Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire
By Jennifer Pitts
Harvard University Press, 2018, 304 pp.
Theorists of modern international law typically trace its origins to the rise of the European state system in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this narrative, European countries, which saw one another as sovereign and equal, forged legal principles to regulate their relations and later exported those principles to the rest of the world. Pitts complicates this story by illuminating the ways in which international law was an artifact of empire, a system for organizing the world so as to perpetuate Western dominance. In the late eighteenth century, when universalistic conceptions of law took hold, discourses on international law often specified universal ideals that would unite the “civilized world” as a moral community. But notions of universalism and equality tended to mask exclusionary, Eurocentric thinking. It was the “law of nations” that justified territorial conquest, the seizure of foreign ships, and the imposition of discriminatory trade regimes. Later, in the twentieth century, international law aided those struggling against empires and for self-determination. So in the end, international law proved both a tool of the powerful and a weapon of the weak.