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The "Arab Spring" and Immanuel Kant
Thoughts on the Conditions for Perpetual Piece
H. David Baer

In the year 1795, toward the end of his life, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant published a small pamphlet bearing the grand title Toward Perpetual Peace. Despite its size, the little book has exerted considerable influence on subsequent political reflection. Kant identified a series of articles necessary for the condition of enduring peace, each of which merits consideration, although contemporary thinkers have focused particularly on two of the definitive articles, namely: 1) The civil constitution of every state should be republican, and, 2) International right shall be based on the federalism of free states. The first article calls for representative government, what today we call liberal democracy. The second article might be read as foreshadowing an institution like the United Nations, although Kant himself is not very specific. What he calls a federation might also be conceived more simply as a juridical relationship among states bound together by a common commitment to international law.

In any case, much of the argument of Perpetual Peace, viewed from the perspective of more than two-hundred-years’ hindsight, has proved enormously prescient. The regime of international law has expanded over the centuries and is enforced—albeit imperfectly—by various international organizations resembling Kant’s federation of states, including the United Nations. Even more striking, the spread of liberal democracy appears to bear a relationship to the spread of international peace. As the political theorist Michael Doyle has argued, liberal states, while prepared to wage war against nonliberal states, are unlikely to wage war against each other (Ways of War and Peace, W. W. Norton, 1996). The spread of democracy (in Kant’s time the only two republican governments were in America and France) has been accompanied by the expansion of a “pacific liberal union”—a loose association of liberal democratic states, which, both for internal structural reasons and for reasons of coinciding national interests, do not wage war against each other. Thus, the cause of establishing international peace appears related to, indeed dependent upon, the spread of liberal democracy.  

This liberal Kantian argument entered my mind more than once as I watched unfold what many are calling the “Arab Spring”—the wave of popular uprisings against autocratic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. These uprisings represent a movement toward more representative government and, therefore, if the Kantian thesis is true, a movement toward a more stable and enduring peace in that troubled region of the world. Naturally, the United States should welcome such developments; they hold open the prospect of expanding the liberal pacific union which already exists in much of the Western Hemisphere. And, indeed, the United States has welcomed the developments—to a point, that is, but not completely. In Egypt, democratic protestors were protesting against the authoritarian regime of long-time US ally Hosni Mubarak. In Bahrain, where the US has a naval base, popular uprisings have caused concern in the State Department. In short, the response to democratic aspirations in North Africa and the Middle East has been ambivalent. That ambivalence should puzzle us, at least if we accept the Kantian thesis about liberal peace. 

I suggest the source of ambivalence lies in conflicting strategic objectives in the region. In the first place, the United States is committed to fostering representative democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, because it believes the spread of democracy will create conditions for a stable regional peace. That is, the US approaches the region with something like a Kantian liberal commitment. That commitment, moreover, is reasonable. Genuinely representative governments are unlikely to wage war with each other and the spread of real democracy in the Middle East and Africa would further the cause of peace. Second, however, the United States is committed to maintaining stability in the region. Stability means preserving the status quo, and this means forming alliances with existing autocratic regimes, provided they are friendly toward the US. The commitment to stability thus undercuts the commitment to democracy and the prospects for a lasting peace. Hence the puzzle: why should the United States seek to preserve an undemocratic status quo when its long-term national interests are best served by the expansion of a liberal pacific union?

I can think of at least three practical considerations behind American support for the undemocratic status quo in the Middle East and North Africa:

1) Dependence on foreign oil. The US economy depends on oil, much of which is found in this part of the world in countries with autocratic governments. Even if we do not like those governments, a stable political order helps to ensure an uninterrupted flow of oil. Thus we prefer the autocratic stability we know to the uncertainty and risk that would necessarily accompany the democratic transformation of repressive regimes. 

2) Concern about global terrorism and political Islam. The US fears democratic governments in the Middle East would afford greater freedom of action to political Islamists who hate America and support global terrorism. US governments deem that autocratic and repressive regimes often make better allies in the war on terror than governments representing the will of their people. Of course, this political calculation itself is puzzling, because it is premised on the un-Kantian judgment that representative governments are likely to be less friendly to the United States than autocratic regimes. Why would this be, since the United States is a liberal democracy with an interest in the spread of a liberal pacific union? The answer, I think, has something to do with the next consideration.

3) The US relationship with Israel. Israel is a key US ally, but it stands in an adversarial and precarious relationship vis-a-vis most of its neighbors. This means Israel’s security is served by weakening its neighbors and also, oddly enough, by preserving the status quo. A wave of democratic revolutions in the region would bring instability that might unsettle the brittle political order on which Israel’s current security is built. So an important factor behind the close US relationship with Hosni Mubarak was a desire to protect the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, and now that Mubarak is gone that status of that treaty has become uncertain.

Again, however, this state of affairs is puzzling from the perspective of Kantian liberalism. Representative democracies exist in peace with each other. Why would a democratic Egypt be less, rather than more, likely to establish friendly relations with Israel? Part of the answer is clearly related to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip, an occupation which compromises Israel’s character as a representative government in the Kantian sense. Palestinians living in the territories occupied by Israel lack the kind of political self-determination necessary for authentic representative government. Thus, for example, Palestinians lack basic control over their own territory, the integrity of which is violated by Israeli settlements built deep into Palestinian land, protected by a wall, again built by Israelis, but on Palestinian land in a way that partitions Palestinian villages. Travel within the occupied territories is restricted by the Israelis in ways which, coupled with the Israeli acquisition and partition of Palestinian land, undermine the economic viability of any autonomous Palestinian state. Thus, even assuming the liberal Kantian thesis as true, the emergence of representative democracies in countries neighboring Israel would not necessarily lead to peaceful relations with Israel. The establishment of a liberal pacific union in the Middle East is probably impossible without a democratic solution to the Palestinian problem. So long as that problem remains unsolved, the US alliance with Israel will entail some cost both to its democratic ideals and its credibility.

Clearly these practical considerations bear more directly on the shape of US foreign policy in the region than the distant goal of establishing a liberal peace. Perhaps that is how it should be. Politics deals with reality, and the reality of the Middle East is more complicated than a philosopher’s dream. Nevertheless, the goal of establishing a liberal peace in the Middle East must be the final objective of US foreign policy. Consequently, decisions made on the basis of practical considerations such as I mentioned earlier inevitably involve compromising on the long-term goal for US foreign policy. Compromises are necessary in politics, but intelligent compromises need to be conceived within the framework of an overarching strategy. The challenge for US policy in the Middle East is to find a way to organize the competing strategic interests such as to mitigate conflict between them. Thus, for example, insofar as US dependence on foreign oil is a factor behind its support for repressive autocratic regimes, developing a national energy policy that reduced such dependence might strengthen the ability of the United States to support democratic change. Or again, without calling into question the crucial importance of Israel as a US ally, it seems reasonable to define the value of that alliance in terms of its relationship to our broader interests in the region, rather than treating the US-Israeli alliance as the axiomatic starting point for US policy in the region. To be sure, the precise way to adjudicate between conflicting strategic interests is a matter for public deliberation as well as specific political decisions.  Nevertheless, a more explicit recognition of the ways in which US strategic objectives can stand in conflict would likely lead to a more carefully constructed and coherent foreign policy in a very complicated region of the world.


H. David Baer is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.

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