Behnke on Molloy, 'Kant's International Relations: The Political Theology of Perpetual Peace'

Seán Molloy
Andreas Behnke

Seán Molloy. Kant's International Relations: The Political Theology of Perpetual Peace. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. 270 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-472-13040-5.

Reviewed by Andreas Behnke (University of Reading) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

“God is dead,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science, “but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadow. – And we – we must still defeat his shadow as well!”[1] The presence of this shadow alludes to the frequently visible but often poorly understood role of religion in politics. Modern Western political theory usually assumes that religion and politics are two different realms of human experience, to be kept separate. Politics is based on rationality and reason to deal with mundane matters, while religion requires belief and faith in a transcendental world. While democratic politics consider political pronouncements the contingent outcome of the contest of power and interest, or the result of rational public discourse, Christianity takes a divine truth as its starting point. For liberal philosophers, this reference to a metaphysical source of truth cannot be allowed in a democratic discourse based on rationality, reasoning, and an open outcome. And yet, as contemporary politics demonstrate in many countries, religion is a significant part of the political discourse, be it in the form of Christian parties in Germany or the powerful influence of religious groups in the formulation of domestic and foreign policies in the United States. 

While the academic field of Political Theory has recently paid increased attention to Political Theology, the same cannot be said about the field of International Relations (IR). It is therefore to Seán Molloy’s credit that we finally have a detailed and in-depth critical investigation into one of the central yet so far unacknowledged examples of Political Theology in IR, that is, Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of humanity and the possibility of its salvation in a state of “perpetual peace.” 

The concept of Political Theology is most often associated with Carl Schmitt’s writing and his succinct statement that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God becomes the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure.... The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.”[2] For Schmitt, the reference to theology and its structural remnants in modern politics serves as a diagnostic tool to investigate the alleged secularized and rationalized foundations of the modern state in terms of their continued debt to theological and metaphysical tenets. 

The continuing echoes of theological principles in the modern state provide in a sense the receptive backdrop for a more radical and much more literal Political Theology that Kant introduced and which resonates to this day, if in a significantly truncated fashion. For Kant, the biblical struggle between good and evil is transposed into a struggle on earth between good and evil forces, fighting over the fate and salvation of humanity. As Molloy demonstrates in a compelling fashion, Kant took his cues from the eschatology and soteriology straight out of the Bible, while at the same time rationalizing and modernizing religion by linking it to reason and right, and extracting it from its involvement with traditions, rites, and rituals, stripping away “the dogmatic assertions and cultural accretions of the ecclesiastical religions” (p. 148). What is left is the faith in a God as the creator of all things and that it was in humanity’s ability to be the fulfilment of his creation. 

Kant’s project of mankind’s salvation and establishing a state of perpetual peace based on the moral conduct of humans is based on an offer mankind cannot refuse. The choices are bleak and structured in a “Manichaean” dualistic fashion. The structure of his argument is based on the opposition of the phenomenal versus the noumenal, human beings versus humankind, understanding versus reason, necessity versus freedom, happiness versus duty, desire versus reason, and might versus right. In Kant’s view, human beings are caught in the miserable condition defined by the first part of each of these dualities. Kant’s project hence consists in facilitating the transition from this state of affairs to a world in which humanity is driven by reason rather than instincts, desires, and power, and in which moral law and right replaces the dominance of might. 

As creatures existing within nature and its laws, existing human beings are barely above animals. As Molloy summarizes Kant’s attitude, “at best, human beings are characterized as ‘domestic animals,’ ‘placid creatures’ and infants in ‘walking carts’” (p. 41). Evil enters their character when reason is subordinated to instinct rather than the moral law. How to transpose these fallen creatures to the realm of morals and right, as imagined in the epistemic sphere of the noumenal, is Kant’s main concern. While human beings are evil creatures, humanity as a species still has a chance. Simplifying Kant’s complex argument and Molloy’s intricate analysis, the main principles that Kant employs to make this happen are the belief in a God as the creator of the world, in a purposeful nature provided by this creator, and in providence that pushes mankind forward despite its own shortcomings. How, in other words, does Weltgeschichte (world history) become Heilsgeschichte (salvation history)?

God, or the belief in him, are necessary for Kant to maintain the validity of all moral law. People must believe in God to understand the origins and authority of the moral order that is supposed to guide us. Crucially, this is a practical issue, not an ontological one. People cannot know if God exists, as this is beyond the limits of our knowledge. But for Kant, these limits of knowledge provide the space for faith as a constitutive element in the moral order he identified. “God must be believed to act as the author of nature; otherwise, although the moral law would still be valid in itself as an idea, it would have no chance of being actualized or approximated by human beings” (p. 48). God, in Kant’s words, must be omniscient, omnipotent, holy, and just in order to induce fallible human beings into acting in a moral fashion. 

