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Does Kant Justify Liberal Intervention?


The recent US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have renewed the debate over whether military interventions intended to impose democracy in a foreign state are consistent with liberal principles. The liberal political tradition within the United States has often been divided over this question. At issue is what place, if any, military force should have in a foreign policy dedicated to promoting goals such as the spread of electoral democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.

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1 See, for example, Brands H. W., What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Smith Tony, America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Dueck Colin, Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

2 Desch Michael, “America's Liberal Illiberalism,” International Security 32, no. 3 (2007/08): 743. Citations to this work are given parenthetically in the text.

3 See, for example, Doyle Michael, “Liberalism and World Politics,” American Political Science Review 80, no. 4 (1986): 1151–69; Brown Michael E., Lynn-Jones Sean M., and Miller Steven E., Debating the Democratic Peace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996); Lipson Charles, Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); and Rosato Sebastian, “The Flawed Logic of Democratic Peace Theory,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 4 (2003): 585602.

4 Pangle Thomas L. and Ahrensdorf Peter J., Justice Among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999); Doyle Michael W., Ways of War and Peace: Realism, Liberalism, and Socialism (New York: Norton, 1997); Doyle Michael W., “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign AffairsPhilosophy & Public Affairs 12, no. 3 (1983): 205–35; Waltz Kenneth N., “Kant, Liberalism, and War,” American Political Science Review 56, no. 2 (1962): 331–40; Walker Thomas C., “Two Faces of Liberalism: Kant, Paine, and the Question of Intervention,” International Studies Quarterly 52, no. 3 (2008): 449–68.

5 Doyle Michael W., “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs, Part 2,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 12, no. 4 (1983): 323–53; Doyle Michael W., “A Few Words on Mill, Walzer, and Nonintervention,” Ethics & International Affairs 23, no. 4 (2009): 349–69. See also Cavallar Georg, “Kantian Perspectives on Democratic Peace: Alternatives to Doyle,” Review of International Studies 27, no. 2 (2001): 229–48; and Wilkins Burleigh T., “Kant on International Relations,” Journal of Ethics 11, no. 2 (2007): 147–59.

6 Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs, Part 2,” 330.

7 Some important works in this vein include Bernstein Alyssa R., “Kant on Rights and Coercion in International Law: Implications for Humanitarian Intervention,” Jahrbuch für Recht und Ethik 16 (2008): 57100; Cavallar Georg, Kant and the Theory and Practice of International Right (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999); Habermas Jürgen, “Kant's Perpetual Peace: At Two Hundred Years' Historical Remove,” in The Inclusion of the Other (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 165201; and Tesón Fernando R., “The Kantian Theory of International Law,” Columbia Law Review 92, no. 1 (1992): 53102.

8 Kant's views on regime-changing intervention have not received much attention. For some relevant works, see Shell Susan Meld, “Kant on Just War and ‘Unjust Enemies’: Reflections on a ‘Pleonasm,’Kantian Review 10 (2005): 82111; Cavallar Georg, “Commentary on Susan Meld Shell's ‘Kant on Just War and “Unjust Enemies”: Reflections on a “Pleonasm,”’Kantian Review 11 (2006): 117–24; and MacMillan John, “A Kantian Protest Against the Peculiar Discourse of Inter-Liberal State Peace,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 24, no. 3 (1995): 549–62. Much of Bernstein's excellent article, cited in the previous note, is also helpful in interpreting the pertinent Kantian texts.

9 Kant Immanuel, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, ed. Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), 115 (Ak. 8:354). Henceforth citations from this essay will be noted parenthetically in the text as PP, followed by the Hackett page number and the volume and page number in the Akademie edition.

10 Kant Immanuel, The Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Gregor Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 89, 90–91 (Ak. 6:311, 6:313). Henceforth citations from this work will be noted parenthetically in the text as MM, followed by the Cambridge page number and the Akademie volume and page number.

11 For helpful discussion of these “defects” in the state of nature, see Ripstein Arthur, Force and Freedom: Kant's Legal and Political Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 145–81; Ebels-Duggan Kyla, “Moral Community: Escaping the Ethical State of Nature,” Philosophers' Imprint 9, no. 8 (2009); and Flikschuh Katrin, “Reason, Right, and Revolution: Kant and Locke,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 36, no. 4 (2008): 382–92.

12 Kant Immanuel, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. Dowdell Victor Lyle (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), 248 (Ak. 7:330–31). For discussion of this passage, see Ripstein, Force and Freedom, 338–43; and Bernstein, “Kant on Rights and Coercion in International Law,” 69–71.

13 Since we focus on the rights of nonbarbaric states, we use “nonrepublican” to refer to despotic, nonbarbaric states. Our use of the term should not be understood to refer to barbaric entities, which, while certainly nonrepublican, are arguably not states in Kant's sense.

