skip to Main Content

Introduction the Subfields of Political Science: International Politics

Having considered politics from above from the Socratic perspective, and from within from the perspective of my students own regime, Canada, we now move slightly outward, to the international arena.

I can think of no better way of introducing students to the fundamentals of international politics than by reading The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and To Perpetual Peace by Immanuel Kant.  Because of the length of the History, I usually assign a useful abridgement that arranges the book thematically.  This volume allows first-year students, reading this work within a two-week time frame as part of a more general introduction to political science, greater access to the great themes within the work.

Both works complement each other in numerous ways.  I begin (but do not end) by introducing Thucydides as a “realist” who treats power, and state actors’ understanding of their self-interest, as the fundamental category of analysis.  I introduce Kant as an “idealist” or “liberal” who seeks to explain state action as more amenable to the guidance of reason.  The big question I ask my students as we work our way through both texts is whether Kant’s recipe for perpetual peace through the historical process of enlightenment provides an effective lid on the three causes of war identified by Thucydides, namely ambition, self-interest, and fear.

The other big theme these two texts suggest is a theme that was latent in our readings of Socrates and became more explicit in our study of Canada’s Founding.  That theme is the nature of democracy, and liberal democracy in particular.  It was a democracy that put Socrates to death.  The Canadian Founders put restraints on democracy, including distinguishing democracy from responsible government (which also in the late nineteenth century included restrictions on who could vote – property-owners in particular).

Both Thucydides and Kant are attentive to the way a democracy behaves in the international arena.  Kant might be said the originator of the “democratic peace” thesis, but Thucydides might subscribe to the “democratic war due to overreaching (pleonexia)” thesis.  Thucydides’ History is a retelling of the war with Sparta, but it is as much a tragic tale of Athens’ cathartic suffering from its own tragic flaw.  After much suffering, Athens finally learns something about moderation and institutes the rule of the Five Thousand, “the number that could afford a hoplite’s equipment” (viii.97): “And now for the first time, at least in my life, the Athenians seemed to have ordered their constitution well:  it consisted now of a moderate blending, in the interests of the few and the many.  And this was the first thing, after so many misfortunes had occurred, that made the city raise her head again.”

For Kant, history is not tragic as it is progressive.  Like Thucydides, however, he distinguishes democracy from republic, which is the key to his “democratic” peace.  For both thinkers, the key to peace, or at least to moderation in international affairs, is strong and accountable leadership.  Strong leadership is needed to check the more irresponsible passions of a regime.  Accountable leadership is needed because decision-making is more likely to be responsible if those making the decisions also pay the blood tax.

I take the students through several key episodes of Thucydides’ retelling of the Peloponnesian War.  Some students wonder whether it is appropriate to study a “historian” in a political science class (these same students may have wondered what relevance a philosopher like Socrates has for the understanding of politics). Even so, I point out that Thucydides’ History, while a historical retelling of events, is also an attempt to understand the nature of political action.  Human nature is on display, to be sure.

I point out that the speeches are not a literal retelling, but convey the speakers’ meaning and assessment of the circumstances in which they find themselves.  A good way of getting this point across is to remind students that, out of a sense of decorum or prudence, what they say differs from what they mean to say.  We do not know whether the Athenians spoke as rapaciously to the Melians as the Melian Dialogue suggests, but they would have assessed their relationship with the Melians in that way, and acted accordingly.  Learning how to understand the speeches enables students to assess political circumstances from within, as the speeches reflect how the speakers assess the advantages and disadvantages their circumstances have given them.  This is the perspective of citizen and statesman that any political scientist must attend to.  By explaining the nature of the speeches, I point out that Thucydides is not only an historian, but also a hard-nosed analyst of Realpolitik, poet, and political scientist.  The ancient Greeks did not live according to the division of labor in the modern university.

And so we examine the origins of the war, the character of Pericles, the plague and the collapse of law and order it produces in Athens, the Corcyrean civil war, the Melian Dialogue, and the Sicilian expedition.  Along the way we discuss not only the origins of the war, but also the problem of even defining the beginning of a war.  If the international arena is characterized by permanent hostility (as Thucydides has the Athenians frequently proclaim), or by underlying causes of war that threaten to break out into open warfare at any time, then it is exceedingly difficult to pinpoint an actual starting point of a war.  The first “shot” fails to define it.  Moreover, the apparent permanence of this condition of permanent hostility results from the reign of “irrationality” in the international arena:  self-interest, ambition, and fear.  Both the problem of defining the beginning of war, and the status of the “irrational” will become central to our analysis of Kant.

