Are Proposals For A World Republic Defensible?

If a “world republic” is desirable, how should proposals for it be defended? This paper draws on Pauline Kleingeld’s defense of Immanuel Kant’s program for perpetual peace to argue that social contractarian accounts of the genesis of the world republic, which presuppose and reify the modern state, cannot adequately defend contemporary proposals for the world republic.

Kant’s proposal for perpetual peace suffers from internal contradiction, critics allege. The analogy Kant draws between the “universal” and “international” states of nature suggests that coercion can be used to force states to relinquish their “external sovereignty” and join a world republic (Volkerstaat), empowered by enforceable public law, for the sake of security. However, Kant advances a positive proposal for a Völkerbund, a “voluntary league of states” which lacks enforceable public law, instead of a proposal for a world republic and denies that the Volkerstaat should be authorized to use coercion (Recht) in the process. By elaborating the connection between Kant’s views on universal history, enlightenment (Aufklärung) and perpetual peace, Kleingeld defends Kant by explaining how he could regard the Volkersaat as a “direct [moral] duty derived from Reason,” deny its right to use coercion and advance a positive proposal for a Völkerbund without contradiction.

Kant’s conception of universal history suggests that the Volkerstaat, an institution whose creation culminates history, can only be established after states become Enlightened through a process of autonomous development and use their newly acquired “intellectual courage” to create consensus regarding “universalist normative principles” such as the principle that peace is a binding precept of Reason. Kant wagers that by fostering “greater unanimity” regarding juridical and political principles, the gradual Enlightenment of states will prepare the ground for the Völkerbund’s emergence, which, in turn, will “facilitate a non-despotic peace” as states willingly join it. When enlightenment has finally:

[P]rogressed far enough and people have learned to see beyond their cultural differences and achieved a proper understanding of, and respect for the universal principle of human rights, republicanism, and international cosmopolitan right, […] the time will be ripe for the transition to the global juridical condition.

This passage indicates that Kant’s ideal Volkerstaat depends on his belief that the teleological unfolding of history will create the conditions required for his program of perpetual peace. Because the Völkerbund institutionalizes “a forum for conflict mediation” which promotes the autonomous “internal development of republican […] political institutions,” it reinforces the conditions necessary for the Volkestaat’s emergence by furthering the Enlightenment of states.

Kleingeld’s defense of Kant thus reveals on Kant’s terms that the plan proposed for perpetual peace is not contradictory. As stages within universal history, the international and universal states of nature are relevantly different. Whereas the coercion of individuals into a state promotes perpetual peace by establishing the conditions necessary for Enlightenment (Aufklärung), e.g., civil law and security, the use of coercion to establish the Volkerstaat could undermine perpetual peace by forsaking the autonomy the nation gained by virtue of the state’s establishment or by inhibiting the autonomous development of states necessary for their Enlightenment.

Like any philosophical text, Kant’s proposal for perpetual piece reflects the age in which it was produced; specifically, it reflects a period where the 1648 Peace of Westphalia both gave rise to a faith in universal human reason and liberal political institutions and tempered the anxieties arising from the memory of a century of religious wars. Kleingeld’s defence of Kant is thus problematic because it completely ignores such contextual facts. By assuming that Kant’s age is relevantly similar to our own, Kleingeld’s defence of Kant uncritically imposes seventeenth century solutions to seventeenth century problems on the present.

In the wake of the most violent century in “humanity’s” history, wherein state law has alibied mass violence at the hands of states, Kant’s teleological view of moral progress and his circumscription of perpetual peace to the “international state of nature” are untenable. The Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, the Holocaust, Stalin’s Gulag, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda are but a few examples of the unimaginable violence perpetuated by states arbitrarily exercising their “monopoly of legitimate force” (i.e., their “internal sovereignty”) against their own which suggest that, contra Kant, the birth of states are not evidence of humanity’s moral progress.

The fact that discord between states and “non-state actors” are among the most significant obstacles to peace in the present also points to some potential problems with the ideal Kantian Volkerstaat. Because both the normative (Westphalian) framework of international relations and the Kantian Volkerstaat assume that the modern state—which symbolizes the triumph of humanity—is the only legitimate political unit, neither recognizes non-state actors as legitimate political actors within the sphere of high politics. Consequently, non-state actors are not only regarded by states as immoral, uncivilized and barbarian, their entitlement to protections under national and international (e.g., the Third Geneva Conventions) law is precarious because they are presumed to lack the requisite rationality that would entitle them to such safeguards. Kant’s proposal for perpetual peace reinforces such stereotypes.

Kleingeld’s defence of Kant is thus problematic. It reproduces modernist accounts of the state’s legitimacy by defending the Kantian Volkerstaat which presupposes fictional (and ultimately historically contingent) assertions about what the political community in modernity ought to be like according to some metaphysical ideal of Reason. Because Kleingeld elevates the Kantian Volkerstaat without critically engaging with its premises, i.e., the modern state, she stifles any consideration of alternative modes of political organization. If the modern state is at the root of the twentieth century’s unprecedented violence, then neither modern social contractarian accounts of the genesis of the state nor the state of states can justify a Volkerstaat established for the mere purpose of “taming” the external sovereignty of states.Through an analysis of Kleingeld’s defense of Kant, I have argued that Kant’s vision of perpetual peace is incompatible with the twenty-first century problems. In doing so, I have suggested that any defence of an ideal state of states which fails to consider the historicity of the modern state (or system of states) will be bound to impose a seventeenth century conception of peace onto twenty-first century conflicts. Such omissions amount to a failure of imagination because they blind thought to the possibility that a world republic might only further the task of perpetual peace if all states relinquish their claims to internal and external sovereignty.





Kant, Immanuel. Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by M. Gregor. CUP, 1991.


Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?” Translated by Mary C Smith. Columbia University, 2011. Online at:


Kleingeld, Pauline. “Approaching Perpetual Peace: Kant’s Defence of a League of States and his Ideal of a World Federation,” European Journal of Philosophy, 12(3), 2004.


Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation,” in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Edited and translated by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *