[Popper on Kantian Concept of War on War]

Karl Popper: Interview 1993



In April we published your text arguing for intervention in Bosnia. Have you not changed your mind since then?


It was certainly no accident that I called then for intervention. And the problem is still the same: we must fight against war. The essence of the idea of 'war on war' can already be found in Kant, in his 'Perpetual Peace' essay. Perhaps we have forgotten the general feel­ing after the First World War that things should never again come to war, that the recent conflict had been a senseless sacrifice of human lives, a huge effort with results seemingly close to zero. Yet even during the years of fighting, the idea of a war fought against war had made its appearance. Of course, it lends itself to many paradoxes and is often used in questionable ways, but it is essentially a very serious idea.


How is the 'war on war' principle to be applied?


The Second World War was from the beginning conceived as precisely that: a war on war. The period stretching from the First to the Second World War showed the extent to which peace had actually depended on the responsibilities of governments. Neville Chamberlain clearly assumed the task of appeasing Nazi Germany, and saw it as his main responsibility to make concessions in the name of peace. That is exactly how he saw his task. And so he helped Hitler for a long time, when he was already far advanced in strengthening Nazi rule.


Do you mean it can be dangerous completely to reject war?


I am saying that during those twenty years, war was outlawed in many declarations by European and American governments. Whatever happened, there were to be no more wars: such was the general attitude before 1939. The League of Nations was a very serious organization which did valuable things in various fields. For example, it issued passports and documents for stateless citizens - a fact of the greatest importance. I mean. after the First World War a situation developed in which strongly humanitarian tendencies asserted themselves, as well as policies whose essential goal was respect for human values. If that was not typical of the First World War, at least it was the result of its end. This climate was still wide­spread when the Second World War broke out, being accepted and shared in large parts of the world. And later it led to the founding of Churchill's United Nations.


What conclusion would you draw from this?


In the world today, there is no politician in power who had reached full maturity and awareness by the time of the Second World War. That is one unfortunate result of the passing of time: whereas twenty years passed between the end of the First and the beginning of the Second World War, the period from 1945 to the war in Bosnia was very much longer.


Nearly fifty years.


That is too long for people really to grasp things which appear to them just as history, as the Napoleonic wars would have appeared to me at the outbreak of the First World War. Just ancient history. . .


Clearly we have no Churchill or other politician capable of intellectually mastering, with the help of his own experience, the period stretching from the outbreak of the last war up to the present day. But why did you say just now 'Churchill's United Nations'? Why think of Churchill today?


Churchill's idea was that, in order to have no more wars, there must be an international organization like the League of Nations or the UN which actually fights against war. Churchill's principle was subsequently disregarded because of the role of the Soviet Union. In fact, the United Nations had to depart from it by accepting that intervention was possible only if both the West and Russia were prepared to support it. And as Churchill realized, that was a defeat for his political line.


Now, however, there is no longer either a Soviet Union or a Cold War.


After 1989 I was aware of the risks we would be running, but I also had in mind better prospects for the world than the ones we have today. I wanted to protest against Sakharov's bomb. I wanted to criticize the terrible responsibilities which the Soviet nuclear physicist had assumed with the decision to complete testing of the 'big' hydrogen bomb. My own views, which you published in Italy, pointed to the dangers we had to face because hydrogen bombs developed by Sakharov were around in the world. But I also saw a way out.


What was the way out?


I thought that after 1989 we in the West should have said to Russia: 'Look, the West wants peace and we have succeeded in establishing it without instruments of terror, without anything like the systems that were there before the Iron Curtain. Come and join us in this peace.' The European situation was, in fact, so peaceful that nobody imagined we could see a return to regimes of terror. The same could be said across the Atlantic, of the whole of North America, as well as Japan. There was not peace in Africa, but there was almost everywhere else in the world.


Obviously that prospect has faded.


First, there was the very dangerous intervention in Iraq, where the issue at stake - the real issue at stake - was nuclear weapons. And now the world looks completely different. Europe is less peaceful than when it was held together under the pressure of the old organization of power. And since the collapse of communism, terrorism has started to spread in Yugoslavia.


Why has this happened?


Communism has been replaced by this ridiculous nationalism. I say ridiculous, because it sets against each other peoples who are virtually all Slav. The Serbs are Slavs, the Croats are Slavs. And the Bosnians are also Slavs, converted to Islam. The terrible thing is that we in the West have caved in by allowing things to develop as they have done in the last two years - with massacres, murders, heinous acts. We have given up the key elements of a Western policy and abandoned our own principles, starting with the principle of peace itself. We should not have done that; we should not have surrendered. It was a terrible mistake that exposes us to a huge danger, because the weapons and means of destruction have increased, and because Sakharov's hydrogen bombs (at least 3,000 times Hiroshima, remember) are circulating in the world. But how is it possible that we - the groups in charge of our countries, the governments and oppositions - remain content with this state of affairs?


How do you think this surrender came about?


The only explanation I find is that what we do not manage to see in the real world, by means of television, appears not to exist for us. The massacres have been out of sight for us during these years, and so it is as if they had not taken place. In the same way, we have never seen a nuclear explosion, although it really is the kind of experience which cannot be had more than once.


In the last few days a compromise has seemed near over Bosnia.


After what has happened, there is no compromise which can lead to peace. That is absolutely impossible. We should have disarmed them. A nuclear threat to us all may come out of the Balkans.


What can be done?


We are in the relatively fortunate position of having a weapon - aircraft - which we can use in such a way that the number of casualties is kept to a minimum. Western countries have a huge superiority in the air. What I propose is the withdrawal of all ground troops. It is a mistake to fight for difficult terrain in a foreign country (as the Americans learnt in Vietnam). You can do that in the desert but not in the Balkans. Anyway aid, medicines - even doctors, if necessary ­can be parachuted in. People can be carried to safety by helicopter. And a lot more can be done from the air, such as hitting armoured cars and any kind of heavy weapon. There are many signs that that type of action would have brought about - and might still bring about - a withdrawal of the armies. They will go on massacring each other as long as we allow them to do it. They will stop only if we seriously discourage them. And so far we have never done that.


Do you think military intervention is still necessary, what with the attempts to reach a political agreement about the map of Bosnia?


'Peace, peace', they say. But we should have learnt by now that peace on earth (at least until it has been established once and for all) needs to be backed up with weapons - in the same way, and for the same reasons, that the police should be armed to keep the peace inside a country. You could never get peace inside a country by reaching a compromise with the criminals.


The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, who is almost the same age as yourself. . .


He is two years older than I am.


In an interview with L'Unita he said in relation to Somalia that the UN should never have intervened with heavy weapons, that it should have limited itself to policing operations.


To accept that principle would mean never to have peace. It is complete nihilism to propose laying down arms in a world where atom bombs are around. It is very simple: there is no way of achieving peace other than with weapons. Gadamer must have forgotten that principle of Immanuel Kant's - and maybe one reason is that Kant, unlike Gadamer or myself, never got beyond the age of 80. But look, I don't think that philosophers have any professional authority in saying their bit about this issue. For that matter, I cannot speak as a specialist either - nor do I wish to speak as a philosopher. I am just saying what I think, like anyone who has tried to live with an open mind over the course of the twentieth century.


(Published in L 'Unita, 9 September 1993)

Karl Popper,  “Lesson of this Century”, 1997, PP51-55

Interviewer: Giancarlo Bosetti

Translator: Patrick Camiller