at our borders, at the front – is the only way forward.

In another possible world, I would still have gone to Kaliningrad. I would have left because I happen to agree with Kant that the only trenches we should engage in are those of reason. As it says in one of the parts i The eternal peace, even in the midst of the worst exaggerations, one must maintain a certain confidence in the humanity of the enemy. If Kant has anything to teach us 300 years after his birth, it is that when the pursuit of total victory risks total extinction, escalation is always a disaster.


The article was previously printed in The Financial Times April 2024. Translated into Norwegian by the editor. In addition to being a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, Lea Ypi is the author of the book Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (2021)

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Lea Ypi
In addition to being a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, Lea Ypi is the author of the book Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (2021).

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