Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Explaining War and Peace: Kant and Liberal IR Theory

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Explaining War and Peace: Kant and Liberal IR Theory

Article excerpt

Liberal IR theory accepts as axiomatic that the domestic "nature" of the state "is a key determinant" of its "behaviour" toward other states. (1) This assumption rests on the centrality within liberal political thought of the view that peace is a quality achieved by civil societies within states, while the external world of relations between states remains an arena of, at least potential, conflict. (2) Within recent IR thought however, there has been a growing acknowledgment of the need to question this boundary, evinced by growing interest in questions of identity that cut across the divide between the domestic and international realms. (3) Nevertheless, the boundary between "inside" and "outside" of an exclusive community of citizens within and a potentially threatening world of hostile states without remains central to liberal thought. (4) What this division implies is that while liberal or civil societies within states practice a politics of universal principles, of peace, rights, and citizenship, relatio ns outside the state are shaped by "contingency ... barbarism ... violence and war." (5) Liberal IR theory has responded to this apparent problem by arguing that liberal states are at least more peaceful than illiberal states and that global conflict can be reduced by the spread of liberalism worldwide.

In contrast to liberals, realists are inclined to accept the persistence of war as an enduring phenomenon of an international system that imposes its requirements on the behavior of states. Liberal IR theorists tend to respond that liberal states are "inherently peaceful," and engage in warfare only with illiberal and undemocratic states. (6) For a variety of liberal theorists, the implicit acceptance of this latter proposition can be detected in the consistent ascription of violent motives to illiberal and nondemocratic states to which liberal states must be prepared to respond. But there is indeed a problem here insofar as liberal states cannot be inherently peaceful if that peacefulness is restricted only to relations with other liberal states. Even where it is acknowledged that liberal states may engage in war with nonliberal states, the implicit assumption is made that however warlike liberal states must become, the civil societies within them are identified as peaceful. In this way, defenses of liberali sm fall back on an implicit distinction between internal and external realms. Informing this distinction is a standard of civilization in which the inherent peace of liberal societies is traced to civilizing processes that have created pacified civil societies and representative states inclined toward peace. On this basis, responsibility for initiating and sustaining violence is transferred onto illiberal, "uncivilized" states and societies, against which the violence of the civilized can be justified.

The Liberal State: Inherently Peaceful?

Within liberal thought, individual rights, freedoms, and legal protections of life and property were to be guaranteed to citizens of civil societies; that is, societies that had been civilized and pacified. (7) The states deemed best suited to protecting these precious yet fragile societies were thought to be those incorporating representative principles, constitutional restrictions on the exercise of power, a formal separation of powers, regular elections, and the rule of law. (8)

The conviction that only liberal civil societies were capable of eliminating violence was matched by the not entirely unproblematic presumption that the liberal and democratic states protecting them would conduct themselves peacefully. (9) The important assumption behind this view was that international peace was a function of domestic social structure. (10) As John Rawls has recently expressed it, "peoples living under liberal constitutional democracies" are not motivated by "power or glory, or the ... pride of ruling," have no interest in "the religious conversion of other societies," and in fact "have nothing to go to war about. …

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