The idea of a project of perpetual peace between European nations was anticipated long before the six member states of the original Economic European Union signed the Treaty of Rome in March 1957. If security and stability are often guaranteed through the agency of military force, such as the Pax Romana, long-term peace requires a deeper understanding of peoples’ aspirations and a wider perspective on what states can reasonably expect to achieve through diplomatic means. 

Eighteenth-century philosophers were convinced of the universal capacity of all human beings to share the same rational approach to issues of peace and harmony between nations divided by religion and differing political regimes. To intimate the possibility of a genuine lasting peace between traditional enemies is, in itself, a momentous innovation and a first step towards the normalisation of international relations. The French-born abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743) was the pioneer of a practical, consensual way of solving disputes between nations by resorting to a general European Diet or Assembly composed of eighteen sovereign states including pre-eminent principalities like the Pontifical States, Florence or the Duchy of Muscovy along with the powerful kingdoms of the day such as England, France and Spain. Published as early as 1713, ‘The Project of Perpetual Peace in Europe’ had no direct impact on Saint-Pierre’s contemporaries but had a lasting influence on his successors.

When Rousseau writes his ‘Abstract’ of Saint-Pierre’s project, in 1761, a year before the publication of ‘The Social Contract’, he is already suspicious of the Enlightened belief in  ‘universal reason’ to the point that he describes the cleric as someone who ‘would have been a very wise man, if he had not had the folly of reason.’ So what are Rousseau’s fundamental criticisms of a well-conceived, if somehow idealistic, ‘system of peace’? In his view, Saint-Pierre fails to address the inner contradictions of states involved in international conflicts while expecting princes to come to terms with the necessity of a lasting peace in a generous, chivalrous manner. 

He observes that ‘since each of us is in the civil state with his fellow citizens and in the state of nature with all the rest of the world, we have forestalled private wars only to ignite general ones, which are a thousand times more terrible.’ Rousseau’s inherent pessimism transpires here as the only way to resolve conflicts between nations is to confederate or unite peoples rather than rely on ‘le bon vouloir’ of their rulers. As a former Swiss citizen, he is quite favourable to a confederative model but to be applied prior to the rise of any conflictual situations. Those pre-political federations would reflect the shared customs of their members as well as their common commercial interests. Such a formulation heralds later conceptions of what constitutes the European identity and what a European civil society could look like. Rousseau has in mind a genuine public sphere, a ‘closer society among the Nations of Europe’ which goes much further than Saint-Pierre’s original scheme of a ‘league of kings’ and princes.