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The goal of a peace project is to establish among states the procedures necessary to settle disputes, and thus to avoid war. Most peace projects take the basic elements that govern civil societies to the interstate level. An analogy between domestic and international frameworks show that the tools used to pacify societies—rule of law, courts, sanctions—may well be applied to interstate relations, and thus be used to pacify the world.
In the depths of World War II, Edith Wynner and Georgia Lloyd published Searchlight on Peace Plans, in which they intended to provide insights into peace in a time of suffering and grief. The book summarized the main peace projects and world order proposals drawn up in the Western world since ancient Egypt. Between the fourteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries alone, more than 125 plans have been sketched. Besides many anonymous and obscure authors, some historic figures stand out, such as Dante Alighieri, William Penn, Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Paine. Well-known and unknown authors all share the same dream of doing away with war.
Peace projects inherently pertain to relations among states, whether these are kingdoms, nations, or modern states. The goal is to obviate war by establishing a set of procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes. Unlike utopian schemes, peace projects aim at neither changing human nature nor eliminating violence between individuals. However, most peace projects transpose the basic elements that govern civil societies to the interstate level. A very common analogy between domestic and international structures tends to show that the tools used to pacify societies—rule of law, courts, sanctions—may well be applied to interstate relations, and thus used to pacify the world.
Peace projects are most frequent during and after wars, and even more after particularly destructive conflicts, as F. H. Hinsley, an historian specializing in international relations, observed. They also appear during political turmoil, when entities compete for supremacy. In fact, as one goes through seven centuries of peace projects, one finds that the idea of lasting peace is often tied in with a particular political order. Projects refer as much to the promotion of an order through which peace would be accomplished as to actually fulfilling the dream of a warless world. As the next examples show, what first appears as a scheme for the achievement of a universal aspiration often conceals a particular ideology and specific interests.
From the Middle Ages to the Dawn of the Modern State
The struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire dominated medieval political thinking. Peace projects reflected this tension. Was the pope a spiritual guide or did his power outshine the emperor’s? Both Pierre Dubois (c. 1255–c. 1312) and Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), each of whom wrote a peace project at the beginning of the fourteenth century, took sides against the bishop of Rome. Dante, in De Monarchia (1310), favored the emperor. In his hierarchical view of the world, the prince above all princes—the “Monarch”—was the only one capable of bringing peace to Christendom. In the same way the ancient Roman Empire gave the world the Pax Romana, imperial domination that would bring lasting peace.
Dubois, who wrote under the patronage of the French king Philip IV, adopted a more innovative stance. His work De Recuperatione Terrae Sanctae (1305) focused on the Christian crusade to recover the Holy Land. To meet this goal, Dubois claimed that European kings should stop quarreling and renounce warring against each other. Unlike Dante, he opposed the imperial solution on the grounds that Christendom consisted of too many men and too many cultures scattered over too large a territory. Dubois then put forward a new kind of union: a council formed by the sovereigns of Europe that would act as a court of arbitration. Members who refused to submit a dispute or to obey the court’s decisions would then face sanctions, from excommunication to economic and military actions. The pope, in charge of pronouncing the culprit excluded from the Christian community, was left with a moral power. The king of France, on the other hand, would assume the council leadership by executing the sanctions.
Dubois’s scheme was obviously designed to enable Philip IV to encroach upon the powers of the pope and his fellow kings. Peace was at best the second of Dubois’s concerns. Nevertheless, this fourteenth-century plan contained the basic elements of virtually all further peace projects: the formation of a council or a union of independent entities, a set of procedures for settling disputes, and a coercive device.
Dubois’s project fell into oblivion for three hundred years. During that period, the papal dream of temporal power vanished, as did the imperial one of a united Christendom, despite a last attempt in the sixteenth century by Emperor Charles V to revive it. As a reaction to this last imperial endeavor, the European nation-states emerged. Dubois’s text was republished in 1611: his project of a council of sovereign European states, anachronistic in 1310, was now conceivable.
