“Peace is a good thing, but a glass of beer is a good thing as well.”
—Fragment of conversation
Thomas Hobbes described the natural political state as a “war of all against all,” waged by solitary people who live poor, ugly, brutish and short lives until, guided by self-preservation, they come together to form political bodies. These bodies deliver us from the state of war and, in exchange for our obedience, promise a peaceful and orderly life. For all of us, our desire for peace is associated primarily with security, a life that can be lived aesthetically and without continuous stress. However, does peace sometimes have a price too high to bear? Can perpetual peace be easily achieved? And can our idealism about peace blind us to its weaknesses and costs?
Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment, successfully persuaded Europe that perpetual peace was a goal worth trying to reach. Until Kant, no one imagined that peace could be a sort of normal and unchangeable condition.
The pre-Kantian perception of peace as a fragile state between wars is best embodied by a saying of the Roman writer Vegetius: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
The European Union can be perceived as a materialization of Kant’s idea of a perpetual peace union. After two bloody world wars, the wisdom of Vegetius was rejected in people’s minds and the center of geopolitical thinking was occupied by an idea that is best described with a quote from the ancient Greek poet Pindar: “War is sweet to those that never have experienced it.” Pindar was not so banal, but the popular community tends to take quotes out of context in order to justify their conformism to the spirit of the age.
In Perpetual Peace, Kant claimed that standing armies must eventually disappear. This is because the existence of armies in permanent combat readiness is disturbing to other countries and encourages them to compete in an unlimited arms race, leading to destabilization of the peace. (Kant offered as an alternative to a permanent army, a voluntary period of military exercise for citizens.) Kant also stated that the threat of war is also increased by political unions and the phenomenon of lending one country’s army to the other in order to fight an enemy that is not a threat to both countries.
Kant also affirmed that “no state has a right to interfere in another state’s affairs and government.” Kant created an illusion that relations between states can be perceived in terms of interactions between individuals. Supporting this illusion is the belief that nature leads people and, along with them, states toward peaceful coexistence—that just as civil law protects individuals, international law should protect rationally disputing states. Kant believed that international law would be a better shield for national sovereignty than treaties of mutual belligerency.
Kant, who died in 1804, would seem to have been proven right by the breakdown of mutual alliances that plunged Europe into 30 years of devastation. After World War II, European politics began to be rebuilt after the pattern in Perpetual Peace. The European Union is the fullest development of these ideas so far.
When we recognize that the European Union is built on Kant’s framework, we can begin to understand the real nature of the Ukraine crisis. Ukraine is not an EU member state, but all its troubles began precisely when its citizens decided not to put up with the political course swaying towards the East. In Kiev, masses of young people waving EU flags demanded that their county become a member of the peaceful union.
However, from a Kantian perspective, no country in the peace confederation could really legitimately interfere in the Ukrainian state’s affairs. It sometimes seems that the West thinks there is no need to seek perpetual peace—as if it is already here. The response of Brussels suggests this view. Publicly expressed concern and minimal humanitarian aid, which in no way offered a significant advantage in a crisis situation, was the maximum help they provided.
There is a dual problem. In the beginning of the crisis, Ukrainian civil society was expected to reshape domestic politics according to their needs, convincing their fellow citizens in public bodies (for example, local militias) that they should contribute to the stabilization of Ukraine’s peace. But the effort to exit the natural Hobbesian state of war failed because of the “green men” found in various places, meaning Russian forces wearing the uniforms of local security organizations, and Russia-supported political fronts.
The same thing happened later when the eastern border of the country was overrun by strange “Ukrainians” who became the entourage of self-proclaimed regional leaders, and of the waves of Russian “humanitarian aid convoys” that were led by neither a humanistic desire for good, nor an inclination to help. Nevertheless, Western lawyers did not dare to publicly express their position because there was not enough evidence that would oblige the European peace union to introduce warlike measures in a foreign country.
Today’s Kantian international law has become a victim of the simulacra. Russia today has mastered the art of juggling simulacra to the detail—not only in its domestic affairs but across the world. The Kremlin has long been aware that dirty deeds can be carried out under a mask that removes legal responsibility. Legally it is hard to positively prove Russia’s direct interference during the Ukraine crisis.
The peace union faces a moment of conflict for which Kant’s theory is too normative. It is naïve to think that all citizens will unanimously want the same thing, but even when the majority is asking for peace and wants to become part of the peace union, the Kantian theory does not offer any mechanism that would protect one country’s process of becoming part of the peace union from interference by another country that is against it.
Kantian trust would suggest waiting until the aggressor state realizes that it is useful to seek the same good. It assumes that this country actually seeks peace and that if it opposes the peace union it is because it sees itself as a guarantor of a higher level of peace.
It is as if international law regulates everything except when a state with significant power becomes the offender! Then the interpretation of international law degenerates into a giant process of politicking and questioning the foundations of legal competence. The Westerners are now defenseless against Russia since they created this system themselves and cannot suggest anything more advanced, and within their system they have no idea how to react to such questioning and Eastern simulacra.
It is not surprising that Poland and Lithuania have become the only countries that are acting like they understand that the peace held by the European Union is not a perpetual peace. These countries are not only related to Ukraine in terms of common history but are also familiar with the Russian style of politics that spread with Marxist-Leninist communism. Although Lithuania should be more familiar with it because of its former existence in the U.S.S.R., Poland is able to act much more decisively thanks to its greater intellectual and sovereign power. It is only through this power that EU mechanisms can be changed.
The democratic mechanism of the European Union is saturated with checks and balances that are supposed to guarantee proportional participation in evaluating and planning the response to geopolitical situations. This proportionality does not take into account the fact that the EU does not have any real military opponents in the West and in the South. A country in the far west of Europe is not willing to waste its resources against a threat it does not feel. Realpolitik has undermined the EU’s successful positioning in the case of Ukraine.
It is not possible to simply paper over Hobbesian pessimism with pages of Kant. A “state of nature” always exists between countries, even if it does not feel like a “war of all against all.” Insecure Eastern European states have to fight for a new revision of the “perpetual peace” that would be less normative and idealistic, and would critically analyze the principles, phases and external hostile forces of peace development. Otherwise, a great price will have to be paid when this overstretched period of artificial peace collapses and destroys all mutual trust and peace in the union. It is necessary to recognize the painful truth: peace and a glass of beer have one thing in common—they both inevitably come to an end.
A version of this article first appeared in “Eastern Partnership Countries Close-Up,” a publication of the Institute of Democratic Politics and Wilfried Martens Centre. It has been edited for publication by The Hipster Conservative.