A curatorial intervention exploring 21st century prospects for international peace through a series of symposia, exhibitions, lectures, and films


Film initiative

Watch short films featuring philosophers and statesmen in conversation about Kant's essay Perpetual Peace (1795)

Fields of Knowledge
  • Curatorial practice
  • Pedagogy
  • Philosophy / Theory
  • Politics / Economics
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Syracuse University Humanities Center

Contributing Institutions

European Union National Institutes of Culture (EUNIC), International Peace Institute (IPI), United Nations University


Laura Hanna, Alexandra Lerman, Aaron Levy, Gregg Lambert


Technology and technical assistance has been generously provided by ScribeLabs

Process initiated


Opens to public


On the web


50% Formal - 50% Informal

As part of the Perpetual Peace Project, we invited philosophers and practicioners to speak about Immanuel Kant's essay Perpetual Peace (1795) and to expand upon the issues it raises in relationship to their own varied practices. The short segments featured on this page have been filmed against backdrops that resonate with the themes invoked by their discourse, including monuments commemorating war, deprivation, and collective memory, as well as institutional spaces of policy and international diplomacy. The behind-the-scenes commentary featured below offer an intimate portrait onto the project, its participants, and the critical perspectives it elicits.

Achille Mbembe (October 2009)

The Perpetual Peace Project invited Achille Mbembe to speak about the topic at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. Directors Alexandra Lerman, Laura Hanna, and Aaron Levy selected this historic site as the backdrop for the segment because of its resonance with sites of political deprivation and incarceration. Mbembe touched upon one of these in his account of the headquarters of the constitutional court in Johannesburg, which originally was a historical fort that the British used in their struggle against the Boers. Beginning in 1948, it was used by the Afrikaans nationalist party as a prison in their war against the African National Congress, where they imprisoned, amongst others, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. The prison was closed in 1983, and reopened in 1994 as the constitutional court of South Africa. At one point Mbembe remarked to us that "Not that South Africa has achieved peace, even less so perpetual peace, but in going from the fort to the court we have opened an imaginary. We have set up a new horizon against which we can measure the path that remains to be crossed." For him the very journey from fort to court, from a place of war and incarceration to a place of justice and law, represents the long struggle for equality in post-Apartheid South Africa, and signals one possible instantiation of Kant's project of perpetual peace.

Boris Groys (December 2009)

The Perpetual Peace Project invited Boris Groys to speak about the topic at the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, on the site of the former 1939 and 1964 Worlds Fair. He spoke in front of the Unisphere, which was commissioned as the thematic symbol of the 1964 Fair to celebrate the beginning of the space age. The theme of the Fair was "Peace Through Understanding" and the Unisphere represented the spirit of global interdependence. It was dedicated to "Man's Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe," and we felt that the Unisphere would provide an ironic backdrop for Groys' comments about a world marked by perpetual conflicts. Responding to the "utopian" and future-oriented aspirations of the site, Groys cautioned us that the figure of the philosopher in fact has no role in the nation-state. Moreover, Groys emphasized that Kant's acknowledgement of this reality, in which practitioners do not consider the maxims of philosophers at all, led him to redefine the role of the philosopher altogether. With the publication of Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace, a newly cosmopolitan conception of the philosopher and of philosophical discourse thus emerges that goes beyond the nation-state structure altogether. Kant envisions, according to Groys, philosophical discourse as a neutral space of conversation about peace and conflict, one in which the philosopher speaks from a kind of intranational or immaterial space of critique.

William Banks (April 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project invited William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, to speak about the topic in the Sky Room of the New Museum, a preeminent contemporary art museum in New York. He spoke against the backdrop of lower Manhattan, the site of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The filmmakers felt that this would provide an appropriate backdrop for Banks' comments about contemporary threats to collective security. Responding to the "vulnerability" of the site, Banks explained how inhabitants of cities such as New York are often unaware of measures taken to insure their daily security. These measures are necessary because nation-state security is threatened not just by the standing armies Kant writes about in Perpetual Peace, but also by unconventional threats ranging from multinational financial conglomerates to military contractors--even rogue teenagers whose laptops threaten key infrastructure. This situation has been exacerbated by 'black spots' such as Tijuana, where attempts to discourage armed conflict prove ineffective due to uneven development and political instability. Such threats to collective security force us to rethink peace and war as diametrically opposed, ushering in a landscape of perpetual instability.

