Perpetual Peace and European Union

On the occasion of the awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, I’m reproducing over the fold a chunk of an old lecture I gave in January 2010 on the eighteenth-century debate about perpetual peace and European Union…

[it’s quite long, for which, apologies, but I have made it a bit more bearable with some hyperlinks and a picture of a cat]

Let me begin with what still seems to me to be a surprising and entertaining anecdote about the Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojève. Kojève was born in 1902 and grew up at the heart of the Russian intelligentsia – the painter Kandinsky was his uncle – and, in 1917, he was sentenced to death for selling soap on the black market. Like Dostoyevsky, he was reprieved from the firing squad at the last minute. He left Russia in 1920 – a firm supporter (perhaps oddly, in the circumstances) of the Bolshevik Revolution – and headed West, where he studied with Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg, and then wound up teaching philosophy in Paris in the 1930s. Indeed, Kojève’s significance to the development of European thought lies here, for his seminars on the Phenomenology of Spirit are generally regarded as the occasion on which the French intelligentsia was finally persuaded to take Hegel’s philosophy seriously. The seminar was attended, for example, by, among others, André Breton, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron, Jacques Lacan and Raymond Queneau, and people continue to argue about the significance of Kojève’s reading of Hegel for shaping the thought of Michel Foucault, in a younger generation.

And Kojève took Hegel terribly seriously as a philosopher of history. Indeed, he thought that Hegel had been right to embrace the notion of the ‘end of history’ – Kojève is in every way the middle term between Hegel and Francis Fukuyama. Kojève took the idea of the end of history so seriously that at the end of the war he chucked in his academic career and became a French civil servant, working on central questions of economic planning, including what became the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – which has now metamorphosed into the World Trade Organisation – and the architecture of what we now call the European Union. Kojève thought that it was the creation of the European Union that marked the end of history, being the concrete instantiation of the Napoleonic vision of rational French administration being adopted by the free peoples of Europe in order to bring an end to international violence. Bureaucracy, Kojève said, in an interview at the end of his life, was a ‘superior game’ to philosophy. He may or may not have spied for the Soviet Union for thirty yearsLe Monde has charged that he did, but has not published its evidence. Kojève died in 1968, entirely fittingly, of a heart attack, in Brussels, on a business trip to address the Common Market on behalf of the French government.

Well, the peculiar career of Alexandre Kojève reminds us of the ways in which the grand themes of European philosophy could intersect with the world of establishing agricultural quotas and customs unions, and it builds a bridge from which we might cross directly from the world of the battle of Jena in 1806 to the conference at Messina in 1955. And Napoleon’s Europe is an important one for thinking about European Union – it was the Napoleonic Wars that persuaded Saint-Simon, for example, that an Anglo-French political union was essential in order to prevent future conflict. But to get at what seem to me to be the most interesting intellectual fore-runners of the twentieth century’s debates about European Union, we need to push back, past Napoleon, past the French Revolution, and back into the world of the eighteenth century.

These days, we’re used to considering peace on the European continent the norm, armed conflict the exception. In the eighteenth century, things were more or less the other way around. What historians sometimes call the long eighteenth century – say, from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 down to the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 – was a rather violent period. Just to mention some of the more protracted conflicts that followed on from the events that we continue in this country, rather curiously, to call the Glorious Revolution, there was the Nine Years’ War of 1688-97, the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-14; the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-48; the Seven Years’ War, 1756-63; the American War of Independence, 1775-83; and then there were the French Revolutionary Wars that would get going in 1792 and continue in one form or another through the years of Napoleon’s conquests and down to the battle of Waterloo. These wars generally pitted alliances of European powers against one another, and involved fighting around the world – on European battlefields, to be sure, but also in the colonies in North America, the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere.

Clearly, there were structural reasons driving the frequency of interstate warfare. This was a Europe, for example, in which the balance of power, such as it was, could be destabilised every time a monarch died and the question of who would replace him or her was raised. It’s not an accident that we have wars of the Spanish and Austrian Successions (and there might easily have been wars of the French Succession, had things only turned out a little differently). These wars fuelled massive national indebtedness, as the rulers of Europe were borrowing enormous sums in order to finance them, and it wasn’t always clear how these debts might be reduced, or what the social, political and economic consequences of such indebtedness would be. The proximate cause of the French Revolution lay in the crisis in the French monarchy’s finances in the later part of the 1780s. And what students of political thought are increasingly appreciating today is that the problem of how social and economic and political structures might be rearranged in order to provide the basis for a durable European peace can be seen to be driving much of the most interesting political and economic thought of the period; that we can read books like Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Rousseau’s Social Contract or even Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, for example, through this lens with considerable profit.

