International Law and World Order: An International Conference

April 17-18, 2010 • Milwaukee WI

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Douglas Howland

Department of History, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee



            What sort of law is international law?  Is it a collection of customs ready to be fitted to national interests, or is it something more objectively binding, like treaties?  Did it assist the creation of a European order of states or was it primarily a vehicle for European imperialism?  And what of Europe’s outliers— the perennially ambiguous Russia, not to mention the Ottoman empire, Japan, Siam, China, and the states of Latin America and Africa?  Were these included within or subordinated to a European order?  And did international law in fact produce some sort of world order, or was it an object of world order?


            The conference seeks to interrogate international law as it was constructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  We also seek to examine the relationship between international law and world order.  We do not simply assume, as with so many received histories, that the “family of nations” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries represents a growing moderation among the great powers of Europe, marked by an increasing lawfulness of their international activities.  Nor do we necessarily assume the opposite, so ably argued by newer histories in the past decade, that international law was largely complicit with imperialism—that international law served to codify, as rights, European privileges of imperialism and, as duties, the subordination of colonial peoples.  We hope to complicate and supplement all of these histories insofar as they omit sustained discussions of non-Western European state agents.  The conventional histories nod to the “standard of civilization” and the “society of nations” and observe that the Ottomans, for example, were welcomed insofar as they signed on to the 1856 Treaty of Paris, and so on—but they go little further.  What the proposed conference hopes to do is to examine the development of international law and world order globally, in order to account for the participation of states such as Japan and Russia, “NGO”s such as the International Red Cross and the International Law Association, and seeming anomalies such as the North Borneo Company and the Association intérnationale Africain. 


            Of course, any attempt to historicize the development of international law and world order in 2010 is difficult.  Many introductory texts of international law simply begin with the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations; they dismiss as a dim but noble attempt the entire work of the nineteenth century.  Meanwhile, the United States under the second Bush regime negated even the work of the U.N.  And through the entire period of two centuries, the sovereign state persists as the privileged subject, marked at times a government of decision-makers, at other times the will of the people, and perennially criticized as an obstacle to international order. Theories of the state, theories of natural law, and theories of normative morality both inform and disturb our assumptions about the very states that are presumably the constituents of international law and world order.  How do we reconcile elements of political and legal theory with treaties, conventions, and agreements that may or may not be law?


            The conference explores the development of international law and world order by way of a set of key processes.  This is not a definitive list; one goal of the conference will be to critique and refine this description.  First of these is the effort to restrain warfare:  in the humanitarian interests of alleviating the suffering of civilian populations and wounded soldiers; in the commercial interests of respecting the rights of neutrals to trade; and in the pacifist interests of diverting interstate conflicts to international tribunals of arbitration.  All three were fitful goals, for many of the publicists active in organizations such as the Institut de droit international were nationalists who saw warfare as a legitimate course of state action; their ideal was a “civilized” war that accorded with international agreements, and they praised as such the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.


            A second key process is the creation of global standards that foster international integration.  From the universal postal union in 1875 on, such conventions standardized global habits and began to unify a global economy in the guise of an international community.  Sanitation, navigation, time, industrial property, submarine cables, weights and measures, and the telegraph—all came under the purview of international agreements by the first decade of the twentieth century.


            A third process is the development of an international legal expertise, not only through the work of organizations such as the International Law Association, but also through the expansion of legal training outside of western Europe.  Scholars and publicists in peripheral states in Asia and Latin America became central participants to international law and legal theory.  It was this creation of a public space for international law and agreements that lends credence to the value of public opinion in diplomacy and world order, and fostered an international collective of lawyers and publicists committed to the development of international legal theory.


            And a likely fourth process was the policing of international order through the ratification of the constituents of international law and order.  This was primarily the formal recognition of states as sovereign entities, but also the formal acknowledgement of the absolute neutrality of the Red Cross and the formal creation of colonial states as protectorates (and eventually mandates), which replaced the messy arrangements of territorial claims and spheres of interest.  What was sovereignty and was it amenable to a regime of international law or some other form of international order?  How were sovereign states to coexist as equals with independent corporate persons, both state-like entities such as the Association internationale Africain, and NGOs such as the Red Cross?