Saskia Sassen (April 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project invited Saskia Sassen to speak about the topic from inside the lobby of the New Museum on the Bowery in New York City. The filmmakers invited her to speak against constantly changing reflections of the street, insofar as the street symbolizes the informal networks of global communication and exchange that her work directly engages. In her remarks, Sassen sought to move beyond popular terms such as hospitality and gloabalization, whose ubiquity, she argued, inhibits clarity of thought. She explained how profound changes are taking place today with regard to national identity, territory, and security, and communicated her belief in complex political architectures that go beyond Kant's conception of the nation-state, providing spaces both for the institutionalization of different rights and obligations and for alternative frameworks of organization. Sassen noted that the concept of the cosmopolitan citizen comes directly from Kant's writings on Perpetual Peace and his longing for a universal citizen and culture that might transcend circumscribed and specific issues. Sassen cautioned, however, that individuals are often caught up today in local differences, divisions, and fights, and that these informal networks of individuals constitute in their own way a conscience, a political commitment, and a global social movement. Sassen further cautioned that in contemporary diplomacy one cannot simply capture or speak on behalf of the global. One must take into account not just what is happening globally or between nation-states, but what is happening inside the national itself.

Richard Sennett (April 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project invited sociologist Richard Sennett to speak about the topic in the Mercer Hotel in New York City. He recalled in his remarks that the first image Kant provides is of a public inn, and that throughout the text Kant engages the idea of a public right to hospitality. Sennett began by reflecting on his experiences as a student of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and spoke of her suspicions with regard to Kant's political philosophy as well as her particular interest in this text. He proposed that we think of perpetual peace not on the level of the nation-state, but rather with regard to our individual circumstances. Although diplomacy is conventionally understood as a specialized practice, a form of knowledge held by practitioners alone, he spoke of the possibility of an 'everyday diplomacy' where peace serves as an instrument of everyday life. Sennett cautioned that it would be naive to think of peace as a state of relaxation or an end to conflict; rather peace should be understood as a state of constant tension, one maintained and enacted through daily rituals.

Gregg Lambert (April 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed Gregg Lambert, one of the organizers of the project, speaking about the topic on Wall Street in downtown New York City. He spoke against the backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange building, insofar as Kant had acutely foreseen in the 18th century that money was itself an instrument of war. Lambert noted that there are two moments of irony in the very opening of Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace. The first is that Kant envisions that the only place imaginable for perpetual peace is a graveyard, and the second is that the very idea of peace proposed by philosophy appears in the form of a child's game from the perspective of the practitioner or diplomat. Kant then frames the very opposition between a purely theoretical idea of peace and a purely practical knowledge of peace as a conspiracy between philosophy and politics from the 18th century onward. This conspiracy is embedded into the very terms of the "Secret Article" in his text, which stipulates that practitioners should consider the idea of peace and the perspective of the philosopher in preparing for war.

