Bringing Philosophy to Life
#20 Rest in Peace
Two existential threats have dominated this series so far—nuclear war and the environmental crisis that portends the extinction of the human species. In episode #19, I proposed a solution to the first concern: “All nuclear weapons should be placed under the control of the United Nations.” Philosophers are accustomed to being dismissed as naïve and harmless. For example, in the 18th century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay in which he offered a sketch of how lasting peace might be achieved throughout the globe. He opened that essay with a reminder of this popular view of philosophers, especially by “practical politicians.” He said: “As the writer of this essay, I venture to say that the practical politician’s assessment of theory is to look down with smug self-satisfaction upon learned wisdom, because the state must proceed by verified principles, not by unfounded ideas” (Immanuel Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” Kant’s Foundations of Ethics, Second Edition, translated by Leo Rauch and Lieselotte Anderson —Agora Publications, Inc., 2007— p. ). For that reason, Kant assures us that he has no fear “a world-wise state leader” might see people with high-minded theories as dangerous, so, as he puts it, they are allowed to “shoot their bolt.” “This saving grace,” Kant says, “will effectively protect the author of this work from any malicious attack.”
Kant is not known for his sense of humor, so it comes as a surprise that the title of this essay, “Toward Lasting Peace,” is intended as satire. He says it is the inscription painted above a Dutch innkeeper’s door that displays a graveyard, which is, indeed, a place to find lasting peace. Kant’s humor is gallows humor, appropriate for only the most desperate or hopeless situation, very much like the one in which the world currently finds itself. Currently, for example, the news cycle is filled with reports of the impasse within the U.S. House of Representatives:
Joe Biden, America’s president, called for an end to the political instability in his country, warning that it imperiled aid to Ukraine. Kevin McCarthy’s ousting as speaker of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, in a vote forced by Matt Gaetz, his fellow Republican, has thrown Washington into turmoil (The Economist, October 5, 2023).
Anyone who follows the chaos reported daily in the news will surely wonder how I can seriously propose a plan that requires creating a new world order that includes removing all nuclear weapons from local and national control and placing them under the control of a world government. I assure you that I am serious, not as a “practical politician” but as a philosopher; not as someone who seeks to implement a utopia but as one who outlines the fundamental principles of a lasting peace that might exist outside the graveyard. The current political fragmentation, especially in the United States, does not change those principles but shows how important it is for all human beings to unite behind a world order that counteracts the human causes of what Elizabeth Kolbert calls the sixth extinction in a book by that name published in 2014. Those same principles provide a rational justification for creating a peace alliancethat would, in Kant’s words, “differ from a peace treaty by its commitment to end not just one war but all wars—and to end them forever” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ).
In that spirit, I will follow Kant’s lead by summarizing the most significant ingredients that are required for any agreement that seeks lasting peace.
1. No peace agreement is viable if it contains “a tacit threat of a future war.”
2. “No state shall he taken over by another—regardless of its size—whether by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or donation” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ).
3. Standing armies must be abolished.
4. “No state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution or government of another” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ).
5. “No state should indulge in acts of hostility that would undermine the mutual respect necessary for future peace” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ). In elaborating that point Kant says: “A war of extermination in which the simultaneous obliteration of both parties takes place and necessarily eliminates all law can only lead to the immense graveyard of humankind” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ).
6. What Kant calls the first definitive article for lasting peace is: “The civil constitution of every state should be that of a republican system” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ). To avoid verbal confusion, I will simply list the three principles Kant presents as essential: (a) The principle of freedom for all members—as human beings—in a society; (b) The principle of dependence—as subjects—on a single shared system of legislation; and (c) A constitution based on the principle of equality for all—as citizens (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” [349-350]).
7. The second definitive article for a lasting peace is: “International law should be established by a federation of free states” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ).
The kind of federation Kant proposed in 1795 was created in the actual world in 1920 when the League of Nations came into existence. That federation became obsolete when the United Nations was formed in 1945.
Both the United Nations and The League of Nations are what some thinkers during the Enlightenment called “a social contract.” Kant says: “It is difficult to understand on what foundation one would establish trust if rights are not the surrogate of a social contract—namely that of a free federation. Human reason, by necessity, combines this trust with the concept of international law; it is what allows us to reflect and continue to apply it everywhere” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ).
Currently the war between Russia and Ukraine provides a clear example of the principles Kant presents and examines. That conflict seems to have reached a stalemate with neither side likely to declare victory soon, yet neither side is calling for a peace treaty. Military conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in 2014, so the 2022 invasion by Russia was an expansion rather than a new venture. The fighting stopped, but no peace treaty was negotiated. Even if the participants were to agree to a peace treaty in Ukraine, it is almost certain to be a temporary solution. Kant’s call for a “peace alliance” is designed to seek a permanent solution. Kant says: “For nations that seek a relationship with each other, there is no reasonable alternative to escape from the lawless predicament of constant war than a mutual consent to establish laws of restraint. Like individual people, states would have to suspend their natural limitless freedom of savagery by forming a state composed of nations—which would continue to grow—and would finally include all people on earth” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ).
