The notion that the international system is a society of nations has deep roots in European thought. This conception, influentially articulated by Emer de Vattel in 1758 and reaffirmed at the formation of the League of Nations and the United Nations, expresses two powerful normative aspirations: to the political autonomy of diverse communities, and to universal concern despite humanity’s fragmentation. But the nation-state system idealized in this conception emerged within, and was always materially dependent on, a system of global capitalist and imperial exploitation for which the conception had no space. Hobson’s socialist critique of imperialism, for all its force, likewise failed to address the asymmetry of the global system as a whole and the constitution of the international by the imperial. Even as the notion of a society of free nations was guiding the architects of the postwar order in 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois was developing an alternative language of disclosure. He conceived of the international system as a racial hierarchy in which capitalist imperialism was the dynamic force driving both global exploitation by whites of the “darker races” and violent conflict among the supposed nation-states of Europe. Du Bois’s international thought poses a challenge for the normative aspirations of international law: that they not obscure forms of domination but rather cast critical light on them.The second event, on January 17, is a symposium on Professor Pitts's recent book, Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire (Harvard University Press, 2018):
Pitts focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the great age of imperial expansion, as European intellectuals and administrators worked to establish and justify laws to govern emerging relationships with non-Europeans. Relying on military and commercial dominance, European powers dictated their own terms on the basis of their own norms and interests. Despite claims that the law of nations was a universal system rooted in the values of equality and reciprocity, the laws that came to govern the world were parochial and deeply entangled in imperialism. Legal authorities, including Emer de Vattel, John Westlake, and Henry Wheaton, were key figures in these developments. But ordinary diplomats, colonial administrators, and journalists played their part too, as did some of the greatest political thinkers of the time, among them Montesquieu and John Stuart Mill.
Against this growing consensus, however, dissident voices as prominent as Edmund Burke insisted that European states had extensive legal obligations abroad that ought not to be ignored. These critics, Pitts shows, provide valuable resources for scrutiny of the political, economic, and legal inequalities that continue to afflict global affairs.