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The Angry Economist

Carl, Immanuel, And The "I" Word: Philosophical Giants And The Global War On Terror
Posted by William P. McGowan, Ph. D. on Oct 1, 2006 - 10:00:00 PM

UNITED STATES— I wonder how two of the great minds in political philosophy would view our present situation in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  What would the intellectual father of the United Nations and the general who justified unmerciful and swift warfare think of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Immanuel Kant was a political philosopher living three hundred years ago, yet the idea contained in his essay “Perpetual Peace,” was so powerful that it served as the intellectual foundation for the United Nations.  His essential idea was that if a community of nations could come together and agree on basic rights, then these countries could, collectively produce a "perpetual" peace. 

Not long after he wrote this influential work, the imperialists running the British Empire achieved unilaterally what Kant hoped would be the product of multilateral input.  Rather than wait, through the use of its Navy, Britain established a period historians now refer to as the Pax Britannica. For all of its warts, between 1815 and 1914, Great Britain saw to it that the world remained peaceful through its demonstrated willingness to use force.

It was during this period that the Carl Von Clausewitz wrote his famous, "On War," a 150-year-old tome that remains the definitive treatise on how to justify, fight, and successfully prosecute a war.  Where Kant's work was one of theoretical desires of things that might be, the Prussian General's work was based on the cold hard realities of war, reminding us that the most humane war is one that is fast and merciless. A general who served the Russians during Napoleon's disastrous invasion of that country, Clausewitz was also a student of war.

The Prussian general observed that had either side struck a knockout blow early in the American Civil War, that conflict (the bloodiest war per man engaged in recorded history) would have been over sooner, with much less suffering and loss of life.  In Clausewitz' eyes, the perfect military leader was the Union Army General William T. Sherman, whose ruthlessly efficient march from Atlanta to the Sea convinced the South that they had been beaten. 

Where I am going with all of this is that as a society we are torn between the visions of these two philosophers as we prosecute the War on Terror.  We want the perpetual peace of Kant's vision, but we don't want the brutal warfare that Von Clausewitz identifies as a prerequisite for it. We want international peace, but we don't want to offend anyone either.  To the Prussian General, this attempt at being "nicer in war" is a fool's errand that will only prolong the conflict and the misery. 

Which brings us to the "I" word; Imperialism.  In a world where the United Nations has devolved into a third world debating society, the benefits of unilateral imperialism become increasingly appealing.  Consider Pax Romana, Pax Brittannica, and even Pax Americana: periods in world history in which an individual country imposed and maintained international order at its own expense. With large armies and the will to use them, the Romans, British and now the Americans served as guarantors of global peace. 

In the face of a scandal plagued United Nations that seems incapable of acting, one has to ask: if the alternative is global anarchy, what's so bad about Imperialism?

Sources: Carl Von Clausewitz, "On War," 1873

Immanuel Kant, "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch," 1795


You can reach William P. McGowan at


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