14 Of course, we might say that Kant believes states and individuals have a moral right that all governments be republican, in the sense that they may legitimately criticize nonrepublican governments, and that perhaps they are wronged if governments do not implement republican reforms. But this is not what Kant would call a “right”—a term he reserves for entitlements that it is permissible to enforce by coercion. In any case, whatever we call the entitlement, the distinction between an entitlement that one may permissibly enforce through coercion and an entitlement that one may not so enforce is clear enough.

15 For helpful discussions of what may seem like a deeply illiberal doctrine to those familiar with Locke and Jefferson, and for further references to works on Kant's controversial views on revolution, see Ripstein, Force and Freedom, 325–52; and Flikschuh, “Reason, Right, and Revolution.” As we mentioned above, even this strict view probably does not rule out violent resistance against “barbaric” pseudostates.

16 MacMillan, “A Kantian Protest,” 553, 558–59.

17 In this paragraph we closely follow Cavallar, “Kantian Perspectives on Democratic Peace,” 243–47; MacMillan, “A Kantian Protest.”

18 On the federation's role in a historical process of securing peace, see Kleingeld Pauline, “Kant's Theory of Peace,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, ed. Guyer Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 477504; MacMillan, “A Kantian Protest,” 554, 558. As MacMillan points out, Kant seems to believe that domestic republicanism will reliably come about only if a state is part of a global civil condition, meaning that membership in the federation must precede the development of republicanism in at least some states.

19 In the parenthetically cited passage, Kant discusses the “original right that free states in a state of nature have to go to war with one another.” In defense of the view that “free” means “republican,” one might argue that only republican states have any right to go to war. But presumably Kant does not mean to introduce his discussion of the right of war by restricting himself to the (presumably very rare) case of war of republican states “with one another.” The more likely interpretation is that he refers to all independent states in the international state of nature's condition of “natural freedom” as free (MM 114, 6:343).

20 In discussing the example, Kant notes the diversity of regime types involved, referring to participation by the “courts of Europe and even of the smallest republics” (MM 119, 6:350).

21 One might argue that Kant would only license regime-changing intervention against nonrepublican states that were not members of the federation. We admit that the presence of nonrepublican states within the federation would not rule out such a view, but we believe such a view mistaken for the further reasons we discuss in the text.

22 This is consistent with Pangle and Ahrensdorf's interpretation that Kant “rules out forceful intervention in nonrepublican regimes” by other republican states within the federation. See Pangle and Ahrensdorf, Justice Among Nations, 199–200; see also Kleingeld, “Kant's Theory of Peace”; and Ripstein, Force and Freedom, 229–30.

23 In a subsequent, but briefer, discussion, Kant seems to shift his view, and appears to endorse preventive war in some circumstances (MM 116, 6:346). He gives no explanation for his shift, and we find his arguments in Perpetual Peace more consistent with his broader commitments. (It may also be worth noting that the example he gives involves prevention against a state that is not merely a threat because of its great power, but that specifically accumulated its power through the “acquisition of territory,” which Kant sees as a core international wrong [PP 108, 8:344]. If such wrongs are a prerequisite of legitimate prevention, the license may be quite narrow.) That said, even if we were to concede that the most coherent Kantian position endorsed preventive war in a state of nature, we do not think this implies support for the more expansive right to regime-changing interventions, as we explain in the text.

24 B. Sharon Byrd and Joachim Hruschka infer from the right to coercively establish a domestic civil condition a parallel permission for states to coercively establish a global civil condition (Byrd and Hruschka, Kant's Doctrine of Right: A Commentary [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010], 188–96). But Byrd and Hruschka pay very little attention in these passages to aspects of Kant's views that undermine the analogy between domestic and international contexts. We believe that a more careful reading of Kant's political philosophy shows that there is no right to coerce other states to establish a global civil condition. For support of this reading, see Flikschuh Katrin, “Kant's Sovereignty Dilemma: A Contemporary Analysis,” Journal of Political Philosophy 18, no. 4 (2010): 469–93.

25 At one point, Kant explicitly connects his anti-imperialism and his antirevolutionary doctrines in explaining his rejection of policies that would authorize violence to establish civil conditions. See MM 122, 6:353.

26 Muthu Sankar, Enlightenment Against Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 122209.

27 We are not prepared to argue that it is impossible to reconcile the idea that one may coerce other states into joining a civil condition with the idea that one may not so coerce groups of individuals who are in a noncivil, social state. There may be relevant distinctions in the cases that could explain a difference in entitlements. The question of how nonsedentary, noncivil peoples fit into Kant's view of international right deserves more research. Here we just note that our reading seems much more congenial to Kant's anti-imperialism than does Desch's.

