Kant's Legacy Continues to Shape Ideas about the World Order: Results of the Valdai Club Session at the International Kant Congress
Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University (BFU) (Kaliningrad, Alexander Nevsky St., 14)

On Monday, April 22, 2024, as part of the International Kant Congress in Kaliningrad, the Valdai Club held a special session, titled “Reason and Progress? History of Civilisations Turned to the Future”. The session participants discussed the role of Immanuel Kant in the formation of modern concepts of world order and the significance of his legacy for understanding the processes taking place in international life today.

Opening the session, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Chernyshenko noted that the most important issue raised during the conference was the place of the European cultural tradition in a changing world. He emphasized, that Europe is betraying the heritage that Russia continues to preserve. This also applies to the works of Immanuel Kant: the intellectual axioms of the Kantian universe do not contradict our values.

In turn, Anton Alikhanov, the governor of the Kaliningrad region, expressed his conviction that the processes taking place in the world indicate that Kant was right, when he wrote that “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.” The formation of a multipolar world suggests that entire nations are emerging from a “state of minority” and form their own worldview. This increases the likelihood of building a fair world community, which Kant and other educators wrote about.

Alexander FilippovHead of the Center for Fundamental Sociology at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, warned against looking to Kant for ready-made solutions. According to him, Kant is not a solution to problems, but the problem itself; someone who encourages discussion. In his essay “Toward Perpetual Peace,” he formulates a project for a world political system that sets the framework for subsequent liberal concepts of the world order, but none of them is capable to be realised it in its entirety, and his ethical height remains unattainable to this day.

According to Filippov, Kant believed in the unity of the human race and the deep desire of humanity for peace, even contrary to historical experience. He taught that people should communicate - even force themselves to communicate, despite their natural inclinations.

At the same time, Kant cannot in any way be considered a naive idealist. He believed that human nature was far from praiseworthy. Kant’s work “The End of All Things,” although sometimes perceived as an example of philosophical irony, contains something that continues to worry us, namely, it reminds us of the threat that humanity may self-destruct. Kant postulated that in early history, wars promoted cultural progress, but in the modern era they hinder it. This is especially true today, when nuclear weapons make the prospect of a man-made ‘end of the world’ quite real.

Xing Guangcheng, Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences of the People's Republic of China, touched upon the issue of interaction between different civilisations. According to him, understanding the relationships between civilisations presents a way to overcome conflicts, and their mutual complementarity will create a more just world. China's Belt and Road Initiative aims to jointly solve the problems of the world community through dialogue based on mutual respect.

Andrey Klemeshev, President of Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, spoke about how the West is trying to usurp Kant’s legacy and subordinate it to the goals of the current political agenda. However, his heritage belongs to all humanity, and Russia has a special responsibility to preserve it. The decision to name Kaliningrad University after the German philosopher, made back in 2005, is a symbol of intellectual continuity, of which his hometown considers itself to be the guardian.

Academician Vitaly Naumkin, Academiс Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, recalled that Kant is not only a philosopher, but also a theorist of politics and the organisation of international life. In his concept of “perpetual peace,” the call for universal efforts is especially important, from which one can build a bridge to the current ideas of indivisible security.

Summing up the first part of the discussion, its moderator Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, recalled that everything in the world - including the world of ideas - develops cyclically. Three decades ago, everyone believed in the approaching of the Kantian world and built policies based on this. Today the pendulum has swung just as far in the other direction, and we see a complete disbelief in anything other than hard power. Can we cope with the danger of being captured by a new illusion? This question remains open.

After a short break, the session continued with a new lineup of participants. The moderator was Ivan Timofeev, programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club. The main topic of the second part of the discussion was Kant’s ideas about international order through the prism of a civilisational approach, which assumes a diversity of civilisations, each of which has its own understanding of human development

Dmitry Efremenko, Deputy Director, Head of the Centre for Academic Research and Informational Studies in Social Sciences at the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences (INION) RAS, believes that the collapse of the liberal universalist project makes it possible to gain a new awareness of one’s own specific characteristics and activate one’s civilisational identity. In the rise of civilisational discourse, the message is that if the universalist world order is dysfunctional and does not act in the interests of the majority, then a new world order is needed, the supporting points of which will be civilisation-states. There should be something like civilisational solidarity. According to the scientist, such a transformation will not provide a radical increase in the efficiency of global governance, but empathy and solidarity between civilisation-states will help fill the deficit of mutual trust, which is the root of all conflict.

Radhika Desai, Professor of the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba (Canada), harshly criticised the Kantian concept of “perpetual peace” from a Marxist position. According to her, Kant in his essay puts international law on a specifically bourgeois basis, arguing that subjectivity in society can only belong to wealthy members of civil society, that is, to ones who have already acquired private property. In fact, Kant formulated the justification for action against countries that prevented European-style capitalist commerce. Kant paved the way for the modern Western concept of a "rules-based order", the essence of which is that a country with a socio-political system different from the liberal Western example is the legitimate object of a just war. Properly, this concept underscores Western aggression against the world majority, Desai concluded.

Following Alexander Filippov, Andrey Iserov, Deputy Dean for International Affairs, HSE Faculty of Humanities, touched upon the motif of disaster in Kant’s works. Kant is distinguished by his deep scepticism regarding human nature: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” That is why he believed that on the path to a peaceful union (foedus pacificum), designed to ensure “perpetual peace”, human nature experiences grave disasters with the deceptive appearance of external well-being. Formal politeness hides the destructive forces that are inherent in human nature, and can one day destroy the complex and subtle world that man himself creates.

The speech by Richard Sakwa, Honorary Professor of Political Science at the University of Kent (Great Britain), was partly a response to Radhika Desai's criticism of Kant. He pointed out that the use of Kantian ideas about international order in the Western liberal agenda reflects the general radicalisation of modern Western political philosophy after 1945 (according to Sakwa, Kant is one of the five pillars of Western political thought, along with Hegel, Hobbes, Hayek and Leo Strauss).

The radicalisation of the Kantian dimension of political modernity manifested itself in a specific understanding of universalism after the end of the Cold War, which can be described as “uniprogressivism”, to use Olga Baysha’s term. It assumes that there is only one path to social progress, identified with Western liberal doctrine, and everything else is rejected as heresy and suppressed. This contrasts with the understanding of universalism in the countries of the emerging "political East", which implies the pursuit of the common good of humanity, relying on each country's own unique path, and without giving up sovereignty.

The topic of international order and sovereignty was also touched upon by the last participant in the discussion, professor Glenn Diesen from the University of South-East Norway. According to him, the Western version of the world order, based on hegemony, is fundamentally contrary to the UN Charter, which is based on diversity. The emergence of new players, in particular Russia and China, the formation of a multipolar system does not suit the West and forces it to resist changes, and this is the main conflict that is happening today.