Why have the Western representative democracies of the modern age never fought each other, while Russia (Soviet and post-Soviet) has invaded its own allies and neighbors, and threatened the world with nuclear weapons?
Is this chance? It is not. All Westernized democracies (including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) have met the five essential conditions for “perpetual peace” set out by the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1795 (Zum ewigen Frieden, or Toward Perpetual Peace). Neither Russia nor any other Communist or post-Communist state has met them.
Kant’s conditions for what we now call a liberal peace were a representative government, participation in a federal association of nations, respect for international law, a spirit of trade, and the growth of a common, enlightened culture. Their combined effects — their synergy — lead them never to fight each other and to settle their disputes by negotiation and accommodation.
The key to peace, for Kant, is representative government — which he called a “republic” to distinguish it from the direct democracy then convulsing revolutionized France. Why? Where “the consent of the citizenry is required . . . to determine whether there will be war, it is natural that they consider all its calamities before they enter so risky a game.” By contrast, authoritarian rulers can simply declare war and leave it to sophists to concoct justifications — as Putin has done.
Second, Kant predicted that free, self-governing peoples will tend to form federations to preserve peace and their rights. If a powerful and enlightened people form a representative government, “it will provide a focal point for a federal association among other nations that will join it in order to guarantee a state of peace among nations . . . and through several associations of this sort such a federation can extend further and further.”
Third, since these representative governments will not accept any other government over them, they will have to accept an enlarged body of international law that will “finally include all the people of the earth.” As community prevails among the earth’s peoples, “a transgression in one place in the world is felt everywhere.”
Fourth, representative government and law are linked with commerce. The “spirit of trade cannot coexist with war, and sooner or later this spirit dominates every people . . . Those with the most to lose economically will exert every effort to head off war by mediation.”
Fifth, mutual respect is fostered by common institutions. Language and religion divide men, but “the growth of culture and men’s gradual progress toward greater agreement regarding their [common] principles lead to mutual understanding and peace.” The “right to visit, to associate [with other peoples], belongs to all men by virtue of their common ownership of the earth’s surface.”
Perceptions are crucial. The United States and other Western governments have often attacked states they deemed non-democratic and aggressive (for example, Iraq, twice.) But peoples that perceive one another as democratic have not fought each other. Indeed, they tend to band together against authoritarians — as Britain and the United States learned to do as they forged a “special relationship” and overcame the clashes of the pre-representative democratic era, as in the War of 1812 and their disagreements surrounding America’s Civil War.
In 1795, Kant’s Königsberg was ruled by the King of Prussia, Swiss cantons, and the freshly minted United States (with very limited suffrage) were the only republics. But Kant predicted that as the number of representative governments expanded, the bases for peace would become global and perpetual. There must be justice and peace among states for it to thrive within a single state. Civil society cannot flourish in fear of external attack. Kant urged governments to remember that if they attempt to do what is morally right, peace and other good results will follow. The space between them can become an extension of the rational political community or “civil society” within each state. The international arena can then be dominated not by amoral anarchy but by “pure practical reason and its righteousness.”
Westernized democracies have met the essential conditions for “perpetual peace” as set out by Kant. None has ever fought another in the modern era.
Now take a look at the authoritarian model. Soviet and post-Soviet Russia has invaded its own allies, client states, and neighbors — East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Moldova, Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and threatened the world with nuclear weapons. Soviet Russia even came to blows with China. China and its Communist neighbor Vietnam have also fought, while China has illegally claimed almost the entire South China Sea, swathes of disputed land from India, and erased the once-independent nation of Tibet.
Taken together, Kant’s five points read like a description of the European Union and, by extension, the “security community” that links Europe, Canada, the US, Australasia, and Asian partners. These factors interact to form a “social field” — an exchange society with a habit of problem-solving by negotiation and accommodation. This is not always good-tempered, or based on love. But it works.
Could Russia and China ever join this community of nations? As governed by Putin and Xi, a truly democratic future for Russia and China seems impossible. Still, we have the examples of Germany and Japan, which gradually became democratic after defeat in a world war. Portugal and Spain quickly embraced democracy — without military defeat — after their dictators died in 1970 and 1975. After Chiang Ching-kuo ended martial law in 1987, a year before his death, Taiwan rapidly shifted from a dictatorship to a vibrant democracy — also without defeat in war. The very idea that the people of Taiwan could ever be ruled by the dictatorship in Beijing is anathema in the Republic of China.
Democratic societies have created for their members the highest living standards in history. They are geared to mutual gain and value creation rather than toward exploitation, at least within their borders. Other than Singapore, most of the top 30 countries on the UN Human Development Index have been democracies.
The ultimate reason to reject authoritarianism is that it endangers life. Authoritarian regimes tend to be exploitative. They seek power and/or wealth for the rulers and the state rather than for the entire body politic. Today, as in most Soviet times, Russia is more fit for war than for peace. Most Communist dictators have lived in luxury while their subjects scraped by and sometimes starved. The exploitation of the many by the few can benefit the regime for years but tends to boomerang over time. How quickly this happens in Russia or Communist China is unknown, and they might potentially outlive us. The survival of our rules-based order with its prosperity and freedoms is not secure while its enemies work to destroy it. We face a clear and present danger.
Walter Clemens is an Associate at Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University. He wrote ‘Can Russia Change?’
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.