January 17, 2024

Peace to the World

Oxana Timofeeva

Refugees at Berlin Tegel Airport. Photo: dpa.

In 1795, Kant published his essay “Toward Perpetual Peace.” It was written in an ironic style untypical of Kant and, in general, of serious philosophical treatises of his era. Framed as a juridical document, it emulated an international agreement among all states—a peace treaty, in other words, but not a standard one. It was not one of those agreements concerning the cessation of open warfare that warring states usually sign after or between wars.

Kant’s reflections on the conditions of possibility for perpetual peace are far from abstract speculations. They refer to a particular historical context, namely, the period of the so-called French Revolutionary Wars of 1792–1802. Kant wrote his treatise in the same year that France and Prussia signed the Peace of Basel. The signing of this treaty came after the collapse of the anti-French coalition that had included the Prussian monarchy and a few other European nations.

The precarity of such agreements and the pervasive instability of wartime life formed the political backdrop of Kant’s essay, which seeks not a ceasefire but a more radical solution. Kant suggests a fundamental project of abolishing war as such, of taking collective steps toward a totally different international community, which bears the name “perpetual peace.”

There is already irony in the very title of the essay. Kant reveals this in his opening lines when he writes that the essay is nothing but a “satirical inscription on a certain Dutch innkeeper’s signboard picturing a graveyard.”1 And yet, from Kant’s perspective, another perpetual peace is possible, different from the peace of the graveyard, a place where all rest in peace after living lives surrounded by perpetual war. For what is the state of humanity—which only signs temporary peace treaties—if not perpetual war? Yes, nations guarantee security to their citizens and seek to avoid internal wars. But nations themselves constantly engage in wars against each other. What could put an end to this mutual destructiveness?

From Kant’s perspective, warfare cannot simply be forbidden. Rather, we must create worldwide conditions that make warfare impossible. There must be global coordination in accordance with certain principles. The first is republicanism (as opposed to despotism): in a state of perpetual peace among republics, all political decisions are made by representatives of the people, in the people’s common interest and for the common good. The second principle is federalism: instead of merging into one universal state, nations preserve their sovereignty while gradually developing into a global federation.

The third principle is the one I find the most interesting and characteristic of Kant: cosmopolitanism. Freedom of movement and hospitality, writes Kant, are absolutely necessary for achieving peaceful coexistence among countries. People should be citizens not only of their respective states but of the world to which they all belong.

In Russian there is only one word for both “peace” and “the world”: “mir.” A famous Russian slogan that was a fundamental to Soviet state ideology after the WWII goes “Miru—mir,” or “Peace to the world.” This is precisely what Kantian cosmopolitanism as a political principle means: “Peace to the world.” In other words, there can be no lasting peace in a single separate country. Peace is perpetual only when it exists across the whole world. “World” and “peace” must be synonyms.

In February 2022, at the beginning of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, there was a minor but emblematic episode in a city in Russia: the old Soviet slogan “Miru—mir,” which had been written on the wall of a building there decades earlier, was painted over by public utility services. Since the beginning of the war, many people in Russia have been arrested for publicly using “mir” as a slogan for “peace”—a repression that nullifies any kind of cosmopolitanism. In response to Russian’s invasion, most European countries have closed their borders to Russian travelers. Refusing hospitality, closing borders, building walls to keep out migrants and refugees—we are moving in the wrong direction.

Putin’s war, it appears, has opened a Pandora’s box of hostility and militarism, with violence and destruction now spreading from one country and region to another. But this is not the only war that has ruined the Kantian project of perpetual peace. Between Kant’s hopeful enterprise and our very dark historical predicament there has been much destruction and violence, including two world wars. A third might be about to happen if states continue to follow the growing anti-cosmopolitan trends.

From the very beginning, Kant admitted that the solution he proposed was not very realistic. But even if the state of perpetual peace is not achievable, he argued, it can exist as a regulative ideal, as a horizon towards which humanity can strive. It seems that we are rapidly drifting away from this ideal. Why?

The most obvious answer is that the political conditions of international law that Kant outlined have not been fulfilled. Since the French Revolution, not all states have become republics. A vast number of people still live under despotic regimes, and as we learn from history, despotic regimes initiate wars.

The project of federalism has also failed so far: instead of a universal federation of independent sovereign nations, we have rival alliances of states, perpetuating the old imperialist model. An empire is not a federation. On the contrary, in empires, individual nations lose their identity and freedom for the sake of a bigger whole: more land, more resources, bigger markets.

The politics of decolonization rises against these imperialist developments. However, in the discourse of decolonization there is a tendency to understand decolonial movement as an exit from empire and a return to the old national states—the reinvention of ethnicity, archaic patriarchal modes of society, and so on. But we need to takes steps forward, not back. In this regard, Kant’s idea of a true federation of all states that recognizes their common interests sounds more decolonial.

