Donald Trump vs. Immanuel Kant

Hysteria: it’s contagious and fungible. Its vessels enjoy the process: the product is secondary.  The tsunami of hysteria that greeted Donald Trump’s decision to enact a temporary pause on immigration from seven countries identified by the Obama administration as crucibles of terrorism has been a marvel to behold. That hysteria is also just about to be transferred, part of it, anyway, to Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s ostentatiously qualified nominee for the Supreme Court. The ink on the pre-printed signs announcing that this brilliant jurist is a messenger from hell hadn’t dried before protestors (what Tucker Carlson called “a great pulsating blob of humanity”) hit the streets. My favorite sign had “STOP” printed with a large blank space below to be filled in with the name of whatever miscreant Trump dared to nominate. Democrats put the country on notice that they would oppose and “fight tooth and nail” (Chuck Schumer), “by any means necessary,” anyone Trump nominated. So we’ll have that entertainment to look forward to.

But while the Left hopes — vainly, I suspect — for a reenactment of the ritual immolation of Robert Bork, the circus surrounding Trump’s efforts to secure the nation’s borders continues. Granted, Trump’s executive order should have been crafted with greater finesse, making exceptions, for example, for individuals with green cards. (That has since been rectified.)  But Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, was quite right to say that the administration had no need to apologize for endeavoring to keep America safe. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promised to enforce America’s immigration laws, to end so-called “sanctuary cities,” which advertise themselves as safe havens for illegal aliens, and to sharpen vetting procedures for people wishing to immigrate to America from countries known as sponsors of terrorism.

Many people have weighed in to endorse the legality of Trump’s executive order on immigration.  As usual, Andrew McCarthy’s commentary — here, for example, and here — is among the best-informed and clearly argued.

Behind all of the Sturm und Drang, however, we can glimpse two very different concepts of the nation state and world order. One view sees the world as a collection of independent sovereign countries that, although interacting with one another, regard the care, safety, and prosperity of their own citizens as their first obligation.  This is the traditional view of the nation state. It is also Donald Trump’s view.

The alternative view regards the nation state with suspicion as an atavistic form of political and social organization. The nation state might still be a practical necessity, but it is a regrettable necessity inasmuch as it retards mankind’s emancipation from the parochial bonds of place and local allegiance. Ideally, according to this view, we are citizens of the world, not particular countries, and our fundamental obligation is to all mankind. This is the progressive view. It has many progenitors and antecedents, none more influential than “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” a brief essay that Immanuel Kant published in 1795 when he was 71.

“Perpetual Peace” is Kant outside (well, mostly outside) his famously owlish disposition. Readers of his three Critiques will breathe a sigh of relief when they see that Kant has left his formidable philosophical  bureaucracy to one side. It’s not exactly beach reading, and Kant never leaves home without impressive erudition, but “Perpetual Peace” is Kant at his most companionable.

The burden of the essay is to ask how perpetual peace might be obtained among states.  The natural condition of mankind, Kant acknowledges, is war. But with “enlightened concepts of statecraft” mankind, he suggests, may be able to transcend that unfortunate habit of making war and live in perpetual (ewigen) comity.

Kant lists various conditions for the initial establishment of peace—the eventual abolition of standing armies, for example—and a few conditions for its perpetuation: the extension of “universal hospitality” by nations was something that caught my eye. Ditto "world citizenship." “The idea of  . . . world citizenship,” he says at the end of the essay, “is no high-flown or exaggerated notion. It is a supplement to the unwritten code of the civil and international law, indispensable for the maintenance of the public human rights and hence also of perpetual peace.” Hmmm.

Kant makes many observations along the way that will be balm to progressive hearts. He is against “the accumulation of treasure,” for example, because it is “a hindrance to perpetual peace.”  He believes that forbidding the system of international credit that the British empire employed “must be a preliminary article of perpetual peace.” He says that all states must be “republican” in organization. By that he means not that they must be democracies but only that the executive and legislative functions of the state be distinguished. (Indeed, he says that democracy, “properly speaking,” is “necessarily a despotism” because in it the executive and legislative functions of governments are both vested in one entity, “the people.”) He looks forward to the establishment of a “league of nations” [Völkerbund], all of which would freely embrace a republican form of government.

It would be hard to overstate the influence of Kant’s essay.  It stands behind such progressive exfoliations as Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points,” not least the final point that looked forward to the establishment of a League of Nations.  You can feel its pulse beating in the singing phrases of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war. Reality check: Among the initial fifteen signatories (along with the United States, France, and England) were Germany, Italy, and Japan. Kant’s essay also directly inspired the architects of the United Nations and, in our own day, the battalions of transnational progressives who jettison democracy for the sake of a more or less nebulous (but not therefore un-coercive) ideal of world citizenship.

I would not care to wager on how many of the hysterics who congregated at airports across the country to protest Donald Trump’s effort to make the citizens of this country safer were students of Kant. "Universal hospitality"! How the protestors would like that! (Though to be fair to Kant, he did note that such hospitality  "is not the right to be a permanent visitor.") Doubtless, the motivation in protesting had many sources.  But to the extent that it was based on a political ideal (and not just partisan posturing), the spirit of Kant was hovering there in the background.

Kant was not without a sense of humor.  He begins his essay by noting that he took the title of his essay from a sign outside a Dutch pub. “Pax Perpetua” read the sign, and below the lettering was the image of a graveyard. Perhaps the universal perpetuity of death is the only peace that mankind may really look forward to. Kant clearly wouldn’t agree, but it was charming of him to acknowledge that the idea of a genuine perpetual peace for mankind might be regarded by many as nothing more than a “sweet dream” of philosophers.

Mankind can indeed have peace, not perhaps perpetual peace, but at least a workable, tenuous, provisional peace. The means for that more homely end lies not through the abolition of standing armies and the extension of “universal hospitality” but through strong, prosperous nations and secure borders.  Kant outlined the progressive dream of perpetual peace. The Roman historian Vegetius was a more reliable guide when he observed that “si vis pacem, para bellum”: if you want peace, prepare for war.”