Book review: Boundaries of the International

Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire By Jennifer Pitts. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp 304.

Forthcoming in The Historian, by Or Rosenboim

The history of international law has captured the interest of historians, political theorists and jurists who sought to uncover the theoretical development of legal structures beyond the state. In recent years, scholars sought to challenge some of the theoretical premises that characterised existing literature to reveal the contradictions underpinning past ideas about the law of nations. In Boundaries of the International,Jennifer Pitts argues that global imperial relations set the foundation for the emergence of international law in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In a brilliant and masterly analysis of key legal and diplomatic texts, Pitts argues that the law of nations sought to responded to and regulate the encounter between Europe and non-European societies. In this hierarchical, unequal and discriminatory context, claims about the law of nations emerged as the basis for a presumably universal legal system.

The book combines erudite historical narrative and sophisticated theoretical analysis of important legal thinkers, in order to challenge conventional accounts of the history of international law. Five thematic chapters examine the legal thought of the book’s dramatis personae, who include well-known thinkers such as Montesquieu, Vattel, Burke, J. S. Mill, and Maine, alongside less familiar writers. Thus, the book offers a fresh interpretation of the implication of international law in the European imperial project.

Pitt’s study is rich with ideas that cannot be distilled in a short review. Chapter 2, for example, examines the place of the Ottoman Empire within the nascent system of international law, through an insightful discussion of ‘oriental despotism’ as a new analytical tool used to mark the boundaries of the presumably universal law of nations. As religious differences ceased to justify the exclusion of the Ottoman Empire and other non-European polities from the legal universe governed by the law of nations, ‘oriental despotism emerged as the organizing category for the question of what sort of diplomatic and legal relations between European states and the Ottoman Empire [..]’ (37). While legal theorists employed this category to provide a ‘rational and accessible for all’ justification for the universal authority of the European states, diplomats with direct experience of Ottoman politics were more critical. Pitts pays particular attention to Sir James Porter, England’s ambassador to Constantinople from 1746 to 1762, and to the French orientalist Abraham Hyacinth Anquetil-Duperron, who provided effective critiques of Montesquieu’s concept of Ottoman despotism. For her, they represent an alternative, critical view, which identified early on the limits of European legal universalism.

Pitts’ remarkable book is an important contribution to contemporary debates on the history of international law, as well as its future prospects. ‘International law is the product of a history at once distinctively European and also, often devastatingly, global: its history is a history of aspirations to universal validity that itself cannot be told impartially’. Pitts’ impressive study leaves the reader with a feeling of uncertainty – perhaps shared by the author – that international law could ever be emancipated from the chains of its imperial past.
























City, University of London                                                                               Or Rosenboim

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