The Five Most Important Treaties Ever
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.