The Five Most Important Treaties Ever

by Duncan Hollis

Here’s a fun game everyone can play.  Take five minutes (and no more than five minutes) to list the five most important treaties ever.  By “important” I mean in terms of historical significance–i.e., their impact on human history.  Thus, despite the views of some, focus on what the treaty did (or did not) do, rather than its potential.  This, I think, takes more recent aspirants (e.g., the Rome Statute or whatever succeeds the Kyoto Protocol) off the list.  And by “ever” I mean to capture a treaty’s impact through a longer historical lens than simply whatever treaty has been the most important to the last decade, or even the latter half of the twentieth century. 

Here’s my list:

1.  The Peace of Westphalia (I know it’s technically two treaties, but this is my game, so work with me)

2. The Louisiana Purchase

3. The 1865 International Telegraph Convention

4. The Treaty of Versailles

5. The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Now, I can already hear the shouts — what about the UN Charter (let alone the WTO Agreement, one or more of the Geneva Conventions, the Montreal Protocol, etc. etc.)?  And maybe I’m just being provocative to stimulate discussion.  On the other hand, I ultimately decided not to include the UN Charter in lieu of what I regarded as these other, more important treaties.  To me, the Peace of Westphalia provided the structure of the international legal system through to the current day in terms of the horizontal equality of states, a newfound respect for minority rights, commerce, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.  The Louisiana Purchase dramatically shifted the geopolitical position (and rise) of the United States which (eventually) led to a weaker set of European Great Powers; both developments impacting not only events in the West but how these powers would subsequently interact with the non-Western world.  The 1865 International Telegraph Convention might seem like a strange choice.  But it (alongside the 1864 first “Geneva” Convention of the Red Cross) signaled the shift from a world of bilateral or small, closed multilateral treaties, to instruments that aspired to global regulation (like the later UN Charter).  At the same time, the ITU marked the first, real international organization, an institutional form that has rapidly proliferated with attendant impacts on nation states and their nationals.  The Treaty of Versailles is important because it failed (see, e.g., World War II).  And, if treaties are now the dominant source of international law, the VCLT warrants a listing because it provides, to use H.L.A. Hart’s formulation, secondary rules, for forming, interpreting, and exiting treaties (besides, did you really suspect a treaty lawyer would leave it off any such list).

Of course, my list is unlikely to attract universal acclaim (although I will assume that’s the case if no one comments on this post).  Admittedly, it reflects my personal biases and lack of knowledge in certain areas (I suspect a case might be made for a non-Western treaty in lieu of one of my five, but I simply couldn’t come up with one to list here).  In the end though, this is my list, and I like it.  Do you disagree?  If so, let’s hear your list.

14 Responses

  1. Damn you, Duncan Hollis!  I was going to nominate the First Geneva Convention, but you beat me to it.  I do think, though, that you should have listed it instead of the 1865 International Telegraph Convention, if only because it was a year earlier.  And I would be tempted to replace the Treaty of Versaille with the London Charter, which gave birth to international criminal law.  But I’m an ICL scholar and practitioner, so I’d rather go with the successful treaty.  Julian probably prefers your choice… 🙂

  2. If we’re going to be parochial, I nominate the Louisiana Purchase for deletion, at the benefit of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community.

    Beyond that, I’d suggest splitting the game up into peace treaties and others, because peace treaties, by their nature, have a more drastic impact. (Why not include the Final Act of the Vienna Conference of 1815, which created several countries and established the Concert of Europe?)

  3. I was going to nominate the Single European Act. Although the 1957 Treaty of Rome set the stage, the SEA was the one that really got European Integration going.

    The NPT should also at least be in contention. We may debate how much of an impact it has had on nonproliferation but it certainly sets the stage for any negotiations on what is one of the two or three most important issues of the past few decades.

  4. (Without looking at other people’s selections)

    Well, either of the first two Geneva Conventions would be a good choice.