The nature of a particular regime’s behavior is a key focus of our study of Thucydides’ History.  The students hear the Athenians defend their actions as those any strong power would take.  International strength (or lack thereof) defines action, not regime, according to this argument.  Yet, the Athenians themselves credit their strength to their innovative spirit (which their enemies call pleonexia, or overreaching).  It seems one can never completely dissociate the character of a regime with the ways it defines its self-interest, ambition, and fears.

The students are surprised to see innovation (or progress) so vividly linked to imperialism because while progress is one of their core beliefs, imperialism certainly is not.  Innovation seems to imply an expansive economy that requires an expanding sphere of alliances, if not subjects, to secure material resources to feed that innovation. Even if one accepts the classical liberal argument that international trade is conducted among equal bargainers, one still needs a large naval force (e.g., navies of ancient Athens, England during its imperial age, or, today, the United States) to maintain the political peace that secures the economic peace.

When we cover Canada’s Founders, the students read about the “glory argument” whereby confederation offers greater opportunities for ambitious citizens to test themselves.  Backwaters become standing water, as it were.  By and large, the students sympathize with that argument about confederation.  They are eager to test themselves against the world, and they want a large playing field to maximize the chances their challenges will be worthy of their ambitions.

My students are less sure when they see their ambitions tied to innovation or progress, which is tied to imperialism.  This is especially troublesome for many of them who tend to identify the United States as the imperialistic power of the world.  By examining the link between Athenian innovation and empire, they see how their own regime might be connected to empire.  In this light, Canada, which is the same sort of regime, plays the mafia wife who enjoys her pearls but does not want to know where the bodies are buried.

The students learn about the Spartan sense of themselves as moderate or clear-sighted (sophrosyne).  I use PowerPoint slides, and on one of them I have an image of Luigi Massini’s “Education in Sparta,” which shows a Spartan youth learning the evils of immoderation by observing the follies of a drunkard.  I get a chuckle or two from the students when I tell them the Spartan youth is watching one of them at the bar on a Friday night.  How would they feel if their 12-year-old younger brother saw them like that?  While that’s not the same as Spartan shame, they do seem to see how the Spartans used shame to enforce sophrosyne and honor.

I tend to play up Thucydides’ apparent criticisms of Athenian democracy, including its pleonexia and the fickleness of its mob.  I do this to moderate my students’ democratic self-love, which their culture, not to mention the bulk of their undergraduate education, tends to flatter.  As with their reading of Socrates and Canada’s Founders, they learn some criticisms of democracy that I hope will enable them to distinguish justice, practical wisdom, moderation, and courage from the democratic definitions our society tends to paint of virtue, including fairness, cunning, pusillanimity, and egalitarianism.

My students learn from Thucydides that Athens was most moderate when under the guiding hand of Pericles.  He restrained their pleonexia while lifting them up when things went badly.  But the strong leader died and failed to prepare Athens for his successor.  Athens became less moderate as time goes on, and they saw their empire threatened even more.  The Sicilian expedition ended in disaster, and the perennial anxieties of the Athenians that a single loss would knock out the supports of the Athenian empire came to fruition.

After considerable suffering, the Athenians finally learned wisdom by adopting its hoplite democracy.  One might expect the decision-makers of the hoplite democracy would still have been motivated by self-interest, ambition, and fear.  However, it seems for Thucydides these three causes of war are reined in a bit more effectively than under the democracy, which seemed to give them full sway.  Just as Pericles tried to tame ambition by advising the Athenians to take care of their navy and not to expand their empire, it seems Thucydides might have admired the hoplite democracy because it would have checked the ambitions of those who had to fight; their self-interest would also have been moderated; and they would have been able to stay their fears with the help of the discipline the hoplite formations create.

I suggest to the students that the hoplite democracy is closer to Canadian Founders’ understanding of responsible government and mixed regime than to the mob-like Athenian democracy.  As several Canadian Founders reflect upon the civilizational inheritance of responsible government, gained through numerous struggles throughout British history, the students get a sense of the fragility of political order after having read Thucydides.  They see how quickly the Athenians lost their empire, lost law and order (in the plague, for example), and they gain an appreciation that their liberal democracy is more fragile than they had hitherto thought. Previously, my students thought liberal democracy is inevitable, perhaps the result of increasing Enlightenment.  This is the argument of Kant, to which they turn next.

