Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795) and the Russia – Ukraine/NATO conflict

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Bert Olivier considers the Russia-Ukraine conflict through the frame of Immanuel’s Kant conditions for Perpetual Peace to discern the likelihood of world peace being realised in the modern age.

Anyone familiar with Immanuel Kant’s famous essay on Perpetual Peace (1795), and who is also critically aware of what is arguably an unprecedented global military crisis: i.e. the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, may be led to reflect wryly on the ironies of history. The irony here being, in a nutshell, that the very preconditions that Kant set for perpetual peace has, in the contemporary world, become one of the chief forces undermining such peace, as I shall demonstrate below.

The ’Preliminary Articles’

This is a far-reaching statement, and a contestable one. Can it be justified? First a look at Kant’s position is called for. He commences the essay (2016: 1529-1532) with so-called “Preliminary Articles”, which outline the measures that should be carried out first, to effect an immediate cessation of hostile actions, before the “Definitive Articles” – which would go further by laying the foundation for lasting peace – are stated.

The first of the “preliminary articles” states: “No treaty of peace shall be regarded as valid, if made with the secret reservation of material for a future war.” Kant’s elaboration on it makes it clear that he is not naïve enough to conflate peace with “a mere truce, a mere suspension of hostilities” – perhaps to gain valuable time for one’s forces to recover or recoup their strength. The article is therefore intended to preclude any “mental reservation” of claims to be resurrected at a more auspicious future time.

Here already it is not difficult to discern in contemporary events a gross violation of Kant’s (perhaps unrealistic) expectations – although, to be fair to him, he does refer to these as comprising an “ideal” (2016:  1540). For one thing, in the course of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine – which Russia invaded in 2022 because of , among other things, what it perceived as threats to its national security by the prospect of Ukraine possibly joining NATO – it has become apparent that the so-called Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 were a sham, and merely served the purpose of ‘buying time’ for Ukraine, allowing it to build up its military strength for a possible future clash with Russia. In this regard, RT (2022) reports as follows on the remarks by a Russian senator:

Senator Konstantin Kosachev was reacting to an admission by former French president Francois Hollande that the Minsk agreements were actually a ploy to buy time for the Kiev government to strengthen its military. This move should be credited for Ukraine’s “successful resilience” to Russia in the ongoing conflict with its neighbor, he added.

Hollande was echoing a statement by former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who described the Minsk accords in December as “an attempt to give Ukraine time” to build up its armed forces.

It is not difficult to see in this revelation an unambiguous example of what Kant described as “…the secret reservation of material for a future war”, which clearly invalidated the Minsk accords.

The second preliminary article maintains that: “No state having an independent existence — whether it be great or small — shall be acquired by another through inheritance, exchange, purchase or donation.” Here Kant draws an analogy between a state and a “moral person”, arguing that ‘grafting’ one state upon another is tantamount to destroying its existence as such a ‘moral person’, and that it contradicts the original contract between a state and its people.  

Again one can turn to Russia and Ukraine, where the history of Crimea, and of the Donbass, furnish an example of this preliminary article, but in an inverse manner. Crimea and the Donbass were both incorporated into Ukraine by the Soviet Union before the demise of the latter, but after the 2014 pro-Western Maidan coup in Ukraine, Crimea decided via a referendum to rejoin Russia. The terrain of the ‘special military operation’ by Russia in Ukraine may serve to illustrate something relevant to Kant’s second preliminary article, but perhaps not as one might expect. Since 2014, Donetsk and Lugansk – formerly Ukrainian regions – have been de facto independent, while Kherson and Zaporozhye are areas formerly occupied by Ukraine. The inhabitants of all four of these regions are predominantly Russian-speaking, and have, since the Minsk accords of 2014 been shelled regularly by Ukrainian forces.

Hence, it appears that, while Ukraine could have claimed at least Kherson and Zaporozhye as part of its territory, it has not treated the people of this region (nor those of Donetsk and Lugansk) as valued Ukrainian citizens. On the contrary. Unsurprisingly, therefore, when citizens in these four regions were given the opportunity to decide, via a referendum (between September 23 and 27, 2022; whether they wanted to be incorporated into the Russian Federation, they voted in favour of it, and were duly declared part of Russia. Hence, both the example of Crimea and of the latter four territories are related to Kant’s second preliminary principle in an inverse manner: instead of being acquired by Russia “through inheritance, exchange, purchase or donation”, all of them joined Russia through the exercise of the will of their people – which is hardly surprising, given the fact that Crimea simply returned to the bosom of its former national home, and the other four regions eventually also joined the country where they feel at home (culturally speaking), in contrast to Ukraine, which has been punishing them since 2014 (and still does so today through intermittent shelling). One could therefore say that Russia has acted in conformity with Kant’s principle by not acquiring these territories “through inheritance, exchange, purchase or donation”.