Peace Among Sovereign States
The rise of the modern state system during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in a new doctrine, the balance of power. Although based on equipoise, the system saw states continuously struggling to alter the balance for their own benefit. Competition for glory or for economic or territorial superiority—the New World had just been discovered—was an added source of tension. War was an extreme yet lawful means of conducting relations among rival states. Conflicts increased accordingly and, as a byproduct, fostered thoughts on peace. But philosophers were aware that calls for Christian universal brotherhood would fall on deaf ears. They had to follow in Dubois’s footsteps and sketch plans for independent nations to voluntarily join a partnership for the common good. Thus, the peace projects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Emeric Cruce’s Nouveau Cynee, Sully’s Grand Design, the Abbe de Saint-Pierre’s Project to Bring Perpetual Peace in Europe, William Penn’s Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe—are all variations on the same idea. Penn’s and Saint-Pierre’s projects are especially representative of this period. They are, as well, exceptions to the previous assertion that peace plans generally promote specific interests, although they are certainly Eurocentric.
In his 1693 Essay, Penn (1644–1718) suggested the creation of a European parliament, which would meet periodically and whose task would be to settle disputes by arbitration and punish aggressive behavior. National representatives would be sent to the “Diet” (the assembly) in proportion to each nation’s power, revenues, exports, and imports. But in return, according to Penn, the member nations would have to abandon the key attribute of national sovereignty—unanimity of decision—within the assembly by accepting a three-fourths majority vote. A nation could thus be compelled to act according to the will of others.
The project proposed by Saint-Pierre (1648–1743), first published in 1712, is based on two observations: firstly, that peace could not be achieved as long as Europe lacked a treaty-enforcing mechanism, and secondly, that the balance of power was a continuous threat to peace. To settle these problems, he suggested the creation of a “grand alliance,” supported by international armed forces. Saint-Pierre, unlike Penn, proposed an equal representation of the twenty-four European states.
For many years, Saint-Pierre sent improved versions of his plan to European sovereigns in the hope that they would realize how they would benefit from organized international relations, adding to his own text objections and counterobjections to overcome any criticism. Like Penn, Saint-Pierre trusted that the European rulers would assess the economic advantages of a peaceful order. But in the 1729 edition of his treaty, the Abbe confessed he had underestimated the essential concern of European leaders, that is, to keep their freedom of action, or what they called their national sovereignty. However much he claimed that preserving the members’ independence against an aggressor was precisely the aim of a union, no one seriously considered it. Saint-Pierre incurred several pungent comments from his contemporaries. Voltaire (1694–1778) scoffed at this “Saint-Pierre of Utopia” who was naive enough to believe that princes, in the name of peace, would abandon precisely that power which defines them. National sovereignty was the stumbling block of peace projects.
The Kantian Approach to Perpetual Peace
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was the first to address the inescapable fact of national sovereignty. His Thoughts on Perpetual Peace (1795) is the most quoted and influential text on peace. Surprisingly, however, it pertains to the idea of lasting peace and not its fulfillment, as Kant’s vision of perpetual peace is one of an asymptotic quest: humanity will indefinitely tend toward it.
Kant believed that self-interest was the driving force of mankind. He believed as well that, as much as war is inherent to human life, the interest of men lay in submission to the moral law of peace. While men perpetually seek to impose their law upon others, they also fear that a law will arbitrarily be imposed upon them. Their only hope of breaking that circle of insecurity is therefore to submit to a common law, a “social contract” of international scope, a federation—in other words, to create a free union of nations instead of a supranational entity that would deny them their identity. Kant, however, stressed one prerequisite for the success of any federal scheme. In the “first definitive article for perpetual peace,” he argued that “the civil constitution in each state should be republican” (1983). Thus, a population which is already governed by a social contract based on a constitution and on the separation of powers is likely to accept its international counterpart. By linking peace and a republican regime—or democracy—this requirement became the cornerstone of the liberal and modern approach to peace.
