Geo-Economics and Politics

Can this Enlightenment idea really guide us to a more peaceful existence?

Enlightenment philosophers believed in “gentle commerce,” or the civilizing effect of expanding trade ties.

Enlightenment philosophers believed in “gentle commerce,” or the civilizing effect of expanding trade ties. Image: Public Domain

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • The centuries-old concept of ‘gentle commerce’ holds that increased commerce curbs destructive impulses.
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revived skepticism of the doctrine.
  • But proponents point to the EU as an example of its abiding potential – and in particular to current efforts to admit Ukraine.

We still inhabit a world largely conjured up by a small group of European men who wore wigs, seldom bathed and spent a lot of time indoors.

Enlightenment philosophers gave us formative ideas about ways to govern and be governed, and pursue knowledge and happiness. They believed in “gentle commerce,” or the civilizing effect of expanding trade ties. Voltaire wrote a poem about it. The European Union, the doctrine’s real-world manifestation, named a tower after the 18th-century French nobleman who popularized it.

More recently, though, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed to bury “gentle commerce” at the bottom of a trench.

After all, if selling hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of energy to a group of countries is not enough to prevent you from launching a brutal war in their backyard, then what is?

Still, some argue against dismissing “gentle commerce” just yet.

Instead of interpreting events in an all-or-nothing way, they say, it might be better to focus on the general relationship between economic exchange and peaceful political liberalization. Because the two things tend to move in tandem.

One example frequently cited is EU expansion, a process that’s continued in fits and starts now for half a century. Two things tend to happen for countries that become members of an entity founded on the principle of economic integration: they become wealthier and more peaceful.

Countries that join the EU certainly tend to become wealthier.
Countries that join the EU certainly tend to become wealthier. Image: World Economic Forum

Even just aspiring to join can have salutary effects.

Ukraine, for example, has made progress on the EU’s checklist for entry by fighting corruption and increasing transparency. Now, efforts are being made to expedite full membership. The president of the European Parliament said recently she wants to kick off serious accession negotiations before the end of this year.

Not so long ago, the idea of Ukraine joining the EU was deemed preposterous. Then Russia invaded.

The push for Ukraine’s admission has now become part of a broader rethink of EU expansion. Instead of a well-heeled club inviting in select neighbors, more people see it as a stabilizing force for a Europe that hasn’t felt this imperiled for decades.

The bloc’s most recent addition, Croatia, had to recover from a devastating war that claimed tens of thousands of lives before joining in 2013. The two stages of enlargement prior to that were in some ways addenda to the Cold War, which was a holding pattern in the aftermath of a hot war that trapped economies in the suspended animation of communism. People in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic had to navigate a convoluted process to buy something Western like a Fiat; EU members the Czech Republic and Slovakia are now among the world's top auto exporters.

This successful merging of previously-troubled states into a self-reinforcing economic alliance sounds a lot like the “gentle commerce” outlined by 18th-century philosophers. But even Montesquieu, the Enlightenment thinker most closely associated with the doctrine, didn’t think “gentle commerce” was an absolute cure-all.

The not-so-Enlightenment?

Montesquieu pointed out that an overriding focus on buying low and selling high could be morally corrosive, for example. Other downsides would only become clearer much later.

More generally, the value of the Enlightenment itself has been up for debate. All of that faith in reason and naïve optimism about what humans are capable of risks blinding us to darker possibilities, some have argued.

Then there’s the philosophers themselves. They can be pretty problematic – like George Berkeley, the subjective idealist who was a social reformer but also, as it turns out, a slave owner.

Inconsistencies like that meant it wasn’t too hard to poke holes in lofty Enlightenment ideas long before Russia decided to pursue a 21st-century ground war in Europe. Karl Marx’s critique boiled down to this: The merchants strengthening "civility" through global commerce are the same people actively buying and selling human beings?

And there’s of course the fact that much of the pursuit of “gentle commerce” in the period following the Industrial Revolution led directly to last month, the hottest on record. Globalization is hailed for pulling millions of people out of poverty, at the same time that it’s blamed for hastening the climate crisis.

EU members by year of entry; the bloc has been seen as proof of the power of 'gentle commerce.'
EU members by year of entry; the bloc has been seen as proof of the power of 'gentle commerce.' Image: Datawrapper

The true meaning of the Enlightenment has occasionally crystallized. When the Nazis occupied Paris, for example, they made a point of melting down a bronze statue of the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Pretty on-the-nose.

The formation of the EU can be seen as a response to that sort of authoritarian terror, right down to its anthem – a 19th-century melody based on a poem described as the “essence” of the Enlightenment.

Now, the bloc that puts imaginary bridges on its banknotes to symbolize connectedness has a chance to expand its reach in a meaningful way, at a time when real bridges in Europe are being destroyed. This might be one of those crystallizing moments.

The EU hasn't been a flawless exercise. Some countries opted to bypass full membership and have done fine. One member surprised a lot of people not long ago by changing its mind and quitting; its experience on the outside has been more nuanced.

Much of what makes the EU tick, or the contemporary world in general, would be unrecognizable to Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu (you really have to wonder what Enlightenment progenitor Descartes, of “I think, therefore I am” fame, would make of generative AI).

But Montesquieu’s observations, not just on commerce but also on concepts like the perpetual risk for everyone of a descent into despotism, still ring true.

If nothing else, they remain valuable reference points.

Gentle commerce is dead, long live gentle commerce.

More reading on ‘gentle commerce’ and EU expansion

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • In some ways the war in Ukraine – and really any modern war – is also a product of the Enlightenment, according to this piece. That’s because people starting wars must now take responsibility for them, instead of deferring to “divine” decision-making. (The Strategy Bridge)
  • “Accession through war.” This paper delves into Ukraine’s bid for EU membership, an “act of despair” that’s boosted morale and altered perception of the meaning behind the bloc’s enlargement policy. (Istituto Affari Internazionali)
  • “Enlightenment ideas of scientific rationalism and technological domination have led us to the edge of an abyss.” Here’s one take on why the Enlightenment is in need of a serious update. (Project Syndicate)
  • The Enlightenment-era thinkers you tend to hear about are men. But here’s an 18th-century Italian exception, who was the first salaried female professor at a university. (JSTOR Daily)
  • Croatia’s 2013 accession to the EU was “far from obvious,” due to local impacts of the longest war in recent European history and enlargement fatigue, according to this piece – which argues that the country is now a positive example for current membership candidates. (AIIA)
  • “Millions of Ukrainian refugees within the EU’s borders amount to a kind of enlargement by default.” This piece asks whether the bloc will recognize the facts on the ground and welcome Ukraine purely on strategic grounds. (Social Europe)
  • EU membership has a more straightforward security aspect that has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. But according to this piece, Article 42(7) of the EU Treaty is pretty meaningless without the promise of US military assistance. (German Institute for International Security Affairs)

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