Kant’s Conception of Cosmopolitanism and its Limitations

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724 until 1804 during the time of the Enlightenment, but more importantly it was a time of revolution and nation-building. To him, sovereignty was the most important right of each individual nation-state, as specified by the peace of Westphalia in 1648. It was based on two principles: territoriality and the exclusion of external actors from interfering in domestic affairs. No state was allowed to interfere with the workings of another state. Kant’s cosmopolitanism is tailored to suite this ideal as much as possible, and this is what limits his conception.

Kant’s proposal for the creation of a Federation of Free States is followed by an explanation that this would not resemble an international state. The argument is that “a number of nations forming one state would constitute a single nation”, which contradicts the right of nations in relation to one another, namely sovereignty as introduced above[1]. The aim of this section is 1) to give an account of the Federation of Free States and its dissimilarity with a World State; 2) to present Kant’s ‘cosmopolitan condition’ and to expose two limitations to his conception of cosmopolitanism.

Firstly, the aim of Kant’s project is to end all war. In the time of nation-building, people were grouping together to form nations and constitute states. In this way, they enter into the ‘social contract’ and submit themselves to the rule of law. In this model, as conceived by Thomas Hobbes, pre-political society is one where “war of every man, against every man” is constant[2]. The danger that Kant sees with this is that each state, like an individual, threatens another by the very fact that they are neighbors. He creates an analogy between the state of nature, the pre-political society of individuals, and the inter-state relations. To bring the international scene to the rule of law, he conceives of a Federation of States[3].

As previously stated, Kant’s initial conception of a World Republic was later renounced. It could go much further than a Federation in creating a peaceful state by taking the right to go to war away from the nation-state, but he falls back from the idea because of a fear of tyranny. He is aware of the possibility of a tyrant taking complete control in the republican structure, which would bring a despotic regime of the international scene. He wishes to avoid a totalitarian regime on the global level. To avoid the Global Republic, he argues that “if all is not to be lost”, then we can find a similar solution in “a federation likely to prevent war”, in this way confining the idea to a federal model where state sovereignty is not greatly obstructed[4]. An example of this minimization of imposition on sovereignty is that states should be allowed to freely enter the Federation and whould not be obligated to do so[5].

Furthermore, Kant strongly defended the position that “no state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state”[6], even within the framework of his Federation of Free States. At first look, it seems that a complete disregard of sovereignty would definitely hinder the development of the Federation since it would create a feeling of distrust between the individual states, eventually making them uncooperative to one another. Yet, at a closer examination, the federal model which Kant falls back to not only allows for state sovereignty to go almost unrestricted but also facilitates its legal expression in international relations. First, the choice to enter into the Federation is precisely a display of state sovereignty. In an analogous way, it resembles the choice of an individual to enter into the social contract and submit to the rule of law, but on the state level. Yet, with inter-state relations it is a conscious decision, while on the individual level it is a hypothetical agreement according to a model. Second, the state’s right to self-determination would not be greatly diminished since only the right to go to war would be removed from the exercise of sovereignty. The Federation would be pacific in character and would aim to “end all wars for good”[7]. Therefore, the Federation would not curb sovereignty in any way, because it “does not aim to acquire any power like that of a state, but merely to preserve and secure the freedom of each state in itself”. State sovereignty would not be disregarded, but rather guarded even more through the guarantee of freedom and peace between states.

Secondly, Kant’s conception of the Federation of Free States is constitutive of cosmopolitanism. For him, the rational idea that a peaceful international community of all human beings can be created is a principle of right. What he calls ‘cosmopolitan right’ is an obligation on all nations to facilitate travel and trade and to unite for the purpose of creating universal laws to regulate their relations[8]. The Federation would, therefore, create a framework where citizens of one state would be able to interact with their fellow citizens of another state without a threat of hostility. This cosmopolitanism is based on Kant’s conceptions of individual and international right.

To begin with, the standard of right on the individual level is that “every action which by itself or by its maxim enables the freedom of each individual’s will to co-exist with the freedom of everyone else in accordance with a universal law”[9]. This obligation merely constitutes the basic norm in society where individuals interact with one another on the basis of respect for each other’s freedom. Further, Kant describes individual civil rights as based on three fundamental principles: lawful freedom, civil equality and civil independence[10]. These three form the foundations of his theory of civil right in the state, where people have united under rightful laws. Then, ‘cosmopolitan right’ is also a right of individuals but on a global level and it addresses the international community of all the Earth’s peoples as the original community of the land[11]. Kant defends the right of people to cross borders and engage in commerce with foreigners, and proclaims that the foreign state must respect the individual’s right and not treat them as an enemy. Thus, the cosmopolitan right would facilitate the exercise of this standard of individual right on the global scale. It would allow for citizens from different states to interact peacefully, respecting each other’s freedom. Travelers and tradesmen would not be treated as enemies because although they are citizens of another state, the basic idea of cosmopolitanism is that everyone is a ‘citizen of the world’ as indicated by the very term ‘cosmopolitan’.

Further, on the level of international relations, Kant equates ‘international right’ with the right of states; with their sovereign power. Through the Federation of Free States, the right to go to war has been taken away from the individual states and what is left is the ability to engage in peaceful relations. For him, this means limiting their interaction to trade and to visitors of foreign countries. As explained previously, his cosmopolitan idea of “creating certain universal laws to regulate the intercourse” between states and their citizens does not diminish the sovereignty of individual states, but aims at facilitating peaceful relations between them. The agreement of the international level installs a control mechanism which protects citizens who wish to travel beyond the borders of their own state. So, the ‘cosmopolitan right’ is a direct result of the federal association of states and the need to promote peaceful relations, and allows individuals to engage in trade and move freely as equals in all parts of the globe. Yet, the respect for sovereignty is what limits the cosmopolitan conception to these activities and does not include, for example, the protection of individuals within their own state.