One might have thought that if the problem was a world of independent states with an inbuilt tendency towards war, then the obvious solution to pursue might be some form of world-government or world state. And some people are sometimes puzzled that in the history of political thought, we find so many thinkers who are very clear-headed about the problems of the international state system, but who are also so reluctant to recommend its abolition through some kind of world-state. The hostility is often very marked: Immanuel Kant famously said, for example, that a world-state would have to be a ‘soulless despotism’. But one of the reasons why the world-state wasn’t high on many of the more serious thinkers’ agendas was that this, too, was considered part of the problem. In particular, eighteenth-century attention returned, again and again, to the lessons of one particular recent episode in the economic and military history of Europe. Before Napoleon, the previous French attempt to dominate Europe had been Louis XIV’s bid to establish what was then called ‘Universal Monarchy’, or, as we might say, to become the regional hegemon, in particular in the years during which Jean-Baptiste Colbert was finance minister in France.

If the English were regularly accused of using foreign policy to pursue commercial interests – indeed, both major political parties today are quite open that this is a central aim of British foreign policy – Colbert’s France used commerce to pursue political objectives. ‘Commerce’, he wrote in a memorandum of 1669, ‘is a perpetual and peaceable war of wit and energy among all nations’, and his project as finance minister was to harness the economic life of France and put it in the service of the monarch’s aggressive foreign policy. What did that mean in practice? Protectionist tariffs, cultivation of France’s export industries (especially those of luxury goods), import-substitution, maintenance of the mediaeval restrictions on internal commerce, a sharply regressive system of taxation, developing the towns at the expense of the countryside, and so on. To his critics, such as the Archbishop and royal tutor Fénelon, such policies were insane. They threatened to depopulate the countryside and ruin agriculture, and the political economy of luxury would enmesh France ever deeper in wars with foreign powers that it would be increasingly less likely to win.

But if a writer like Fénelon, at the turn of the eighteenth century, or a later writer like Montesquieu, who was also critical of the French monarchy, but with a very different assessment of commerce and luxury, looked for ways of reorganising domestic French politics in order to steer policy away from the pursuit of the project of universal monarchy, in order to maintain prosperity and liberty at home, other writers investigated the structures of international politics. The most celebrated example of this was the life’s work of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, who was born in 1658 and died in 1742, and who wrote at great length, in a turgid and often repetitive style, to promote what he called his project for perpetual peace in Europe.

The Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s analysis of international politics was basically a Hobbesian one. Just as there is no security in a Hobbesian state of nature, because nobody can be trusted to keep the promises they have made, so too in the international arena the rulers of Europe would prefer to regulate their dealings with one another through treaties and the like, but these cannot provide security, for exactly the same reason. ‘The present Constitution of Europe’, the Abbé wrote, ‘can never produce any thing else but almost continual Wars, because it can never procure any sufficient Security for the Execution of Treaties.’ And, as in Hobbes’s theory, he reached for a solution that would provide an authoritative body which would not only adjudicate disputes between hitherto-independent agents, but would also – crucially – be able to enforce its rulings. His idea was that there would be what he called ‘a permanent Society of all the Christian Sovereignties of Europe’, a European confederation, based in Utrecht, to which the eighteen leading European powers would send delegates – which he thought were France, Spain, England, Holland, Portugal, Switzerland, Florence, Genoa, the Papal State, Venice, Savoy, Lorraine, Denmark, Danzig, the German Empire, Poland, Sweden and Muscovy. International disputes would be considered by these delegates and voted on, and the various powers would agree both to abide by the majority decisions and to contribute to an international army, which would both enforce the decisions of the confederation, if necessary, but also could be used to force any European countries which preferred to stay outside the confederation to join in.

Even if they weren’t forced to join in, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre thought that European rulers would have good incentives to participate in his confederation. Rulers sought to maintain their rule and their frontiers, and the confederation would guarantee the continuation of the status quo in this regard; they would be able to make treaties and other international arrangements in the confidence that the deals would stick; and the various countries would be able to trade with one another and grow rich, without commerce experiencing the repeated interruptions of war, or government the enormous expense. It was thus in the interests of princes to join in the European Union, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre argued, especially insofar as the greatest glory would redound to those who took steps to secure such enlightened goals as international and perpetual peace.