Nature on the other hand plays a more complex role, both as the state humanity has to leave behind, and as a helpful “great artist” or “midwife” that in fact facilitates humanity’s move from technical practical reason to pure practical reason in which prudence gives way to reason. Ultimately, the final leaps of faith into the moral realm previously only imagined in the noumenal domain require the belief in, and operation of, providence as the ultimate foundation of perpetual peace. “Only by embracing the moral and providential” can we hope to reach this final stage in the development of humanity and the supersession of the political by the moral (p. 161). In Kant’s (anti-)political philosophy, human salvation is achievable by unwavering faith only. 

In effect then, the philosopher of the Enlightenment who shouted Sapere aude—Dare to know!—at humanity and dared it to emerge from its self-imposed nonage immediately subjects the liberated human being to the restrictions imposed by a noumenal, unknowable, and imagined realm. This dramatic move is in a sense preordained by Kant’s apocalyptic vision of humankind: it will either find salvation by any means conceivable or perish in a war of annihilation. While human history certainly is full of catastrophes, we might still reject this biblical narrative of doom and gloom and search for political rather than moral solutions to mankind’s predicament on this side of paradise. We might remember Nietzsche’s ironic takedown of the “thing-in-itself.” “By the way: even in the Kantian concept of ‘intelligible character of things’ something of this lewd ascetic ambivalence lingers, which likes to turn reason against reason: ‘intelligible character’ means, in Kant, a sort of quality of things about which all that the intellect can comprehend is that it is, for the intellect—completely incomprehensible.”[3] Yet at the same time, Kant’s insistence on the role of God in human affairs should also lead to questions about whether we have yet learned to live up to Nietzsche’s exhortation and live without God or his shadow. As Molloy points out, this question requires a critical investigation of the relationship between contemporary politics and morality. And in a sense, as Paul Saurette argued in 1996, Kant’s attempt at limiting and finally superseding politics is part of a larger Western onto-theology, in which politics is reduced to the crafting of a social reality based on a moral and epistemic commitment to Ideals and Truths.[4] In other words, realism, usually considered the antidote to liberalism and cosmopolitanism, has its own Gods and its own Truth and Reason. Arguably, the critical investigation that Molloy rightly seeks, therefore, needs to be conducted while casting a wider net and addressing the question of how to do politics without Truth or Reason, that is, without metaphysical or transcendental warrants. Can we negotiate a path between “foundationalism” and “anti-foundationalism” without making one or the other the foundation of our knowledge and morals? In this regard, one might wish that Molloy’s reading of Carl Schmitt was as careful and close as his reading of Kant. The worn clichés of “Kronjurist of the Third Reich” and his decisionism” might obscure the argument that it is precisely his insistence on the link between sovereignty and decision that helps us move forward. If indeed the sovereign is he who decides on the exception, then we have at least a reversal of the order between the transcendental and the mundane, in that the claim to sovereignty depends on the actual implementation of the decision. The grounds for any transcendental claim are in fact contingent, leading to what one might call non-foundational foundations. 

Ironically, Kant himself might help us on the first steps of this endeavor. His main contribution might not be the idea of how to achieve perpetual peace but rather the intricate discussion of what is needed to take us there, and with that a clear idea that this is well-nigh impossible. Molloy’s deconstruction of liberalism and cosmopolitanism clearly demonstrates that the contemporary scietificized” version of Kant’s ideas fails to address these issues in a coherent fashion. In this sense, Kant serves as the most powerful critic of current Kantians. His intricate reasoning toward the insight that without God and providence we shall never make it to the promised land serves as a powerful reminder of both what is missing from their reasoning and why their best-laid plans will likely come to naught. Kant, in effect, understood politics better than his contemporary disciples. He was acutely aware of the contradictions within modern politics in which the “unfolding of a universalizing telos within modern subjects” conflicts with the fact that “individualized modern subjects depend on the external conditions provided by sovereign states, the autonomy of which depends in turn on ... the system of states.”[5] Molloy’s recovery of Kant is therefore an invaluable contribution to the necessary debate about the crisis of modern politics.


[1]. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 109.

[2]. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 36. 

[3]. Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887; Munich/Berlin: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag and Walter de Gruyter, 1988), 364. My translation.

[4]. Paul Saurette, “‘I Mistrust All Systematizers and Avoid Them’: Nietzsche, Arendt and the Crisis of the Will to Order in International Relations Theory,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 25, no. 1 (1996): 1-28. 

[5]. R. B. J. Walker, Out of Line: Essays on the Politics of Boundaries and the Limits of Modern Politics (New York: Routledge, 2016), 290. 

Citation: Andreas Behnke. Review of Molloy, Seán, Kant's International Relations: The Political Theology of Perpetual Peace. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

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