Finally, there are two main limitations to Kant’s theory of the Federation of Free States and the creation of a cosmopolitan right. The first is the analogy which Kant makes with the social contract model. On the inter-state level, it is presented as “one state, as a moral person, is considered as existing in a state of nature in relation to another state, hence in a condition of constant war”[12]. This draws a similarity between individuals living in the state of nature without external laws. Justification for the analogy begins on the level of the civil state, where political power and law are interdependent. This is not the case on the international level, where the two are interchangeable whenever the major world players see fit, therefore placing international politics in the hands of the strongest state(s), creating something similar to the ‘state of nature’ as conceived by Hobbes[13]. On this higher rank, states might feel in a similar position to that of pre-social contract individuals, but the citizens of these states already enjoy rights and liberties, guaranteed by the sovereign. Political formation and socialization have already taken place, giving each nation-state absolute sovereign power. It is not acceptable to ignore an established legitimacy of nation-states to return to a condition prior to the state[14]. Therefore, “the curriculum that states and their citizens must undergo in the transition from classical international law to a cosmopolitan condition” is complementary to that of individuals building a state with initially unconstrained power[15]. The ‘state of nature’ on the level of states excludes the constituted political society within the state because the citizens are already within the social contract. Therefore, the analogy is incorrect and should not be used to describe international relations.

The second limitation to Kant’s theory is when it comes to the extent of the cosmopolitan condition. His attempt to preserve sovereignty limits his conceptualization of cosmopolitan right to hospitality of foreigners and freedom of trade. His argument stems from the fact that we all inhabit the surface of the Earth, sharing its territory and because of the limits of space on the planet we inevitably interact with one another. He therefore creates a cosmopolitan right which would facilitate and protect the citizens of each state when they travel between states. In the modern world, political philosophers are concerned with the protection of citizens within the state as well. A universal human standard is required which will ensure that a set of basic rights is granted to each individual citizen as a human being and not as an individual in a state. This led to the conceptualization of human rights through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Kant’s cosmopolitanism is therefore limited because of his attempt to preserve state sovereignty, leading him to disregard the need to protect not only travelling individuals, but ones who are being oppressed in their home country as well. He does not allow for states to interfere with each other’s internal affairs, which, as the Holocaust for example showed, could lead to gross violations of human rights by a state against its own citizens[16]. Therefore, Kant’s conception of cosmopolitanism, while suited to regulate the belligerent international arena and foster peace, is too limited and inadequate to deal with the problems of protecting individuals from being persecuted by states.

The historical context in which Kant lived has proven to be a problem for the advance of his cosmopolitan theory because of the under-development of international law. For him, ending war would be enough to create a stable environment for the prospering of states and their citizens. Since then, history has given us numerous examples fostering a progress towards a more cosmopolitan law: one which aims at bringing peace between states and protecting individuals from oppression. Today, it has developed to a satisfactory level where it is largely accepted and there are serious attempts its enforcement through organizations like the UN, NATO, and the EU. Kant was not able to see past the absoluteness of sovereignty and the belligerent character of states, which limited his perspective on the range of cosmopolitanism. Now, in the beginning of the 21st Century, we have a system of civil and international law that can be integrated far better than in Kant’s time, to constitutionalize and institutionalize cosmopolitanism.


[1] (Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 102)

[2] (Hobbes, p. 70) Thomas Hobbes’ idea is that humans without laws live in a state where they are governed by their desires, leading them to a war of all against all. By entering the social contract, they agree to abide by the rule of law, guaranteed by a sovereign, if they respect each other’s rights and desires, therefore constituting a society.

[3] (Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 102)

[4] (Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 105)

[5] (Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 104)

[6] (Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 96)

[7] (Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 104)

[8] (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, p. 172)

[9] (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, p. 133)

[10] (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, p. 139)

[11] (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, p. 172)

[12] (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, p. 165)

[13] (Habermas, 2006, p. 120)

[14] (Habermas, 2008, p. 448)

[15] (Habermas, 2006, pp. 129-130) my emphasis

[16] (Habermas, 1998, pp. 166-167)


1. Habermas, J. (2007). A Political Constitution for the Pluralist World Society. Journal of Chinese Philosophy , pp. 331-343.

2. Habermas, J. (1998). Kant’s Idea of Perpetual Peace: at Two Hundred Years’ Historical Remove. In The Incusion of the Other (pp. 165-201). Cambridge: Polity Press.

3. Habermas, J. (2008, 12). The Constitutionalization of International Law and the Legitimation Problems of a Constitution for World Society. Constellations , 15 (4), pp. 444-455.

4. Habermas, J. (2006). The Divided West. Cambridge: Polity Press.

5. Hobbes, T. (2006). Leviathan. New York: Dover Publications.

6. Kant, I. (1970). Metaphysics of Morals. In Kant’s Political Writings (pp. 131-175). Cambridge: University Press.

7. Kant, I. (1970). Perpetual Peace. In Kant’s Political Writings (pp. 93-130). Cambridge: University Press.

8. Kant, I. (1970). Theory and Practice. In Kant’s Political Writings (pp. 61-92). Cambridge: University Press.

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One response to “Kant’s Conception of Cosmopolitanism and its Limitations

  1. I know that this was written awhile ago, but your work was wonderfully well-articulated; a pleasure to read.

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