International Relations

Questioning Kantian influences on the democratic peace theory

Nicolas Mejía Riaño, (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 


According to Griffiths et al. (2009, p. 77), ‘Doyle was among the first of a number of theorists who discovered what Kant had predicted and hoped for, an emerging ‘zone of peace’ among liberal democratic states’ This quote illustrates the extent to which it is nowadays accepted as common wisdom that Doyle made Kant’s philosophical ruminations palatable to the discipline of International Relations (IR). A similar position is shared by Jahn. According to her, Doyle’s use of Kant and the explanation derived therein represents ‘the most influential statement of the democratic peace thesis’ (2013, p. 74).

However, as highlighted by Levy, agreement on the existence of a liberal peace between democracies is not matched by a ‘comparable agreement as to how to best explain this pattern, and the democratic peace remains a law- like empirical regularity in search of a theoretical explanation’ (Levy, 2011,22) If accepted, this relation between IR and other disciplines (particularly Philosophy) reflects that of an interpretive dialogue in which conceptual origins and boundaries are traced, questioned and reflected upon (Moore & Farrands, 2010), then it stands to reason that there are grounds to examine Doyle’s interpretation and use of Kant.

This essay argues that Doyle’s explanation of the liberal peace features part of Kant’s arguments but also fails to address other claims made in ‘Toward Perpetual Peace’ (TPP, 1795) and other writings. This situation is not to be frowned upon but rather considered in the light of the varying meaning that can be extracted within what IR calls the ‘classics’ (Bliddal, Sylvest, & Wilson, 2013). The paper is structured as follows: the first section briefly explores Kantian international political thought, followed by an assessment of Doyle’s use of Kant. Finally, the conclusion deals with the interpretative character of engaging with texts that engender different interpretations.

I/ Kant’s international political thought between peace and reason

While a deep elaboration of Kant’s ideas is not possible in this paper, it is important to note that in TPP Kant aims to elucidate a different aspect of IR: instead of studying war as per traditional international political thought, he advanced proposals he thought necessary for establishing perpetual peace.

But TPP should be understood in the context of Kant’s other treatises inasmuch as they contain the philosophical grounding deployed in the text. For instance in TPP, Kant mentions that the Hobbesian state of nature is a real yet not inescapable aspect of relations between communities. In order to transcend such state, it is necessary to deploy human rationality and intellect. This is a topic he addressed before TPP in ‘An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment’? (1784):

‘When Nature has fully developed the seed concealed in this hard casing… namely, the tendency and the calling to free thinking, then this seed will gradually extend its effects to the disposition of the people (through which the people gradually becomes more capable of freedom of action) and finally even to the principles of government, which find it to be beneficial to itself to treat the human being, who is indeed more than a machine, in accordance with his dignity’ (Kant, 2006, p. 23)

Thus, rationality and free thinking are features that can be exerted by political communities. As noted in Kant’s ‘Ideas for a Cosmopolitan History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective’ (1784), Nature has given humans the capacity to reason and, through what he calls ‘unsociable sociability’, is compelling them to ‘to seek…a civil society which administers right universally’ (2006, p. 8) In turn, ‘the problem of establishing a perfect civil constitution is dependent upon the problem of a law-governed external relation between states and cannot be solved without having first solved the latter’ (2006, p. 6).

This relation between the domestic and the international produces a tension given that the perfectibility of the latter is a function of the former. It follows than any effort to escape the state of nature must address the link between inside and outside, a problematic topic that generates a discussion about ethics, publicity and the relation between purported end and means given Nature’s designs and constraints faced by humans when doing politics. This might explain why the articles of TPP are followed by discussions ‘on the disagreement between morality and politics with respect to perpetual peace’ and ‘‘on the agreement between politics and morality according to the transcendental concept of public right’ (Kant, 2006, pp. 94-109).

In the light of Kant’s previous writings, TPP appears as a text in which there is a constant (and implicitly stated) interplay between what Singer (1961) calls the individual and the state levels of analysis. They are guaranteed, in turn, by the teleological design of Nature and by human’s ability to reason and exert free will while constrained by the tension between morality and prudence, ethics and politics. As Wight notes, in Kantian international political thought there is ‘a necessary conjunction, so to speak, between a belief in progress and pessimism about man’ (Wight, Wight, & Porter, 2005, p. 79).

The liberal peace would come to represent this natural and gradual evolution of human perfectibility at the level of what Kant called ‘republics’ and that modern authors use interchangeably with ‘democracies’ (Rosato, 2003).

II/ Doyle’s approach to Kant

As illustrated by Ned Lebow’s analysis of Thucydides, scholars choose and emphasize particular aspects of classic works while also obscuring other ideas contained therein (Lebow, 2002) Because TPP is a ‘classic’ open to several interpretations, Doyle provides a reading different from those made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – which emphasized Kant’s call for a different concept of sovereignty aimed at rationally creating a civitas gentium embodying laws above the states, and the possibility of an expanding federation of republics, respectively (Easley, 2004, pp. 10-150).

