A Review of Pitts’ Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire

By Oskari Mantere.

Almost by definition, international law is universal. This belief seems nearly tautological, thus true to the point that it is almost silly. Of course, international law is universal; otherwise, it would not be truly an international law. This self-indulgent and unreflective belief is merely a false historical narrative. The fact is that the international law is not universal. The truth is that when any idea is claimed to be “universal”, one should be alarmed. Every universal statement is, by nature, particularistic. Either in the sense that the historical and philosophical anthropology they invoke is particularistic or because they are generalisations and universalisations made from particular historical circumstances. More commonly, – as is the case with the history of international law – it is combination of both.

In Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire, Jennifer Pitts traces some of the historical discourses and political philosophies that underlined the development of international law during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Inspired by academic literature built on the shoulders of the work done by Martti Koskenniemi and Anthony Anghie and armed with postcolonial sensitivity, Pitts challenges the false narrative of universality that is so central to international law. Her study can be summarised to have three questions in its kernel:

1. How did the “law of nations” discourse provide justification for imperial actors?

2. How did such discourse provide an arena to criticise European imperialism?

3. How did it obscure the imperialist nature of European states?

Throughout the book, these three questions illustrate the workings of the law of nations discourse and its innate limits. The language and purported aims of international law are universal and equal. But in practice, it is a particular picture of historical Europe that becomes universalised. Pitts uses an adequate term to signify this schizophrenic tension: “parochial universalism”.

Of the three main questions, the focus on the first two are the most streamlined and easiest to justify. Examination of the first question – How did the law of nations discourse provide justification for imperial actors? – is of such normative weight that it is almost redundant to discuss why it is important to understand the ways that international law is entangled with imperialism; in the postcolonial world, the claim that imperialism is bad is as close as we can get to a global ethical consensus. On the other hand, the importance of the second key question – How did the law of nations discourse provide an arena to resists imperialism? – might be less self-evident. However, it is as important to the story as the imperialist justifications provided by the law of nations discourse. Although these critical strands never became the dominant ones, they provide an important historical and political argument. By showing the history that never came to be, they show us that it has always been possible to conceive an international law that is not imperialistic by its nature . Armed with this knowledge, we can attempt to conceive an international law that is not imperialistic by its nature today.

One of the most important characters discussed in Pitts work is Henry Wheaton, who’s “Elements of International Law” (1836) overtook Emer de Vattel’s “Le droit des gens” as the cornerstone of the international law in the 19th century.

The third question – How did the law of nations discourse obscure the imperial nature of the European states? – is by far trickier. Consequently, if there are any caveats to be made on the Boundaries of the International, it is concerning how Pitt tackles this matter. The problem here is not that this question is not of the most urgent importance. On the contrary, one of the unfortunate and dangerous aspects of political thought and philosophy is that it often obscures our understanding of historical realities. And the law of nations discourse is no different in this. By imagining that states are equal and sovereign, it hid the imperial nature of European states. Pitts shows all this and does it excellently. However, she does not study or articulate how this obscuration influenced imperial programs or international law.

The law of nations discourse that is at the centre of the focus of Pitts’ work is a European phenomenon. Notably, besides brief discussions regarding the Ottoman Empire’s view of the law of nations, the Chinese authorities’ use of Emer de Vattel’s work and the law of nations against the British Empire in the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the attempt by Algerian businessman Hamdan ben Othman Khodja to influence the “Algerian question”, there are few non-European actors in the book. The aim of the book is not to discover the agency of those subordinated; rather, it is to highlight the relationship that the law of nations discourse had with global empire and imperialism.

Boundaries of the International is a study of the history of the international law that anyone interested in the intellectual or legal history of the European Empires cannot afford to pass. Without being overly technical in her writing, Pitts constructs an intellectual framework that is superb. Not only does she position writers in the historical context that they were writing, she also traces how the understanding of their texts varied in different times and places.

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