Kant directly confronts political realism in To Perpetual Peace.  The preface confronts the pragmatic politician who dismisses the theoretical speculations of the political theorist who offers his wisdom concerning international affairs.  The pragmatic politician cannot defend what counts as his pragmatism or utility, and his Realpolitik threatens the dignity of human beings as free and rational beings.  The “law of the jungle” that constitutes contemporary international affairs makes us all beasts.

Kant’s project, from beginning to end, is to consider the conditions that make it possible for ethical wisdom to guide political life and international affairs.  It is no surprise, then, that the Second Supplement of To Perpetual Peace includes a secret article requiring states to consult the views of philosophers.  In a pamphlet arguing state actions must abide by the principle of publicity (don’t do anything you think should be done secretly), Kant whispers the federation of republics must consult the wisdom of philosophers to perpetuate peace.  One wishes to ask why Kant breaks his own ethical rule.  Moreover, how does the wisdom of the philosophers overcome ambition, advantage, and fear, the three “irrational” causes of war according to Thucydides?  More fundamentally, how does reason win the historic battle over the passions?

I point out to the students that this pamphlet is written like a peace treaty.  If Kantian ethics has a formalistic side, this political treatise suggests the international arena will be managed primarily with laws, binding, it seems, in all cases (though except one, the secret protocol concerning consulting philosophers).

The first preliminary article states there can be no peace unless the underlying causes of war are eliminated.  On one level, this is the problem of defining the beginning of war, as we covered with Thucydides.  I use the example of the twentieth century as well to illustrate this.  World War Two came about because the underlying causes of conflict stemming from World War One endured. Some, like Philip Bobbitt, argue the entire twentieth-century should be understood as having endured the “Long War,” from WW1 to the end of the Cold War in 1989, because the “underlying cause” was a conflict over state legitimacy.  1989 marks the victory, not of liberal democracy as Fukuyama describes it, but of representative democracy.  The two World Wars and the Cold War were over which was the best way to legitimate government.

Even so, Kant’s point in the first preliminary article runs deeper than the question of war’s beginning.  The “underlying cause” of war is the fact that nations find themselves in a lawless state vis-à-vis each other.  He defines the lawless state as the state of nature where there lacks a common authority.  So long as states are in this situation, they will be in the law of the jungle as Thucydides described.  This also means that humanity in all of its history has been at war, that is, until now, or at least until Kant shows how to get out of the spiral in which man historically has found himself.

States depart the lawless state by the same logic as individuals depart the state of nature.  They simply tire of killing one another and find mutually beneficial relations advantageous.  In pursuing their self-interest (for peace), they discover the advantages of avoiding war.  Kant insists individuals remain as depraved as ever.  Rather, the “mechanism of nature” enables cooperation to evolve; individuals seeking their self-interest inadvertently produce public goods.

Part of the reason perpetual peace becomes a material possibility is that global trade is expanding (though Kant is critical of the way European colonial powers treat their subjects).  Though he does not say it, one can surmise that Kant also anticipates greater possibilities for peace as commercialization makes aristocratic warriors less relevant.  Enlightenment seems simply to remove one of Thucydides’ three causes of war, ambition.  Or ambition gets channeled through trade and bourgeois societies calculating their advantage in more economic terms.

Peace is generated and perpetuated when two republics form a federation.  They must be republics, not democracies or especially not monarchies (which Kant pretty much identifies with tyranny) because republics secure the common good by balancing factions and by separating the executive from legislative branch.  In short, those with the prospect of fighting the war are charged with primary decision-making responsibility.  Thucydides preferred the hoplite democracy, and Canada’s Founders chose responsible government (though Kant may reject responsible government because of the place of the Crown within it, as well as the fusion of Cabinet with House of Commons).

Republics find it in their interest to form a federation.  They gain material advantages by doing so, including peace and security, as well as economic advantages.  Non-members soon find it in their interest to join.  But first they must become republics.  Kant almost but does not quite come out and say that non-republics are inherently war like.  Monarchies, the main alternative in Europe at the time, certainly are.