Kant expressed his views on peace and federalism while the former American colonies were experiencing the first large-scale federal structure. As for Europe, ruled by balance of power, it was sinking into a twenty-year war as a result of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s dream of a new imperial domination.
Peace, Progress, and Interdependence
Major conflicts drastically decreased in Europe after Napoleon’s abdication in 1815, but a quarter of a century of turmoil had greatly stimulated ideas on peace. Peace groups and peace plans flourished in the nineteenth century. The impetus was provided by Quakers who formed the first peace society in 1816. The goals of these various groups were religious—applying Christian principles to national and international relations—as well as humanistic. Inspired by the Enlightenment, they sought to rationalize interstate dealings. As the belief in continuous human progress grew stronger as a consequence of industrial and scientific development, perpetual peace represented the ultimate culmination of civilization. In the modern world, peace activists believed, war would inexorably become obsolete, and many signs supported this.
Firstly, the “European concert,” even though designed to suppress national emancipation and liberal reforms, showed that leaders could meet during times of tension and find a common solution to European problems. Secondly, the international expansion of trade and commerce made clear the growing interdependence of nations; it seemed as if sovereignty would soon fall into obsolescence. Also, newly founded nongovernmental organizations like the telegraphic and postal unions showed that nations could work together and adopt common rules for the benefit of all. Finally, the popularity of the federal idea in the United States, Switzerland (1848), Canada (1867), and Germany (1871) validated Kant’s prediction that a federation of states (a Volkerbund) was a practicable solution, as the first discussion on the “United States of Europe” was held at the 1849 Paris International Peace Congress.
Despite nationalism and armaments, which both grew disproportionately at the end of the century, the belief was strong among peace activists that war would eventually disappear with the help of reason, science, cooperation, and international law supported by arbitration and conciliation. The Great War came as a shock.
Dream of Perpetual Peace in the Contemporary World
Between 1914 and 1918, many peace groups and individuals still produced peace projects, mostly recapping the propositions of the previous schemes (such as a federation of nations, parliament of mankind, international council, and executive force). For their authors, the conflagration made even more obvious the anarchy of the international system and the necessity of rebuilding it on the rule of law. Furthermore, the idea of an international organization for the purpose of preserving peace appeared in political discourse. The pledge by President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) to work for a league of peace and his call for the expansion of democracy filled peace activists with enthusiasm. Peace projects were no longer purely speculative.
The League of Nations, founded in 1919, tentatively tried to regulate international relations. Carefully designed not to infringe upon its members’ sovereignty, its influence, which was solely moral, rapidly faded. As years went by, peace advocates understood that the process of global integration could not come out of such a political structure. The emphasis had to be put on education, cooperation, and the creation of an internationalist state of mind. After World War II, the dream of a peaceful international community continued via the United Nations but, like its predecessor, the U.N. was devised by the victorious countries to reflect the new geopolitical order. Its influence depended on the will of its sovereign constituents.
Kant’s reflections on peace still echo today. Two centuries ago, the philosopher warned us against the panacea of a universal structure superseding states. Today, a world federation is still very much premature and universal peace projects are no longer topical. However, the ongoing and peaceful integration of European nations shows that the federal project first discussed in 1849 was not utterly unrealistic. Kant’s call for the extension of the democratic principle and for cosmopolitanism—the international state of mind—may well represent the best hope for peace.
- Armstrong, D. (1982). The rise of international organization: A short history. Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan.
- Aron, R. (2003). Peace and war: A theory of international relations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
- Hemleben, S. J. (1943). Plans for world peace through six centuries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Howard, M. (2000). The invention of peace: Reflections on war and international order. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Kant, I. (1983). Perpetual peace, and other essays on politics, history, and morals (T. Humphrey, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
- United Nations. (1996). The League of Nations, 1920–1946: Organization and accomplishments: A retrospective of the first organization for the establishment of world peace. New York: United Nations.
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