The most recent issue of the American Historical Review (Feb. 2012) includes a forum that may be of interest to many readers. The forum's contents are described below; the journal issue containing the forum is available free online to subscribers (and to others for a fee) here.
The history of empires and imperialism has long been a prominent theme in history of all periods, but with the advent of transnational history, its centrality is greater than ever. For the most part, however, the emphasis has been on the dynamics of conquest, colonization, exploitation, and the modalities of imperial rule. And yet, despite the fact that coercion fundamentally characterized the relations between the agents of imperial power and subject peoples, Western nations with imperial ambitions were also committed to the rule of law, or at least were sensitive to the contradiction between lawless conquest and constitutional rule.
This AHR Forum, “Liberal Empire and International Law,” confronts aspects of that contradiction from three perspectives. In “The Liberal Traditions in the Americas: Rights, Sovereignty, and the Origins of Liberal Multilateralism,” Greg Grandin (NYU--history) begins by suggesting that one aspect of the much-celebrated “exceptionalism” of the United States is rarely noted: its unique relationship to Latin America. Other world powers, such as France, Holland, and Great Britain, ruled over culturally, racially, and religiously distinct peoples, whom, moreover, they regarded as such. The settlers who colonized North America, by contrast, looked to Iberian America not as fundamentally “other” but as a competitor in a struggle to define a set of nominally shared—and also contested—values and political concepts: Christianity, republicanism, liberalism, democracy, sovereignty, rights, and, above all, the very idea of “America.” After the republican revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the relationship between the U.S. and the new nations of Spanish America was characterized by both contention and intimacy—a rivalry over a shared republican legacy. To be sure, England's rule over its “Celtic fringe,” especially Ireland and Scotland, produced a somewhat similar relationship, which ultimately generated the legal basis for the latter British Empire. But in the Americas, the relationship between the U.S. and Latin American nations was played out over a longer period of time and across much vaster spaces, yielding a unique and complex history. Grandin's essay compares and contrasts the two sides of this rivalry, focusing especially on the contested notions of rights and sovereignty.
In “Empire and Legal Universalisms in the Eighteenth Century,” Jennifer Pitts (Univ. Chicago--political science) looks at various figures who commented critically from a legal perspective on European imperialism. She notes that throughout the modern period, the law of nations has been both distinctively European and universal in its aspirations. Its possible or practical universality, however, has been a vexed issue, with significant moral and political implications. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the consensus among all but a few Western European jurists was that international law, though exclusively European in origin, was authoritative for all: Europeans could and should dictate the terms of legal interaction to so-called backward peoples. For a brief period in the eighteenth century, however, there flourished largely forgotten critical approaches to the question of the scope of the European law of nations and the nature of legal relations between European and non-European states and peoples. These approaches regarded a global legal order, or a network of orders, as a constraint on the exercise and abuse of European states' power. Pitts focuses on the writings and interventions of a range of European figures, including Edmund Burke, the French orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, and the influential Admiralty Court judge William Scott, Lord Stowell.
In “Liberalism and Empire in Nineteenth-Century International Law,” Andrew Fitzmaurice (Univ. Sydney--history) continues along the lines of demonstrating the critical possibilities of liberalism and law in relationship to imperialism. For the most part, he notes, international law was employed to justify the domination of European states over the rest of the world. And it is assumed that the liberal apology for empire reached its apotheosis in the nineteenth century to carve up the globe. His article examines the debates over the justice of empire in international law and diplomacy in just this period. The debates focused on the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 over the partition of Africa in general and the colonization of the Congo in particular. In this context, liberal international lawyers developed a new legal vocabulary to justify the expansion of empire. But some also opposed empire, giving rise to an opposition that only strengthened as the race for empire gathered pace. The opposition was based not on humanitarian sentiment (which, in fact, often served as an apology for imperial rule), but rather on self-interested concerns about the security of liberal reforms and revolutionary changes within Europe. Evoking the concerns about empire and imperialism in the present, Fitzmaurice concludes by reminding us that while the liberal tradition has often justified expansionism, it also contains the resources to oppose it.
In his Forum comment, “Empire and Its Anxieties,” Anthony Pagden (UCLA--political science & history) provides a learned survey of the history of imperial rule and empires with an emphasis, in keeping with the theme of this forum, on both the law of nations and international law. He plays on the distinction, brought out in Pitts's and Fitzmaurice's articles, between European empires before the nineteenth century, where cosmopolitan attitudes, moral concerns, migration from the metropole, and the potential for mutuality characterized overseas settlements; and those of the later period, where international law legitimizing the right to occupy and colonize prevailed over all other considerations. The key to this difference, he argues, is to be found in the liberal revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which joined rights with citizenship in the nation-state, for it was sovereignty that conferred the legal status by which non-European peoples were found lacking and thereby were subject to conquest. As products of those revolutions, the new nations of the Americas had even less claim to empire than their European counterparts. Nevertheless, they still were confronted with peoples and lands that had to be incorporated into the nation-state, although not through the kind of imperial conquest that would have entailed shared sovereignty. Instead, the U.S., at least, has either relied upon de facto justifications for intervention or foreign occupation, or “fallen back on robustly Roman declarations of political and cultural superiority in defense of supposedly universal political values.” The result, Pagden concludes, has led us to the present, where “the old anxieties about the consequences for the metropolis of what its citizens do in its name beyond its frontiers have become even more acute today than they were for Edmund Burke.”