Of course, Napoleon would have been the other great alternative.  Kant published To Perpetual Peace shortly after Prussia signed a peace treaty with France.  Kant undoubtedly would have been critical of Napoleon’s imperialistic ambitions because they conflict with the categorical imperative.  But his endeavor to spread the ideals of the French Revolution cause some difficulty for Kant’s political vision, as they were for all “liberals” (a political term first used in the 1st decade of the nineteenth century in Spain) who opposed Napoleon and sought to stabilize the political situation in the wake of the French Revolution.  Just as Burke cannot quite dispense with the French Revolution in his conservatism, so too Kant cannot quite dispense with Napoleon with his forward-looking republicanism.  He does go so far as Hegel who claimed, when seeing Napoleon in Jena, he saw the “world soul” on horseback.  But he seems to establish the conditions for enabling Hegel to see Napoleon in this light.

Kant leaves open some questions concerning the “self-interest” societies have in joining the federation of republics.  Does Kant anticipate the federation of republics making a pre-emptive strike against non-members who, by definition, are essentially war like?  After all, they wish to defend themselves.  Does the movement toward perpetual peace in fact increase the likelihood of war?  Does his federation have the seeds to exhibit the same imperialistic ambitions that plagued the Athenians, especially after Pericles died?  Is “making the world safe for democracy” the perpetual Sicilian expedition for all democracies? After all, not all monarchies, despotisms, oligarchies, and aristocracies exhibit expansionistic foreign policies.  Some simply wish to be left alone.  Despite Kant’s assumption that increased commerce and enlightenment will tame lovers of war, will the march of history toward a world republic create its own kind of glory seekers? Does the course of history invite prospective Caesars and Napoleons?  Is this a modern, high-octane form of democratic pleonexia?

The process toward the “world republic,” even if it is a salutary goal, is strewn with a lot of “ifs.”  If peace depends on regimes becoming republics, if republics form because of the spread of enlightenment (understood as a form of autonomous reason, and less reliance on religion), and if enlightenment depends on a form of secularization, then a) how likely can this historical march toward a “world republic” be?  b) are there not too many check marks needed to ensure political societies are now part of the “peaceful” club of the world, and how would republics reconcile their desire to exclude non-republics with the fact that some very strong states in the international system whom they would wish to “engage” are not, in fact, democracies (one thinks today of Russia and China)? and c) will not dealing with states that are not quite republican/enlightened be rather messy, either because they must be pacified or must be reined in by a system of international laws whose content and enforcement must in some way controlled by republics (perhaps behind the scenes, somehow)?

In short, will the federation’s long-term efforts to “engage” with the non-republican world make a mockery of the categorical imperative? Will the pragmatic politician whom Kant addresses in the preface of To Perpetual Peace have the last laugh?

Also, is there not something unjust about peaceful republics having to abide by international laws that are meant to rein in warlike non-republics? If part of the point of the social contract is to craft laws that apply to everyone but whose intent is also to rein in evil individuals, which ends up treating everyone as a potential evil-doer, does not international law reduce all to the moral equivalent of non-republics?  Perhaps this is Kant’s point, as the mechanism of nature that perpetuates peace assumes our depravity.  Republics are filled with depraved devils who are clever enough to craft mutually beneficial laws.

Finally, in the 2nd Supplement of To Perpetual Peace, Kant issues his secret protocol, an exception to his rule that all articles to treaties must be public.  Republics, or their legislatures, must consult the views of philosophers in determining the morally right course of action.  Kant claims this requirement does not contradict his “republican” thesis because philosophers cannot rule or even promote sedition.  Another reason might be that an international regime of laws cannot constitute itself; it must be founded by a prudential wisdom that does not abide to its own laws.  Even so, in his pamphlet, Kant baldly states: –“this class is by nature incapable of sedition and of forming cliques, it cannot be suspected of being the formulator of propaganda.” Unsurprisingly, then, he concludes, “one does not rightly know ‘whether this handmaid carries the torch before her gracious lady or bears her train behind her.’” One is left wondering.

With this my students and I are back at the problem Thucydides identified with Pericles.  He guided the Athenian mob with wisdom and restraint.  Kantian philosophers guide legislatures by providing ethical advice, though it seems that, with the legalistic form of To Perpetual Peace, they also offer to do their job for them.  Thucydides’ hoplite democracy still needs its Plato.  And so, with Kant we “return” to the Socratic problem of politics:  how does one combine political power with wisdom?


Also see “Ditching the Textbook,” “What is Politics?”Political Philosophy,” “Canadian Politics,” “Comparative Politics,” and “Big Questions for Contemporary Politics.”

John von Heyking

John von Heyking is a Board Member and Book Review Editor of Voegelinview as well as a Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge in Canada. He is author and editor of several books, including The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (McGill-Queen's, 2016) and Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship (St. Augustine’s, 2018).

Back To Top