Magazine article Foreign Policy

Dangerous Leviathans

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Dangerous Leviathans

Article excerpt


An assertive Russia has raised fears of a new Cold War by cracking down at home and flexing its muscles abroad. But to understand those worrisome trends, forget about Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin--certainly most Russians have.

Think back instead to the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who thought that the natural human condition is a "war of all against all"; that the security of a people depends oil a strong, even authoritarian, state; and that successful states are those that strike the "posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eves fixed on one another." That sounds a lot like the recipe Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been following for much of the last decade with his slogans about "managed democracy," "the vertical of power," and "'the dictatorship of law'," as well as his insistence on treating neighboring states as belonging to Russia's sphere of "privileged interests."

Now contrast this Russian version of Hobbesianism with the alternative vision of statehood and statecraft associated with Immanuel Kant. That giant of the Enlightenment spent most of his long life (1724-1804) teaching logic and metaphysics at Albertina University in the East Prussian city of Konigsberg. Kant is the secular patron saint of today's Europe. In his political writings, he advocated--and foresaw--a perpetual peace, based on democratic rule at the national level; a "confraternity of trade" among nations (an early version of the Common Market); a federation of like-minded states (much like the European Union); and even an alliance of republics to deter and, if necessary, defeat aggressive empires (a prophecy of NATO).

In our day, the pairing of Hobbes and Kant is often shorthand for the dichotomy between "realists" and "idealists." But Kant did not come to his vision while dreaming. He was wide awake to the realities of his own time, including the violence and disruption of the Seven Years' War. For five of those years, East Prussia was gobbled up by the Russian Leviathan. The city fathers of Konigsberg had to swear allegiance to Catherine the Great. In the markets and shops that Kant passed every day on his meditative constitutionals, trade was conducted in rubles.

That episode presaged what happened to Kant's hometown two centuries later. As a result of an agreement between Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill in Potsdam, Konigsberg was ceded to the Soviet Union, the city's Germans were deported, and the ruble again became the local currency. …

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