Unfortunately, this issue is not confined to Ukraine. On October 7, 2023, The New York Times reported that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declared war against Hamas after militants from Gaza launched a surprise attack on Israel. On October 9, The Economist said that at least 700 Israelis were killed, “many of them civilians at a festival in the country’s south, with dozens more taken hostage. Officials in Gaza said that retaliatory Israeli air strikes have killed 493 Palestinians and wounded over 2,500. A further 124,000 or so have been displaced from their homes. On Sunday the UN Security Council gathered for an emergency session on Hamas’s assault, but did not offer a path for action” (The Economist, October 9, 2023).
Already in September of 2023, the President of Colombia, addressed the United Nations and linked the conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine. “Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Tuesday called at the UN General Assembly for peace summits to resolve conflicts in Ukraine and between Israel and the Palestinians, so the international community could focus instead on addressing climate change, which he said was “the mother of all crises.” (UN News, September 23, 2023). President Petro emphasizes the similarity between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The kind of “peace alliance” Kant had in mind has the potential to respond not only to military conflicts but to other global crises that threaten the entire planet. To have lasting peace, a global peace alliance is required.
Rather than lament the current political fragmentation throughout the globe, we should be looking harder than ever for an alliance of nations that would strengthen our ability to resolve military conflicts, destruction of the natural environment, pandemics, and similar threats. President Zelensky of Ukraine recently provided an example of how that might be done: reform of the United Nations. Specifically, on September 20, he addressed the U.N. Security Council and called for changing the rules to allow the U.N. General Assembly, which includes all member countries, to override a Security Council veto by a two-thirds vote (The New York Times, September 21, 2023). This is not the place to debate specific solutions for changing the U.N., but the general principle is clear: A genuine international order that can provide justice for all can only evolve if universal values prevail over nationalism, sectarianism, and plutocracy. Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, applied that principle to the Ukraine. He said: “I think that Zelensky believes that by talking about U.N. reform, he is turning Ukraine’s battle into a global cause. He is certainly right that a lot of U.N. members believe that the council is out of date and needs reform, and the veto is especially unpopular” (The New York Times, September 21, 2023).
It goes without saying that bringing about a global peace alliance is an immense challenge, one that would require prodigious political skill. Difficult as it would be, it is not impossible. In principle, this next step in establishing a global peace alliance might follow the same general pattern as the unification of 50 separate states into the United States or 27 separate countries into the European Union. If, for example, all separate states and countries were to transfer all existing nuclear weapons to the United Nations and place their control under a single central authority, then the use and development of such weapons could be regulated in a way that would deter any single nation or group from promoting its own political or economic agenda. Because nuclear weapons are under the control of the federal government in the United States, it is impossible for Texas to use such weapons in a potential conflict with California. By analogy, if the U.N. had control of the use and development of nuclear weapons, they could not be employed by Russia to force its will on Ukraine or for Israel to gain full hegemony over Palestine.
Finally, to show the wider potential for Kant’s idea of a peace alliance, his “third definitive article” applies to the current struggle over migration and secure borders, especially in the Americas and in Europe: “Universal right should be limited to the conditions of general hospitality” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ). Kant explicitly says that this article “does not refer to philanthropy but is a matter of rights.” Hospitality, as he uses the term, concerns “the right of strangers not to be treated belligerently on other people’s soil.” He continues: “A stranger can be excluded, provided that does not lead to the stranger’s demise; but as long as the stay is peaceful, there is no reason for hostility” (Kant, “Toward Lasting Peace,” ). This third article is especially important because of the current environmental crisis that is already causing immense boarder conflicts among nations, a trend that will increase as global warming, depletion of vital resources such as water, and pollution of the air and the water drive billions of people from their habitat.
I repeat, this proposal is not a design for utopia. The kinds of conflict that plague single nations, such as the disfunction in the United States Congress, and the hostility between nations exemplified by the new war between Israel and Hamas, will continue. What a revised United Nations might provide is a way to take nuclear weapons out of the conflict and reduce the chances of an accidental or even an intentional nuclear war that could trigger the Sixth Extinction. It could also provide a model for a more just global order that would also allow us to resolve the environmental crisis and to respond to the next pandemic.
The sober truth is that peace will surely come one way or another. If we do not achieve lasting peace through wise political choices and actions, then the peace of the graveyard will prevail. Then we can all rest in peace.