(There may or may not have been a crusading agenda here. It’s frequently been the case that those who call for peace inside Europe do so in order to encourage war against the Islamic world, and the Abbé de Saint-Pierre was no exception. Or, at least, he seems to have gone back and forth on this question, or to have said different things to different people on different occasions. In some presentations of his ideas, he argued that the international confederation could eventually be extended to cover the whole world, but that for reasons of practicality it should start with Europe, and build out from there. In other versions, he argued that the European priority ought to be to expel the Ottomans from South-Eastern Europe, and that a guarantee of security inside Europe would enable Europe’s princes to concentrate on this all-important goal.)

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s ideas were kept alive in large part owing to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s entanglement with his argument. Rousseau probably met the very, very old Abbé at a Parisian salon just before his death in 1742, and in the mid-1750s he was asked to edit the Abbé’s works. As he wrote in his Confessions, he was ‘reading, considering and selecting from twenty-three diffuse and muddled volumes full of boring passages, repetitions, and false or short-sighted views, out of which I had to fish some few that were fine and great and would give courage to endure this painful labour.’ Rousseau never produced an extensive edition of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, but he did compose two texts, an Abridgement or Abstract of the plan for perpetual peace, and a Critique or Judgment of it.

On the face of it, approaching and interpreting these texts should be a fairly straightforward business: the one work descriptive, the other critical. But in fact things are quite confusing. Rousseau only published the first text during his own lifetime, and so many eighteenth-century readers – including Immanuel Kant – took him to be a defender of the Abbé’s system. And the Abstract to some extent recasts the Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s thought and Rousseau-ises it – it can’t be straightforwardly read as an impartial or accurate summary. Rousseau himself acknowledged this when he observed that ‘it is true that I have seen the object under a different point of view than the Abbé de Saint-Pierre did, and that I have sometimes given different reasons than his’. And although we have the Judgment of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, this is a short and fairly compressed text, and we don’t have a full statement of Rousseau’s ideas about international politics to help contextualise our interpretation of it. The final chapter of the Social Contract, for example, reads, in full, that,

After setting down the true principles of political right and trying to found the state on its basis, it would remain to buttress the state by its external relations; which would include the right of nations, commerce, the right of war and conquest, public right, leagues, negotiations, treaties, etc. But all this forms a new object too vast for my short sight; I should always have fixed it nearer to myself.

So we have to reconstruct Rousseau’s understanding of international politics from occasional remarks and inferences from other sources – and it remains the case that scholars down to this day continue to disagree over just how to understand Rousseau’s vision of international politics, both with respect to how he thought international relations actually worked, and with respect to whether they were reformable for the better.

I think Rousseau’s most interesting departure from the Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s argument in the Abstract is his account of the basis of a genuinely European civil society. The Abbé focused on sovereigns and states, Rousseau on peoples. (The same substitution takes place in John Rawls’s contribution to the global justice debate.) Rousseau might have argued against there being a robust natural sociability, against the view that there was what he called a ‘general society of the human race’, but he thought that even without any formal international political institutions the countries of Europe did form ‘a sort of system among themselves which unites them by one single religion, the same international law, morals, literature, commerce, and a sort of equilibrium that is the necessary effect of all this, and which, without anyone in fact thinking about preserving it, would not be as simple to break up as many people think.’ But this European civil society isn’t robust enough to forestall war, in a world of multiple sovereignties.

Rousseau canvassed three possible alternatives to war: empire (what I earlier called universal monarchy); the balance of power; and commerce. And he rejected all three. The conditions in modern Europe didn’t exist for one power to dominate the entire continent, as had happened in Roman times. A balance of power or ‘equilibrium’ couldn’t be reliably maintained among artificial institutions such as modern sovereign states. And commerce was a source of war, not an alternative to it, for

ideas about commerce and money have produced a sort of political fanaticism, they cause the apparent interests of all Princes to change so suddenly that one cannot establish any stable maxim based on their true interests, because now everything depends on economic systems, most of them extremely bizarre, which run through the heads of ministers.