Kwame Anthony Appiah (May 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed Kwame Anthony Appiah, University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, at the Cooper Union's newly opened academic center in New York. He argued that we often understand a given concept by considering its opposite, and in like manner, we can understand Kant's idea of peace by considering the negative consequences of war. He explained that at the heart of his ideas about cosmopolitanism is the struggle to articulate the relationship between the local and the global. A vast relationship exists today between Johannesburg and Shanghai that no longer passes through London or New York, one that can pair a place like Boise, Idaho with a small town in Kenya. He spoke about the importance of these cultural exchanges, and noted that our differences enable us to be part of a larger community, one which he referred to as a great human encyclopedia. Appiah specifically cautioned that we should not abandon Kant's ideas concerning cosmopolianism on account of limitations such as his supposed eurocentrism. Such moments of intolerance in the text as we read it today are outside the main thrust of the work, and Kant's indebtedness to structures such as the nation-state reflects the enlightenment thinking of his time. Appiah remarked that Kant was absolutely right in thinking that permanent armies should be abolished, and that while this conclusion may appear impractical, one of the greatest predictors of future war can be found in the vast expenditures necessary to permanently maintain an army's preparedness for war. With regard to the United Nations, with which Appiah is himself involved, he noted that believing in the institution doesn't necessarily mean that you think it is doing all it can. While its founding principles have not been achieved, and far from ending war it has also caused war, it is nevertheless better than the alternative of not having one. We will perhaps never have a perfect institution of global governance, but Appiah argued the United Nations has succeeded in enacting Kant's vision of a cosmopolitan 'State of Nations,' one wherein our connections to one another can be strengthened.

Thomas Mayr-Harting (May 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed Thomas Mayr-Harting, the Austrian Ambassador to the United Nations, in his office in midtown Manhattan. He spoke about Austria's role as a non-permanent member on the Security Council, and his specific attempts to engage this important international body in discussion on broad themes. Responding to Kant's argument that nation-states are often unwilling to abrogate their own self-interests, he argued that the European Union (EU) was an extraordinary example of the contrary. Mayr-Harting argued that the EU serves as a model for the United Nations in how to maintain stability and peace by creating interdependence between nation-states. This project of European integration is particularly remarkable insofar as it goes beyond Kant's original designs as discussed in Perpetual Peace. Mayr-Harting explained that the current challenges to world peace include nuclear proliferation, humanitarian crises, and specifically violence against women and children, which he spoke of as an unacceptable tool of war. He expressed his concern that the African continent was often disregarded by the international public. In this context, he explained that a primary role of the Security Council was to deal with conflicts ("leftovers") on the margins of international attention, underlining the preeminence of African topics on the council's agenda, which accounts for roughly 70% of their time. Finally, Mayr-Harting argued that peace should not be considered an abstract concept, but rather understood approached as a series practical measures to mitigate individual suffering.

Jean-Marc Coicaud (May 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed Jean-Marc Coicaud, Director of the United Nations University (UNU) in New York, in the public gardens at United Nations Plaza where diplomats and staff often retreat. He spoke about the increasing specialization of the roles of the philosopher and the diplomat today, that Kant intuited in his concerns about the separation between theory and practice. He explained that historically the statesman had a more holistic relationship to the humanities, and that his work at the United Nations University today is an attempt to bridge that divide. At one point, Coicaud described Kant's proposal for Perpetual Peace as both a practical manual and an imaginative treatise, with a speculative nature in which error and failure is allowable. He lamented that for the diplomat today, on a purely practical level, error is lethal, and inhibits philosophical inquiry. One thing that Kant could never have imagined, Coicaud remarked, was a United Nations in which democratic and non-democratic participants would gather at the same table. He also spoke of his fascination with the psychology of peace, and the need for nation-states, regardless of political composition, to first be at peace internally in order to be at peace with other nations. He cautioned that if the nation-state appears weak today, and its interests increasingly abrogated to other powers, this state of affairs is part of the philosophy of the nation-state itself, and its leaders have chosen this trajectory.