As Easley points out different authors underscore some passages of TPP to advance their argument while giving a diminished importance to others. Is a pooling of sovereignty needed for the liberal peace to take hold? Or should the state remain sovereign and foster a liberal peace that can exist without a world state but rather with the Kantian federation? These are some of the questions that have been debated by different authors, drawing from multiple parts of TPP. The six preliminary articles, three definitive articles and two supplements within the text provide scholars with arguments that are readily deployed in order to explain different manners in which the liberal peace could be implemented. Given TPP’s complexity and the implicit relation with Kant’s previous writings, Easley notes that:

‘Perpetual Peace has much to say: six specific Preliminary Articles with generous commentary coupled with three Definitive Articles considering everything from the appropriate constitution for each state, to theories of international organization, even to the right of strangers to be treated with hospitality upon their arrival to a foreign territory. This would seem to offer ample material for an eager interpreter’ (Easley, 2004, p. 12)

Hence, an assessment of Doyle’s use of Kant should bear in mind this point and consider how his interpretation relates to previous writings and the way in which passages of TPP are used to build Doyle’s explanation. In his influential account of the liberal peace, Doyle (1983) ties theoretical propositions with what is written in TPP, but he is not above the time- honored tradition of emphasizing and highlighting some aspects of the text while also ignoring others or failing to situate them in the context of Kant’s international political thought.

A prominent example is the status of the Preliminary and Supplemental Articles of TPP in Doyle’s interpretation.

In his account, these articles do not seem to get the attention that Kant gave to them; For instance, Doyle (1983, p. 344) mentions them in passing when discussing how the liberal peace could function if nonintervention is respected. In TPP, Kant mentions that ‘no state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state’ (Kant, 2006, p. 70) While this would seem to confirm Doyle’s argument, another passage of TPP seems to offer a different take: on the ‘First Supplement: On the Guarantee of Perpetual Peace’ (which does not figure in Doyle’s explanation), Kant mentions that ‘What guarantees perpetual peace is nothing less than the great artist nature (natura daedala rerum). The mechanical course of nature visibly reveals a purposive plan to create harmony through discord among people, even against their own will’ (2006, p. 85).

However, if Nature’s design is inescapable, it stands to reason that intervention in the affairs of other states is tolerable insofar as it is part of Nature’s purposeful plan for enlightening mankind and that it drives communities to organize into civil societies needed to repel the use of force. That is, there is a chance for states for fostering the ‘unsociable sociability’ of mankind provided that it helps to bring about Nature’s design.

Kant’s cosmopolitanism and the tension between pluralism and solidarism (Bull, 2002) is clearly present in TPP, yet Doyle does not seem to analyze this inconsistency of Kant’s work, not only because the preliminary and supplemental articles are not related to the definitive articles in his account, but also because the own idea of Nature (called ‘providence’ by Doyle) (1983,228) is mentioned in passing but without giving it the attention and importance given by Kant in TPP and the writings before it. The attention of Doyle is solely focused on the Definitive Articles and this tends to obscure that for Kant all the articles seemed important and necessary for the liberal peace he envisioned.

The Definitive Articles, in the context of Kant’s political thought sketched above appear in TPP as necessary but not sufficient causes of the project for perpetual peace. Doyle assumes they are necessary and sufficient causes when Kant seems to suggest that it is more complicated than that.

When Doyle remarks that ‘Kant argues that Perpetual Peace will be guaranteed by the ever-widening acceptance of three “definitive articles” of peace’ (1983, p. 226) he is not considering that this triad is the central part of a conceptual apparatus is sustained above and beyond by Preliminary and Supplemental articles. In another article, Doyle (2005) remarks that his account is logically plausible only when the three mechanisms he explored in his 1983 texts work together. It is difficult to say with certainty if Kant meant that due to the way in which he conceived the project of perpetual peace: he mentions that some of the Preliminary Articles can be enforced later (Kant, 2006, p. 71) but at the same time does not negate that their execution is fundamental for the entire project because they are, in the end, laws of an objective kind, guided by Nature.


TPP is a writing that has been named as one of the ‘foundational’ texts in the history of IR (Easley, 2004) The status of ‘foundational’ also entails that its relevance is derived from their complexity and by the different ways in which scholars and practitioners approach and understand it. Differing interpretations appear to be a sine qua non requirement for a text to acquire the status of a classic and the body of Kant’s international political thought is not the exception (Williams, 2001) Doyle’s account, while influential, cannot escape this tradition of inquiry and provides one of several possible explanations of the liberal peace, a fact he recognized when comparing Schumpeterian and Machiavellian approaches to the liberal peace (Doyle, 1986) and that other authors have also tackled from different angles (Nakhimovsky, 2011).

This interpretative character of texts written in different timeframes with different purposes and thematically multifaceted is something to be celebrated and constitutes an important aspect of IR theory as summarized by Jahn (2006, p. 14): ‘… presenting contemporary theoretical or political positions as a dialogue reaching back into the past without reference to the differences does not create a space for creative synthesis. Rather, it entrenches the contemporary positions and buries those dimensions of classical and contemporary thought which either cut across or do not fit the given paradigm’.


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