28 Kleingeld, “Kant's Theory of Peace,” 488.

29 See, for example, Pangle and Ahrensdorf, Justice Among Nations, 199.

30 Susan Meld Shell also suggests that Kant's “unjust enemies” doctrine would support the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is not quite clear, however, whether this is because she believes nonrepublican government renders one an unjust enemy, or whether this is because of Iraq's various international wrongs. Shell, “Kant on Just War and ‘Unjust Enemies,’” 100–103.

31 For example, Kant's more considered view of this issue may be that “unjust enemy” is an empty category in the state of nature. (See the conclusion of the discussion at MM 119, 6:350; see also PP 110, 8:346–47.) Furthermore, Kant seems to suggest that the “unjust enemy” designation affects the “quantity or degree” of means a state may use in conflict, but not necessarily the right to initiate conflict of whatever kind in the first place (although coercive change of the unjust state's constitution may be among the permitted means once a conflict has begun; see MM 118–19, 6:349). So it is not obvious that the fact that an enemy is “unjust” ipso facto renders the initiation of force acceptable. Doubts on these scores would further buttress our claims in the text that, at most, the “unjust enemy” discussion explains certain expansive rights to self-defense that fall short of a right to regime-changing intervention.

32 With the possible exception of Shell (see notes 30 and 34), all interpreters we have found who have addressed the question agree that one is only an unjust enemy if one commits specifically international wrongs. See, e.g., Bernstein, “Kant on Rights and Coercion in International Law,” 89–100; MacMillan, “A Kantian Protest,” 559; Cavallar, Kant on the Theory and Practice of International Right, 104–10; and Orend Brian, “Kant's Just War Theory,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 37, no. 2 (1999): 349–51. Cavallar further suggests that one is an unjust enemy only if one violates the rights of other states “repeatedly and constantly,” and only if a majority of states vote to designate one an unjust enemy (Kant on the Theory and Practice of International Right, 105–108). Although this may sound like a plausible position, the textual support for these further requirements is very thin.

33 This is not to deny the core Kantian view that nonrepublican states are war-prone —it may in fact be the case that illiberal states are more likely to commit international wrongs (consistent with Kant's casual argument about democracy and war), but that they are still protected by the Article 5 prohibition on interference. If and when this latent war-proneness becomes manifest, of course, the nonrepublican state will be an “unjust enemy.”

34 If one interprets Susan Meld Shell to support regime-changing intervention (as opposed to regime change subsequent to a war against a state that has committed some other international wrongs rendering it an unjust enemy), her key error in interpreting the “unjust enemy” doctrine lies in this confusion of maxims. On this reading of her article, she assumes that mere existence as nonrepublican constitutes an “externalized intention” to remain in the state of nature, thus rendering one an unjust enemy (“Kant on Just War and ‘Unjust Enemies,’” 101). But, as we have argued throughout, Kant believes that despotic states may take part in the historical development of a global civil condition, even if this process will ultimately end with every state adopting a republican constitution.

35 Of course, the nonaggressive despotic state may be far more “unjust” than the (presumably republican) intervening state, even taking into account the injustice of the intervention. But, perhaps to put it rather blithely, the intervener may be acting more like an “enemy” in disregarding the rules of international right.

36 As Desch acknowledges, several influential international relations scholars disagree with the interventionist interpretation of Kant. Waltz describes Kant as a “non-interventionist liberal”; see Waltz, “Kant, Liberalism, and War,” 337, and the discussion of Kant in Waltz Kenneth, Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), chap. 4. Michael Doyle agrees that Kant “regards these wars [e.g., to promote freedom] as unjust and warns liberals of their susceptibility to them” (Doyle, “Liberalism and World Politics,” 1160). Desch notes (14n31) that Doyle also concedes in this same passage that Kant's position on this point is “ambiguous.” Doyle's discussion here does not support Desch's interpretation of Kant, however, for two reasons. First, it is not clear whether Doyle intends to defend a right to intervention on Kantian grounds, or is just observing the empirical fact that liberal states have historically tended to disregard the rights of nonliberal states. Second, to the extent Doyle does intend to make a normative case for intervention grounded in Kant, his reasoning (that illiberal states “do not authentically represent the rights of individuals” and thus “have no rights to noninterference”) is flawed. As we discuss in the text, Kant's proscription against intervention does not rest on a regime's degree of representativeness, but rather on the extent to which it has established a civil condition. See Doyle, “Liberalism and World Politics,” 1160–62.

37 Hassner Pierre, “Immanuel Kant,” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Strauss Leo and Cropsey Joseph, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 580.

38 Ibid., 582.

39 See the sources cited in note 22.

40 Rawls John, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 59.

41 Ibid., 93n6.

42 Ibid., 95n8. Rawls's specific points of agreement with Walzer are on matters relating to conduct in war, rather than just causes of war, but Rawls gives an apparently general endorsement of Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars and claims not to “depart from it in any significant respect.”

43 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), xiii.

44 Waltz, “Kant, Liberalism, and War,” 334 and 333.

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