Thomas Stelzer (May 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed Thomas Stelzer, an Assistant Secretary-General at the United Nations, in the conference room in which he conducts his affairs in New York. He spoke of the United Nations not as monolithic but as a complex institution with heterogeneous interests, accurately representing the diversity of the world in which we live. He noted that the United Nations is the only global institution at which 192 nations can sit together and come to consensus about matters of international concern. Smaller blocs such as the Group of 8 (G8) or Group of 20 (G20), while seemingly efficient, do not work by global consensus and proceed on the assumption that what is good for some ought to be good for all. When asked what he would do if he could introduce one significant change at the United Nations, he explained that top-down approaches to enacting change are naive in the context of his work, where he must always work through consensus building and act with the interests of other nation-states in mind. The lack of water and the consequences of global warming will become major causes of future conflict, and he spoke about these developments in the context of his own work at the United Nations, which takes a variety of forms including research, policy coordination, and inter-agency affairs. Though his work does not reside on the ground, he was passionate about how his work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private interests, and statistical data nevertheless has real consequences for the lives of individuals, and how his work acts as a bridge between diverse actors. Among the many statistics he cited, he lamented that the cost of stationing one United States soldier in Afghanistan, at roughly $1 million a year, could be used by the United Nations to finance the well-being of an entire village, and that this later approach is a more effective way to facilitate sustainable peace. At one point, Stelzer spoke about how there is more wealth and poverty today than ever before, but for those that live in poverty this world can be described literally as hell on earth due to lack of clean water, sanitation, education, and economic development. He lamented that the United Nations is often blamed for not having solved problems such as these, when it has in fact inherited responsibility for them from member nation-states themselves.

Gérard Araud (June 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed Gérard Araud, the French Ambassador to the United Nations, in his office in midtown Manhattan. He argued that we face a problem of political representation today concerning who should represent civil society, due to a mistrust everywhere between elected and electors, with growing levels of abstention throughout Europe as a consequence. He explained that is frustrating today that we do not know who represents who, and that this is in part the consequence of a world that is less and less hierarchical, in which the social order has been replaced by a kind of individualism that resists giving authority to another. Araud suggested that we have much to learn from Kant's analysis of the selfish attitude of nation-states, and expressed his concern that the United Nations are not sufficiently united, and are too often defending their respective national interests. He cautioned that decision-making is not unilateral, and that the United Nations is not just a space of debate but a space of compromise. As France's representative on the United Nations Security Council, Araud noted that the council doesn't reflect the composition of the world, and that if it takes global government seriously the composition of the council has to be rethought. Regarding nuclear proliferation, he argued that we should work towards making their use less likely, but that we should denounce the hypocrisy of nations such as the United States that profess the abolition of such weapons while investing billions in their defense. It is too late, he lamented, as there will always be evil in the world and nation-states such as Iran and North Korea will be reluctant to give them up. He expressed his concern that biological weapons are just as dangerous, and that in recent decades conventional weapons have killed millions while nuclear weapons have not.

Edward Luck (June 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed Edward Luck, Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Vice-President of the International Peace Institute (IPI), one of our partners on the project, at the IPI offices in midtown Manhattan. With regard to his work at the United Nations, he argued that nation-states have a responsibility to protect people within their borders regardless of nationality. If Africans landing on Italian beaches deserve the same degree of hospitality and human rights as Italian citizens, then a radical re-conceptualization of nation-state sovereignty is required. Likewise, collective responsibility and non-indifference to suffering requires that nation-states accept a degree of direct intervention or modification of their sovereignty, as in the case of the European Union or the preventative deployment of peacekeepers in Macedonia or Sierra Lione, where the help of the international community was needed to protect populations. He explained that the origins of his work on the "responsibility to protect" can be traced through the African Union and other African thinkers. With regard to his work at the International Peace Institute, he cautioned that the pursuit of peace and humanitarian values must be understood as a process and not as an event. The success of efforts to change nation-state attitudes are to be measured not in days, weeks, or even years but rather in decades. The work undertaken in 1948 to establish the United Nations on paper, he noted, has taken decades to successfully play out on the level of strategy and operations. And while we have not achieved peace in our time, Luck argued that we have made progress, and that the United Nations has kept the aspiration towards peace alive. There is no other time in history when there has been such a wide dialogue between major military nations, he remarked, and the fact that this conversation takes place at all is itself historically significant. Peace may not be perpetual, he concluded, but the effort to make peace is perpetual.