Having rejected these alternatives to war, then, the Abstract set out a simplified version of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s peace plan, reducing the scheme to five main principles (in place of Saint-Pierre’s original twenty eight).

Did the plan for perpetual peace jeopardise national sovereignty? Rousseau argued in the Abstract that it did not. Princes would be forced by the plan to be ‘equitable and peaceful’, it was true, but then equity and peace were central objectives of any legitimate political institution, the content of any plausible general will. ‘By submitting their quarrels to the judgment of the [international] assembly and by depriving themselves of the dangerous power of seizing the property of others’, Rousseau continued, the princes of Europe ‘would only assure themselves of their real rights and renounce those that they do not have’. Liberty might be ‘alienated in the hands of a master, but it is strengthened in the hands of one’s peers’. And the Abstract ended with a characteristic rhetorical flourish:

If we have reasoned well in the exposition of this project, it is demonstrated firstly that the establishment of perpetual peace depends solely on the consent of sovereigns and presents no difficulty other than their resistance… If, despite all of this, the project remains unfulfilled, it is not therefore because it is too idealistic; rather, it is because men are insane, and because it is a sort of folly to remain wise in the midst of those who are mad.

What, then, did Rousseau go on to argue in the Judgment?

In the Judgment, Rousseau rejected the plan for perpetual peace as unworkable. The problem lay in the way in which the Abbé de Saint-Pierre thought about political action. He thought rulers were rational agents who made sensible decisions in light of reasonable views about the interests of themselves and their populations. Saint-Pierre, that is to say, thought about politics the way that modern political scientists tend to. That was the problem. The typical European ruler wasn’t like that at all, but, rather, was ‘like a mad sailor who, in order to show off his knowledge and intimidate his crew, would prefer to drift dangerously among reefs during a storm than to secure his ship with an anchor’. Kings were gripped by the passion to dominate, at home and abroad, and war and tyranny were mutually reinforcing: in order to fight wars, kings would impose high taxes so that they could maintain large armies, and both the armies and the taxes would work to oppress the people further. And it just wasn’t the case, as Saint-Pierre had thought, that the power of rulers was a function of the well-being of the subordinate population. Rulers would, he thought, far rather rule over a large, miserable population than over a small and happy one, and they were prepared to take great risks with the lives and well-being of their subjects in order to try to extend the boundaries of their dominion. The Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s plan, therefore, just could not get off the ground.

Scholars have argued among themselves as to whether Rousseau was entirely committed to this verdict. If the problem was that Saint-Pierre’s alliance of kings could not work, because they were kings, why couldn’t sovereign republican peoples confederate together in something like the manner in which Saint-Pierre described? If Europe became a Europe of republics, could the peace plan be made to work? Some think that this was Rousseau’s view. His Social Contract suggests that the only legitimate sovereignty is republican sovereignty; and some of his writings on the smaller or weaker states of Europe (Corsica, the Swiss cantons, Poland) suggest that their security might be preserved through confederal arrangements or defensive alliances with powers that were similarly situated in international geopolitics. But an important point (one pressed by the French scholar Céline Spector) is that we don’t have any reason to think that Rousseau thought that the monarchies of Europe like France or Britain could become republics. Rousseau basically inherited Montesquieu’s distinction between monarchies and republics, in which the former were large countries with unequal populations and the latter were small countries with much more substantial social and economic equality among the citizens. The Social Contract presented the fundamentals of republican political theory; the Considerations on the Government of Poland described how a weak monarchy might be reformed in order better to be able to preserve itself in the face of its neighbours’ imperial ambitions. But there was no recipe for turning monarchies into republics; and when Rousseau wrote in the Judgment of the plan for perpetual peace that, ‘We will not see federative leagues establishing themselves except by revolution’, it’s important to realise that Rousseau wasn’t actually calling for such a revolution. Contrary to his subsequent reputation as the godfather of the French Revolution, Rousseau was no kind of advocate of political revolution. He thought, quite rightly, that Europe was heading into an age of revolutions, but he didn’t think that any good would come of them—just the loss of an awful lot of innocent life.

