Universal International Law


Governing interstate relations across the globe, contemporary international law is universal. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon: until the nineteenth century, the laws regulating interactions between sovereign polities were circumscribed to discrete regions of the world. How did international law become universal? This article critiques the assumption, held by most scholars, that this process was one of European expansion, arguing instead that international law universalized when jurists from semi-peripheral polities, such as Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and Latin American states, appropriated European international legal thought. Classical international law only recognized equality between states belonging to the “family of civilized nations,” while sovereign autonomy and equality was denied beyond the West. Faced with pressures to sign unequal treaties, elites in the semi-periphery realized the stakes of learning the international legal discourse. This article traces the work of non-Western jurists who studied international law in Europe, internalized the categories of classical international law, and ultimately used them in order to change, in the direction of equality, the rules of international law applicable vis-à-vis their polities. Their reinterpretation of the central elements of classical international law—positivism, absolute sovereignty and the standard of civilization—progressively achieved the inclusion of non-Western states within the regime of autonomy and equality. Thus, the doctrinal appropriation of semi-peripheral jurists transformed international law. It also formed a distinctive semi-peripheral legal consciousness defined by a “particularistic universalism.”