Rosi Braidotti (June 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed philosopher Rosi Braidotti in Paris. She spoke of the predominance of a eurocentric idea of cosmopolitanism in the history of philosophy, and the resistance to Kant's work in French philosophy. These "Anti-Kantian" developments, she argued, have detracted from the actual value of the text. She spoke of her current work in the Netherlands, which engages the philosophical idea of cosmopolitanism within the current political realities of global citizenship, immigration, and trans-national identity. Braidotti argued that the spirit of cosmopolitanism lends itself to what we negatively today think of as a multicultural society, which so many populist parties in Europe and elsewhere are turning against. Braidotti also underscored the need to remain critical of many of the historical limitations that are present in Kant's essay, such as the implicit belief in Europe as the moral compass for the rest of the world. However, if the simple virtues of decency and hospitality that are also present in the text have become too abstract, she suggests that this is because they are now part of our social and institutional reality and, therefore, can no longer appear to us simply as ideals.

Helene Cixous (June 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed the French philosopher Helene Cixous in her apartment in Paris. She explained that every human being is entitled to dream of peace, and that Perpetual Peace was an action on Kant's part to remind and to reactive the desire for peace. Like Kant, she remarked that she believes in the unbelievable, and there has to be an ideal possibility which may be beyond actualization but nevertheless requires our effort. The idea of peace may be an ideal, a dream that is beyond the ordinary limits of human achievement, but if we did not have this dream we would repeat, recede, and regress. Desire is the real power of humanity, Cixous suggested, and all these dreams and hopes make for a second reality. Democracy, like peace itself, is a 'dreamworld' that we have to work, insist, repeat, invent and never give up our efforts to change and improve. With regards to Kant's secret article proposing a conversation between philosophers and statesmen, she suggested that Kant was right to formulate that hope, in the abstract, of a conversation. Cixous was doubtful whether this conversation could be institutionalized without becoming emblematic of power. In her own case, she would prefer to engage in conversation not with a diplomat but rather with an army general who deals with the actuality of force and death, and that one would also have to enlarge the very concept of the philosopher that participates in this conversation. With regards to the concept of cosmpolitanism that Kant introduces in the text, Cixous argued that we are each part of one global community, and we are cosmopolitan whether we want to be or not. She spoke of how the European Union began as a dream inspired by this very idea of cosmpolitanism, in which people come together through their very differencs and oppositions. However, it still faces the problem of avoiding the evils of Nationalism as it finds equilibrium between singular nations as they are incorporated into collections of other nations.

Peter Szendy (June 2010)

The Perpetual Peace Project filmed philosopher Peter Szendy at Parc Montsouris in Paris. He spoke of Kant's interest in how ideas produce effects, and suggested that ideas such as peace do things simply by being said, and that these effects cannot be controlled by attempts to determine their program in advance or calculate their effects. He spoke of peace as always beginning in the here and now in everyday life, as soon as we begin talking, agreeing, and disagreeing. Peace is already underway and always at stake in these discussions which constitute a proto-political way of talking about peace. These discussions do not yet constitute politics in any formal sense that implies institutions, and have to be accompanied by articulations on the global level. or it is not yet peace worthy of the name. Szendy noted that Kant speaks from a rational point of view that is outside of the earth, as if one can only think of peace from a perspective from above. He also noted that for Kant transparency is an equally important condition for peace, and is proposed against the secrecy of nation-states; however, Szendy argued that the idea of peace as a generalized state could also inaugurate a state of constant surveillance in which one is able to see everyone at any time. He also spoke of the idea of nuclear warfare as having something to do with the idea of perpetual peace. This is not only because universal destruction could amount to another version of perpetual peace, but also because the threat of nuclear warfare is always deferred and to come.

Related publications

Philosopher Immanuel Kant explores the idea of perpetual peace in the form of an international treaty between states, in a new printing inspired by the French-fold tradition of his time.

Philosophers, statesmen and members of the UN Security council engage in a filmed conversation about how to reduce geopolitical conflict, building upon Immanuel Kant's essay Perpetual Peace (1795).

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