It wouldn’t be quite right to say that the disagreement between the Abbé de Saint-Pierre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau exactly mapped out the intellectual foundations of today’s European Union. The Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s plan for perpetual peace was, at its heart, a security community, a way of co-ordinating military force (whether or not its point was to kick the Turks out of Europe). And in postwar Western Europe, of course, it was NATO rather than the EEC which addressed organised security for most member-states, and the EU still struggles to develop robust institutions concerning foreign policy and security matters. But I think that it’s not wrong to say that Saint-Pierre and Rousseau were debating the question of European Union in a way that ought to make a great deal of sense to us today. Earlier debates about political unification in Europe belong to a completely different world – whether we look to the Roman ideologists of universal monarchy or to the mediaeval arguments about whether general jurisdiction belonged to the Pope or the Emperor. What Saint-Pierre and Rousseau were arguing about was whether there could be a powerful international body that was not quite a sovereign state of its own, which joined together the leading states of Europe, and which would promote internal commerce in a way that would foster peaceful relations rather than contributing to the causes of war—indeed, that would make war among Europe’s peoples unthinkable. And that is straightforwardly a description of the project that the founders of today’s European Union – Alexandre Kojève and the others – took themselves to be engaged in; indeed, that the elites in Brussels still take themselves to be engaged in.

Who, then, of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre and Rousseau had the better of the argument? The Abbé de Saint-Pierre was famous in eighteenth-century Europe as one who peddled crazy, unworkable, cloud-cuckoo-land schemes. Two hundred years later, his dream has become as much of a reality as political dreams can ever plausibly hope to become. We might think that Rousseau was doubly wrong, then: wrong to think that the scheme was unachievable, and wrong to think that Europe’s monarchies could not, in the end, be republicanised – for the European Union took shape in the wake of the military defeat of the despotisms of Hitler and Mussolini, and its member states have always been parliamentary or presidential democracies of one kind or another.

But this might be to move too fast. Rousseau argued that there could never be a stable confederation of kings, and we don’t have any reason to think him wrong on that score. And if we use the categories of Montesquieu’s political thought, as Rousseau did, then it’s not at all clear that what we have in Europe today are republics, as he could have understood them. Rather, they are reformed monarchies: large territorial regimes, with commercial economies, containing great levels of social and economic inequality, organised along constitutional lines, i.e., with bodies of fundamental law; but they’ve been reformed in such a way that we don’t really have the eighteenth-century-style monarchs anymore, with all the various problems that they bring with them. The British prime minister or the French president are somewhat monarch-like, given the extent of their legislative and executive powers; but they are not free to mess around with the security of Europe, in the way that kings once were; and their foreign-policy adventurism these days tends to take place well beyond the confines of the continent. And what would a theoretical sketch of a European monarchy without a traditional monarch look like? One might say, in fact, that one of the earliest sketches of such a regime is to be found in Rousseau’s Considerations on the Government of Poland.

So I’m inclined to split the honours on this occasion between the Abbé de Saint-Pierre and Rousseau on the question of European Union, and to call it a score draw.


Primary Texts

The Abbé de Saint-Pierre wrote a lot. The easiest place to find his ideas is in Charles Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, A project for settling an everlasting peace in Europe… (London: Ferdinand Burleigh, 1714).

There are two places to find Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s main texts on the Abbé de Saint-Pierre in English. One is in the Appendix to Grace G. Roosevelt’s book, Reading Rousseau in the Nuclear Age (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991). The other is in volume 11 of the University Presses of New England edition of Rousseau’s Collected Works, which is The plan for perpetual peace, On the government of Poland, and other writings on history and politics, translated by Christopher Kelly and Judith Bush; edited by Christopher Kelly (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2005). The French texts are collected in the third volume of the Pléiade Oeuvres complètes de Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Secondary Literature

Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), Introduction.

Michael Sonenscher, Before the Deluge (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 108-20.

Grace G. Roosevelt, Reading Rousseau in the Nuclear Age (as above)

Grace G. Roosevelt, ‘Rousseau versus Rawls on International Relations’, European Journal of Political Theory, vol. 5, no. 3 (2006), pp. 301-320.

Stanley Hoffmann, ‘Rousseau on War and Peace’, American Political Science Review, vol. 57, no. 2 (June 1963), pp. 317-333.

And, especially, Céline Spector, ‘Le Projet de paix perpétuelle: de Saint-Pierre à Rousseau’, in Principes du droit de la guerre, Ecrits sur le Projet de Paix Perpétuelle de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, Blaise Bachofen and Céline Spector, eds. (Paris: Vrin, 2008), pp. 229-294. [English pdf available here.]

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