    The Berne Convention certainly deserves a place in the top five, as it has enabled to modern role of research and intellectual property.

    For similar reasons, the WTO treaties have helped to form the modern global economy.

    Glancing back at the Cold War, the CTBT undoubtedly helped to keep nuclear weapons out of arsenals and helped prevent their use up to the modern day.

    …and keeping on that vein, the NATO treaty helped provided the united front that prevented World War 3 (To date)

    (Actually reading the other entries, I think I have a notably modern bias.)

  5. Before reading the other lists I had:
    UN Charter
    Treaty of Rome

    The ICCPR is my outlier but I had it on for setting the stage for what was to come in modern human rights law.

    I take your point, Duncan, on the UN Charter but, given that it has provided the framework for interstate relations during the time of the greatest growth of the state system,  as well as the institutional widening and deepening of international law, I think it belongs on the list.

    VCLT: no. There are plenty of common canons of construction that could have been used as means to frame expectations even without the VCLT.

    I’ll take Treaty of Rome over Single European Act because there would have been no SEA without the Treaty of Rome. All things considered, though, I think I might remove the Treaty of Rome from the list in favor of the Louisanna Purchase, though I know some of our readers might consider that parochial. Duncan convinced me with his argument on that one.

    Closing thought: how sad is it that when Duncan wrote that listing great treaties is a “fun game” I thought “Oooh yeah, what a great idea, that sounds fun!” I think we need to get out more.

  6. Including the Louisiana Purchase isn’t only parochial, it is also cheating. Compared to the others in Duncan’s list, the effect it had was much more indirect, via a half dozen or so other intervening causes.

    For the European Union, it should have the original treaty, not the SEA, because a) without the Treaty of Rome there would be no SEA, and b) because the actual changes created by the SEA were relatively modest. (Compared to even the 1965 Merger Treaty.) Rather than the SEA, I’d say the Maastricht Treaty is the second most important treaty in EU history. (It created the EU, and vastly extended the width and deapth of the Union’s competences.)

  7. 1. Westphalia (for creating the international system)
    2. Kellog-Briand (for being the first at trying -though unsuccesfully- to regulate the prohibition of war)
    3. VCLT (a “treaty about treaties” has to make it to the list!)
    4. 1st Geneva (for IHL)
    5. ICCPR (for being the -effective- starting point of modern human rights)

    I do not include the UN Charter because I prefer treaties that set the stage for things and initiated a change on how things work. The Charter is more the culmination of those efforts than a groundbreaking proposition. The UN Charter would probably be 6th place though.

    Oh and nominating the Louisiana Purchase is just too US-centric for my taste! in that case, why not put the Treaty of Tordesillas (division of Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence in the Americas) or the Inter-American Human Rights Declaration (first Human Rights treaty ever, even before the Universal Declaration)? or the Maastricht Treaty? If its an important treaty just for your own country or region, then it’s not a “most important” treaty. For me, it has to be a “universal treaty”.

    Fun game though!

  8. Most of the good choices have been claimed.  I guess I would include the following:

    1.  UN Charter (Duncan, you were just being contrarian).

    2.  GATT (maybe it and the WTO are just the stepchildren of the ITU, but that celebrates format over immediate gains).

    3.  Treaty of Rome (not not SEA, nor Euratom).

    4.  Magna Carta (since I’m not listing the VCLT (which is just customary international law anyway, right?), I can play a little loose with the definition of treaty).

    5.  Louisiana Purchase.  This would not have been among my initial choices, but let me rise to its defense.  It’s no more parochial than any bilateral treaty that reaches across an ocean, and since it’s not among neighbors, it’s even less parochial than the Treaty of Rome, the SEA, or Maastricht (though if the EU keeps expanding, those will no longer be parochial in any sense at all).  As to “cheating,” I find this puzzling.  If one wants to measure the impact of a treaty — as opposed to political and economic forces that would have produced the same result, as is the case for a lot of peace treaties, arms control treaties, and others — this is a pretty good candidate; what I recall is that this was a gamble by the French based on their perception of their national interests, particularly relative to G.B., and it could very well have been otherwise (certainly in the scope of the concession).  Sure, its subsequent effects were contingent, but that same analysis bedevils every treaty, and would tilt us even more toward the present.  It’s only because the EC didn’t implode during the 1970s, or afterward, that we care about the Treaty of Rome — as we should.