Why can’t we achieve Kant’s ideal? Because there are certain things missing from Kant’s perspective—for instance, global inequality, climate and gender injustice, extractive capitalist economies that destroy the planet. However, the main problem with his project, in my view, is not political or social but rather philosophical.

Kant believes in the autonomy of reason. In his view, a true cosmopolitan is someone who can really think for themself, who has learned how to use their own reason. Such people can be called cosmopolitan not only because they travel freely but because their minds are liberated from their particular contexts. They can be from any country, any nation, any gender, any class, but when they think they do so as human beings. And such people can also understand each other; they are convinced by right arguments, enter into serious agreements, and follow certain universal schemes. They can gather together and decide what is best for all of them and then act together according to this decision.

But do we really think for ourselves? Is there such thing as one’s “own reason”? From a long historical perspective, the answer seems to be no. At least this is what we learn from recent political experiences: as collective beings, we do not really think for ourselves. Each of us indeed thinks something, but the overall result of these thoughts looks more like collective delirium.

It was Sigmund Freud who, in the twentieth century, claimed that, behind reason, there is something else, something that we cannot really control—our instincts, drives, and desires. He called this the “unconscious.” One fundamental feature of the unconscious is what Freud called the “death drive.” It is this drive that, according to his theory, explains the phenomenon of war and answers the question of why, after so many centuries of progress, we still engage in archaic mutual destruction. This is what Freud wrote in a letter to Albert Einstein in 1933, responding the question “Why war?”

The death drive is not a desire to die, not a suicidal fantasy—at least not necessarily. It is the desire to take steps backward, to slow down, to return to the mother’s womb. He also called it the “nirvana principle,” that is, a striving to rest. This principle sheds light on Kant’s joke about the perpetual peace of the graveyard: yes, in some sense, we can think of an unconscious drive to rest in peace. It is a conservative instinct that takes an active part in our behavioral choices, but it can also take the form of aggression. Instead of destroying ourselves, we try to destroy others: this is one explanation for outbursts of collective violence such as wars. Reason seems to be absent in the theater of war (Kriegstheater), where the same horrible scenarios are repeated again and again on new historical stages with new actors. It is a vicious circle.

The good news, however, is that there are many things that cannot be reduced to the schematism of reason. Perhaps real peace can only come from somewhere totally different than government offices where rulers of states, businessmen, and representatives of political parties negotiate policies and international affairs. There are elements of life that remain distinct from traditional geopolitics and its worldview, which sees only states or alliances and their rulers, serious men in power who are supposed to know how to reign over the rest of us.

These elements of life always-already bear within them the seeds of perpetual peace. I am thinking of deserters who escape from war—men who refuse to play their gender role, according to which their nations have condemned them to kill and to die. They flee from war toward perpetual peace.

I am thinking of civilians, people whose cities and homes are bombed, besieged, occupied. People who go on living in these war-torn places because they have something there to take care of—their gardens, their houses, their animals. In Russian, there is an interesting term for civilians that literally translates as “those who live in peace.” The paradox is that this term is only applied to those who live where there is war. They live in peace against the soldiers that come to their land to kill and to die: life against death. Sometimes there is no reason for them to stay. But beyond reason, there is a dignity to resistance, which manifests the practice of peace in the midst of war.

I am thinking of refugees, those who no longer have a place to live, whose houses have been bombed, who have to flee because their lives are in danger. Refugees take whatever they can carry—a few belongings, a cat in carrier, a dog on a leash, things really dear to them—and leave their homes. They go in search of a border that will be open to them, of people who will welcome them and allow them to make new homes in a new country. This is the dignity of the refugee: they preserve the life of their nation, which, through this painful experience of displacement, becomes cosmopolitan.

My relatives have lived in a refugee camp at Tegel Airport in Berlin, in a big tent, for a year now. They are a retired couple from a Ukrainian village, where they left behind their house and their raspberry garden. They are learning German and look to the future with optimism: it is difficult to begin a new life, but it is possible. Refugees are the new cosmopolitans: what they bring to the world is peace, which they have reclaimed from war.


Immanuel Kant, “Toward Perpetual Peace,” in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 317.

War & Conflict, Philosophy
Russia, Ukraine, Refugees

Oxana Timofeeva is a philosopher from St. Petersburg and the author of Solar Politics (Polity 2022), How to Love a Homeland (Kayfa ta 2020), History of Animals (Bloomsbury 2018), Introduction to the Erotic Philosophy of Georges Bataille (New Literary Observer 2009), and other writings.


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