By John von Heyking, November 23, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
When my class turns to the subject of international law, we examine the documents of international law that were inspired to a large degree by the vision of Kant’s Toward Perpetual Peace. The students read Woodrow Wilson’s "Fourteen Points" speech to consider how, in Kantian fashion, he saw the link between a democratic constitution (Kant prefers the language of republican constitution) and international treaties. As implied by Kant, the U.S. Constitution, as the template for the Fourteen Points, was to act as a spark for perpetual peace, inducing other states to join out of self-interest. A streak of benevolent imperialism ran through Wilson. I tell students the story of how, during the Paris Conference, he and Colonel House (the Karl Rove of his day) stayed up late at night in their hotel room redrawing maps of Europe so borders corresponded to the nations living there (as a way of envisaging a Europe without monarchs, for whom such concerns are less important).
With the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, we see the principle of non-intervention that Wilson applied to nations extended to the individual, which is now the subject of international law. Of course, the tension between national sovereignty and the rights of the individual can be found in Toward Perpetual Peace. Do democratic nations have an obligation to protect innocents living in tyrannical regimes? In the wake of World War Two, the UN Declaration serves as an attempt to protect individuals, but also bears the mark of its framers who understood the dilemma.
While the United Nations serves as the primary example of an international institution established along Kantian lines, its shortcomings have led some to look in other places for an alliance of democracies to secure international peace. In “A Premier League for Democracy?” Philip Bobbitt & David Hannay debate the prospect of a league of democracies working in concert to promote peace. Unlike the United Nations, the apparent advantage of such a league is that common democratic values would make it easier to act in concert. But, as their debate shows, the reality would be more complicated. For example, there remain some major non-democratic regimes, including China and Russia, that any league of democracies would have to think twice about before intervening to protect human rights. And what counts as a democracy? Nearly all countries have elections, but what should be the standard for a legitimate democracy that could then be included in such a league? It turns out this proposal, which seems like a more “realistic” alternative to the United Nations, has some real problems.