Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay, “To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” (Zum ewigen Frieden), established a concept of cosmopolitan law as the nemesis of war, instilling in generations of thinkers and practitioners a vision of a world without conflict. Kant’s paradigm posited that “republican constitutions, a commercial spirit of international trade, and a federation of interdependent republics” would provide the basis for a “perpetual peace” amongst states bound together under international law. Yet cultural relativists since the time of Kant have argued that only certain nations—namely those with a “Europeanized” culture—are capable of coming together to secure this lasting peace.
This Article seeks to challenge such claims and assess the contemporary relevance of Kant’s “perpetual peace” under international law in light of one of the most important geopolitical developments of our time: the rise of China. It is clear today that efforts to secure an enduring world peace without China have limited prospects for success. Amidst this reality, the Article argues that historical and contemporary claims regarding the irreconcilability of the Kantian paradigm with Chinese thought are inaccurate and incomplete. It presents evidence to rebut these cultural relativist arguments by identifying sources of resonance with Kant in classical Chinese political philosophy; highlighting Chinese scholars’ ongoing engagement with Kant’s writings over the past century; and revealing trends in recent Chinese scholarship and foreign policy discourse that support Kantian liberal internationalism.
Finally, the Article demonstrates that modern China is increasingly committed to two pillars of the Kantian project, international institutions and commercial interdependence, but concludes that the rising power must develop a missing third pillar—liberal democracy—if it is to strengthen its normative commitment to international law and participate in a lasting peace amongst states. China’s fate and the future of international law thus appear inextricably tied.
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