  9. @Edward Swaine: I don’t see how the Louisiana purchase, itself, set the US on its path to greatness, without any further novus actus interveniens. On the one hand, a lot of the things that explain America’s power today were already present in 1776, such as resource abundance, stable republic, bill of rights, etc., on the other hand, a lot of other things that explain America’s power today were (policy) choices made around the civil war and around world war I and II.

    The Louisiana Purchase got France out of their back yard, and bought them an enormous chunk of vast nothingness for later immigrants to settle in.

    The EEC was a unique and extraordinary achievement from the day it was created. (Or, in the words of the ECJ in Costa v Enel in 1964: “It follows from all these observations that the law stemming from the treaty, an independent source of law, could not, because of its special and original nature, be overridden by domestic legal provisions, however framed, without being deprived of its character as community law and without the legal basis of the community itself being called into question.“) Because of its unique nature, the Treaty of Rome has significance far beyond the limits of the European continent, for example in South America (Mercosur) and South-East Asia. If we can ever get it to work right, Community law will replace International law some day.

    Incidentally, the absence of an implosion is not a novus actus interveniens, so the analogy does not work.

  10. Mr. Holterman: Thanks for the reply!  I favor counting the Treaty of Rome, as I said, and I’m familiar with the many achievements it set in motion.  (Count me a little dubious, though, at crediting what the ECJ attributed to the treaty at the expense of crediting its own jurisprudence; moreover, there’s a decent argument that the ECJ jurisprudence on supremacy, direct effect, etc. was only permitted by subsequent political conditions, which gets to the contingencies I was mentioning.)  But of all possible future contingencies, I am most intrigued at the possibility that if all goes well, “Community law will replace International law some day”!

    With respect to the Louisiana Purchase, I would entertain its inclusion because had it *not* occurred, France might have stuck it out in the US, or the British might have taken it from France, or the US could have focused on a navy.  All uncertain.  I was not trying to say that US greatness was somehow entirely dependent on it.  And it is true, certainly, that if we hadn’t bought it, we might have gradually brought bits in via treaties of accession, until we rivaled international law . . . .

    Given the contentiousness of this subject, I’m just going to vote for a Treaty of Paris.

  11. @Edward Swaine: What I meant is that in many ways, European/Community Law is an experiment, that could lead the way towards global experiments of a similar nature. This is not something that is likely to happen any time soon, but let’s face it, we can’t keep muddling through with the Westphalian system (definitely including that one!) forever…

  12. I’d like to rise to Edward Swayne’s challenge on the Louisiana Purchase because there’s an important point here regarding that treaty that he touches on.

    The decision by Jefferson & the United States Government was momentous because it was taken after consideration, unlike today, of the fact that the Constitution provided neither the Executive or Legislative branches with the authority to go about purchasing huge tracts of land from foreign powers. I believe that the Louisiana Purchase marks a moment in time when the U.S. took its first steps out of its shell & towards what ultimately we see today.

    It also perhaps was kindling for Manifest Destiny believers, drawing the U.S. across the continent into a position of engaging Asia/Pacific as well as Europe with all the events that followed.

  13. @AJ Rosen: None of that makes the Louisiana Purchase an important treaty. At most, it makes it an important moment in US history.

  14. As things stand now, in light of this direction: ‘Thus, despite the views of some, focus on what the treaty did (or did not) do, rather than its potential,‘ I am surprised that anyone outside Europe thinks that any of the EC/EU treaties could qualify.

    I am also somewhat suprised that the VCLT is so popular! Professional insularity springs to mind 😉

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