Thirdly, “Standing armies shall in time be totally abolished”. Here Kant elaborates on the incitement to war that the mere existence of constantly expanding armies, which seem to compete with those of other countries, appears to represent. Their constant readiness to fight adds to the unabated threat embodied in these armies; hence the requirement that such armies should be abolished if lasting peace were to be achieved. It is hardly necessary to point out that, if Kant had been alive today, he would probably have been horrified, not only at the continuing practice of countries arming themselves and maintaining armies, but particularly at the fact that several countries (including the US and Russia) have large nuclear arsenals – something unknown in Kant’s time – which are capable of destroying the world as we know it. ‘Perpetual peace’, under such conditions? A very distant prospect, it would seem.

The fourth requirement is that “National debts shall not be contracted with a view to the external friction of states”, and with this Kant alludes to the use of a credit system for funding wars indefinitely, and not for the legitimate purpose of maintaining the economic administration of a country, such as improving its infrastructure. Kant writes of the “ease… with which war may be waged” by means of such a credit system, which makes it imperative to remove such a purpose that credit may be used for, as it is an impediment as far as lasting peace is concerned. I have no doubt that such credit facilities do exist internationally, considering the frequency with which one notices reports about countries buying a variety of weapons from arms-producing countries such as America, the United Kingdom, Russia, Sweden, France, Germany and others. Although the continuing conflict in Ukraine does not, as far as I can tell, depend on a credit system as envisaged by Kant, the colossal amounts of money (and armaments) that have been, and are still being, supplied to Ukraine by (chiefly) the United States, and also by NATO countries beggars belief, and would certainly have been deprecated by the German philosopher.

In the fifth place the philosopher of Königsberg states that “No state shall by force interfere with the constitution or government of another state” – a stipulation that is virtually self-evident, given the obvious manner in which this would encroach on the independence and autonomy of the state suffering such an intrusion. For Kant the only exception to this rule would pertain to countries that have descended into civil strife and chaos, where a neigbouring state could legitimately assist one of the opposing factions with the goal of helping it restore internal order.

As far as this goes, it is interesting to note that, according to Democracy Now! The United States has interfered in government elections across the world; it is estimated that, between 1946 and 2000, this has occurred more than 80 times. Going back to the late 19th century, America assisted in the overthrow of what was then the kingdom of Hawaii, and invaded both Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. In the early 20th century it was the turn of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, and later, after the Second World War, it helped depose the government of Guatemala, that of Indonesia and the Congo. More recently, of course, the US did the same thing in Iraq.

Needless to point out, these instances of meddling fall squarely in the fifth category of ‘preliminary articles’ listed by Kant, and are symptomatic of the fact that the United States must therefore probably be regarded as the country, par excellence, that has stood in the way of progress towards world peace, let alone lasting peace as understood by Kant.

The sixth requirement reads: “No 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”. Kant calls these “dishonourable stratagems”, which go against the confidence, no matter how minimal, that one’s adversary is favourably disposed towards peace. As he rightly observes, without such an assumption there could never be peace, and an internecine war (of “extermination”) would ensue. After all, it is only in the state of nature that the assertion of a certain ‘right’ would be accompanied by force, in the absence of courts of justice by which civilisation is characterised. The ‘hostile acts’ referred to in this requirement for peace would inevitably lead to a “war of extermination”, and must therefore be forbidden.

What comes to mind immediately are the instances where Ukraine – and probably NATO, indirectly, if not directly – has carried out “acts of hostility” against Russia that would militate against the possibility of peace negotiations. There is the assassination of philosopher Aleksandr Dugin’s daughter, Darya, by means of a car bomb that was probably intended for Dugin himself, given his closeness to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Another recent assassination on Russian soil was that of Vladlen Tatarsky, a popular Russian military blogger, in an explosion at a St Petersburg café. Given that both of the people killed in these attacks were civilians, Kant’s sixth article is clearly implicated – no state that desires peace to replace an ongoing conflict, would engage in such acts. Add to this that there are indications of the American president having called for the replacement of President Putin in Russia, even though attempts were made to put a different complexion on it later, then there is no denying the blatant manner in which prospects of peace are undermined by Ukraine and its ‘allies’, the US and NATO.    

The ’Definitive Articles’

Unlike the ‘preliminary articles’, the three “Definitive Articles” identified by Kant (2016: 1533-1540), would provide a foundation on which to build lasting peace, and not only a termination of hostilities. They are, first, “The civil constitution of all states shall be republican”, which expresses Kant’s conviction, that it is the “only constitution which has its origin in the idea of the original contract, upon which the lawful legislation of every nation must be based”. He opines further that such a constitution accords with the liberty of citizens as human beings, with the principle that the latter depend on shared legislation, and with that on their equality as citizens – stipulations in which one can detect echoes of the tripartite motto of the French Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity“. The reason why it is the only constitution that can pave the way to lasting peace, is that it requires the agreement of citizens before the “bad business” of war can be undertaken.

