Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Forward, to the Union of Humanity

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Forward, to the Union of Humanity

Article excerpt

Two centuries ago, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant also envisaged a world community. welcomes a neo-Kantian in Downing Street

"All wars are so many attempts to bring about new relations among the states and to form new bodies by the break-up of the old states to the point where they cannot again maintain themselves alongside each other and must therefore suffer revolutions until finally, partly through the best possible arrangement of the civic constitution internally, and partly through the common agreement and legislation externally, there is created a state that, like a civic commonwealth, can maintain itself automatically."

Immanuel Kant, 1784

"Round the world, 11 September is bringing governments and people to reflect, consider and change... There is a coming together. The power of community is asserting itself... I have long believed this interdependence defines the new world we live in."

Tony Blair, 2001

Everyone who is anyone in the world of letters has been scrambling to offer their interpretation of the world-changing events of 11 September. We have endured Martin Amis's hyperbolic take on the collapse of the twin towers, all "sharking" planes, "world flashes" from the near future and "species-shame". We have endured the hawkish pomposity of the well-known thriller writer Robert Harris, delivered in weekly despatches in the Daily Telegraph, for which he was no doubt hired as a lone maverick counter-intuitive voice, though he has emerged as someone capable only of attacking the left from the right, as it were. We have had Ian McEwan's subtle meditations on the hijacked passengers' expressions of love at the point of extinction, as well as far too much "expert" geopolitical analysis and the odd apocalyptic prediction or two.

But so far there has been no seminal essay, no work of insight and prescience to rival Francis Fukuyama's essay The End of History, which so perceptively defined the mood of western triumphalism at the end of the cold war in 1989, while offering a persuasive philosophical explanation for the collapse of our old bipolar world.

In the absence of such a text, Tony Blair's speech to the Labour Party conference deserves to enjoy a radiant afterlife, not least because of its curious and unexpected revival of a form of Kantian liberal internationalism, as expressed in his hope for the future harmony and interdependence of nations. "This is a moment to seize," he said. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are influx. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder the world around us... 'By the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we can alone'."

Much has been made of the urgent tone of the speech - its messianic fervour and missionary zeal - and considerably less, if anything, of its philosophical foundations. This is to be regretted, because when Blair speaks of a "common thread of principle" uniting all nations, of "reordering" the world, of eradicating global poverty and ignorance, and of rebuilding a new interdependent world order from the wastes of conflict, he thrillingly, perhaps unconsciously, shares a vision of the future with the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant's essays Perpetual Peace (1795) and Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent (1784) once provided the philosophical inspiration for contemporary liberal internationalism, and certainly influenced the foundation of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

That Blair should discuss such ideas while he prepared to support the bombing of Afghanistan is not as absurd as it first seemed. Kant believed that war was the engine of history, a paradoxical mechanism forbeneficial change as men reluctantly submitted themselves to the rule of law in order to avoid a relentless cycle of destruction: "The means that nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society. …

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