The Internationalists: Book Review

I just finished reading a terrific book, but I’m not sure how to approach telling you about it. If I tell you that it’s a densely written, impeccably researched book about international law, intellectual history, and foreign relations, I could make it seem boring. But I don’t want to mislead anyone either. In fact, the writing style is lively and engaging, but that’s not the main reason to read it. You should read it because it will rock your world, or at least, your understanding of the world in which we live. The book is The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World, and the authors are Yale law professors Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro.

Let me start here. In 1928, essentially every nation on earth signed a treaty named the Kellogg-Briand Pact, after the American Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, and the French Foreign Minister, Aristide Briand. That treaty, signed with much fanfare and enthusiasm, outlawed war. Since 1928, as you may have noticed, the world has seen a few wars, including, like, the Second World War. As a result, Kellogg-Briand is generally seen as ridiculous, a big, sad, unfunny joke. It’s not really taught anymore in classes on 20th century history, and rather ignored by experts in international law. The point of this book is to argue that Kellogg-Briand was massively consequential, exceptionally important, a pact that literally changed everything. Before I read the book, I had heard of Kellogg-Briand, mostly in the context of ‘look what silly nonsense weenie liberal eggheads got up to just before the most destructive war in history, what a laugh.’ Having read the book, I now find Hathaway and Shapiro’s argument completely convincing, and that realization has completely changed my opinion about 20th century history, the world we live in how, and the entire field of international law.

Hathaway and Shapiro begin by discussing the work of a Dutch scholar, Hugo Grotius, who in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries formulating a legal defense for war. Grotius did not act in a vacuum. of course, and what his writings really accomplished was simply to codify the ways nation-states already acted. War was simply the primary way in which nations resolved disputes. If you wanted territory held by a neighboring state, you sent an army across the border, and took it, and if you were able to do so, you held it, ruled it, used its resources for your own national purposes. You generally didn’t invade other countries without a pretext of some kind. You would, almost always, compose some lengthy rationale for your invasion, laying out all your grievances and complaints and the diplomatic steps you had taken to resolve matters peacefully. But you did send troops in, and if they were successful, the other countries on earth let you get away with it.

They use as an illustrative example, American President James K. Polk. The United States had a long-standing dispute with Mexico, over borders, and over negotiated reparations payments the US claimed that Mexico owed. All those complaints were carefully articulated in a war manifesto. (Hathaway and Shapiro, and their students, have compiled a remarkable database of over 300 war manifestos from throughout history, all round the world.) Having observed the legal niceties, Polk sent troops into Mexico, in what we call the Mexican War. As a result, the US added California, Utah, Nevada and much of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico to its territory. This conquest was justified by international law, as per Grotius. Nobody disputed it at the time, and nobody really seriously suggests that we, for example, give California back to Mexico. Might made Right.

It’s important to note two things. First, Polk did not say ‘man, if we took California’s ports and harbors, it would open up trade with the Orient.’ That happened, but it was not one of the rationales for war listed in Polk’s manifesto. And certainly, war manifestos could be self-serving and meretricious. But none of that mattered. Two nations had a dispute. The legal, justifiable way in which nations resolved disputes, according to the top legal analysis available, was through war. And after wars were fought, sovereignty over territory changed. California is, today, fully American. And everyone in the world was okay with that.

Everything changed in 1928. War was made illegal. The idea of invasion as a way of resolving disputes between nations became illegal. Every nation on earth, pretty much, agreed. And so, because war had been outlawed, Old World Order invasions and incursions became widely regarded as morally and legally invalid.

Did that fact deter Adolf Hitler? No, it did not. Nazi Germany still invaded Poland. But that invasion was seen as invalid, illegal, a contemptible act by an outlaw regime. That’s why the surviving Nazi leadership were tried at Nuremberg. (I found the lengthy discussion of the Nuremberg trials absolutely riveting.) It’s certainly true that most of the Nazis on the dock at Nuremberg were tried for war crimes. But in the Old World Order, according, again, to Grotius, war crimes couldn’t exist. Whatever any soldiers did in wartime was considered legally acceptable. Post-Kellogg-Briand, in the New World Order, perpetrators of war crimes could be tried and executed for their misdeeds. And, of course, the German government could be condemned for invading Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Russia. That was no longer the legal way for nations to resolve disputes.

Kellogg-Briand, therefore, is not some nugatory piece of pacifist fantasy. It created the New World Order. When Russia invaded Crimea recently, that act was condemned as illegal, and Russia paid the price in economic sanctions. Some of the sanctions imposed damaged the economies of the European nations who imposed them. That ultimately didn’t matter. That invasion was a criminal act, a violation of international norms and laws and treaties. And the world acted in response.

One consequence of all this is that the numbers of nations on earth have increased. When the United Nations building was first built, its designers had to decide how many seats were needed for delegates. There were then 51 nations represented; the architects, after consulting with experts, decided to add another 20, just in case, bringing the total to 71. Today, the United Nations has 193 members, and all the seating the architects intended for audiences are needed for delegates.

But it makes sense. If Might Makes Right, then smaller countries would be swallowed up by more powerful nations all the time. The Old World Order created the conditions under which  colonialism could flourish. Not anymore. Since Kellogg-Briand, the numbers of nations has dramatically increased.

The end of legally sanctioned war did not mean the end of illegal, unsanctioned violence, of course. Terrorism and civil war still cause massive amounts of destruction and death. But violence has been greatly reduced. And even something as patently foolish as the American invasion, under President George W. Bush, of Iraq, shows the ways in which Kellogg-Briand affects the waging of war. The US couldn’t invade Iraq alone. That would be illegal. It needed to be done by the international community, by coalition forces. Then the war would be a response by the world to a rogue, outlawed nation. That was the legal rationale, at least, though it still strikes me as the most feeble kind of rationalization. But that’s frequently true of most war manifestos historically.

Anyway, I thought this book was exceptional, and I’m very glad I read it, and I strongly recommend it to you. It’s a paradigm-shifting book, a book that helps you understand the past, recognized what’s happening in the present, and forecast the future. And for a book by legal scholars, it’s intelligently and engagingly written. As Edwin Starr so memorably put it: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” A sentiment which isn’t quite true, but is surely worth keeping in mind.

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