Although it is the case, today, that most countries in the world are ‘republican’ in the sense of being representative, instead of ‘direct’ democracies, evidence suggests that the US Congress has circumvented the principle that, as representatives of the American people, Congress has to declare war against a perceived enemy before American taxpayer funds and military personnel may be utilised in a military conflict. As Andrew Napolitano points out: Congress has not only not declared war on Russia; it has not authorized the use of American military forces against it. Yet it has given President Biden $113 billion and authorized him to spend it on military equipment for Ukraine as he sees fit.

The second of the “definitive articles” – “The law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states” – is essential for enduring peace in so far as such a federation, where states would be subject to federal laws, is comparable to a state with a republican constitution, which is governed according to laws that are external to the (often unruly) will(s) of citizens themselves. Unless such a federation of nations (as opposed to a “state” of nations, where all member states would comprise only one ‘nation’) were to be created, the rights of every member state would not be guaranteed, parallel to the way citizens’ rights are guaranteed in a republican state.  

It appears that the United Nations, established after the Second World War in late 1945, may be regarded as such a ‘federation of free states’. Nevertheless, when comparing current events in Ukraine (and in Israel/Gaza) with Kant’s expectations regarding its role in the promotion of peace, the following excerpt from the UN Preamble rings somewhat hollow:

to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and

to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and

to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest…

Moreover, a perusal of the UN’s “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” impresses on one the ostensibly noble and praiseworthy international, global goals of this organisation, which pledges, among other things, that (no. 8):

We envisage a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice, equality and non-discrimination; of respect for race, ethnicity and cultural diversity; and of equal opportunity permitting the full realization of human potential and contributing to shared prosperity. A world which invests in its children and in which every child grows up free from violence and exploitation. A world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed. A just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met.

And yet, alternative news and commentary sources reveal a disturbingly different side to the UN’s Agenda 2030. According to an erstwhile UN executive director – interviewed by Dr Reiner Fuellmich in this documentary film – who worked for the organisation for twenty years, instead of being laudable, the real aims of this much vaunted ‘agenda’ are diametrically opposed to those explicitly stated. This former director intimates that the UN has been hijacked by a coterie of criminals (some of whom members of the World Economic Forum) which is already engaged in an attempt to take complete control of humanity via a series of steps, including the Covid-19 ‘pandemic’.

It is superfluous to be reminded that such a state of affairs, if confirmed to be the case, would be anathema to world peace; on the contrary: “The rights of men, as citizens of the world, shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality” is the third of the “definitive articles” named by Kant. He stresses the difference between hospitality as a ‘right’, and philanthropy, clarifying that the former implies that a stranger peacefully entering a foreign territory has the right not to be treated with hostility, but simultaneously cannot claim the right to be treated as a ‘guest’ for a longer sojourn; this would only be made possible by an agreement (“compact”) between visitors and their hosts.

Kant’s comment in this regard is justly famous (2016: 1538-1539):

This right to present themselves to society belongs to all mankind in virtue of our common right of possession on the surface of the earth on which, as it is a globe, we cannot be infinitely scattered, and must in the end reconcile ourselves to existence side by side: at the same time, originally no one individual had more right than another to live in any one particular spot.

Kant sees the adoption of this article as prerequisite for territories that are far apart to establish friendly and peaceful relations, so that humanity may at last approach the actualisation of “a cosmopolitan constitution”. Needless to say, ‘universal hospitality’ does not obtain in the world of the 21st century, although it is arguably the case that those countries (such as South Korea) where visa-free entry conditions prevail, display such hospitality internationally. Even here, however, pervasive technologically mediated surveillance raises questions about the extent of the hospitality in question. As for those countries where stringent visa requirements meet the prospective visitor, one can hardly speak of hospitality, given the ‘conditions’ that have to be met before entry is allowed (Olivier 2007).

Never Further from World Peace

In sum, weighing contemporary events related to the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine (as well as other actions by contemporary states) against Kant’s stated requirements for ‘perpetual’ or lasting world peace, it is abundantly evident that the present seems to be further than ever from the possible actualisation of such peace on a global scale. Much will have to change for that to be contemplated, as the preceding reflections have shown.


Kant, I. 2016. Perpetual peace. A Philosophical sketch. Trans. M. Campbell Smith. In The Collected works of Immanuel Kant. Hastings, East Sussex: Delphi Classics, pp. 1483-1611.

Olivier, B. 2007. “The question of an appropriate philosophical response to ‘global’ terrorism: Derrida and Habermas.” Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 54 (1/2), pp. 146-167.

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