Symposium on Rewriting Histories of the Use of Force: Conflicts of Interest in International Law Scholarship – Addressing An Indifference to Capitalist Imperialism

Symposium on Rewriting Histories of the Use of Force: Conflicts of Interest in International Law Scholarship – Addressing An Indifference to Capitalist Imperialism

[Isa Blumi is Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Stockholm University.]

Dr. Agatha Verdebout’s Rewriting Histories of the Use of Force (2021) charts how International Law’s founding generations of scholars sought relevance during times when the powerful adopted “the law” only when it suited their interests. By reading beyond the ‘emotional’, ‘cynical’, or ‘idealistic’ discourse that accompanied assertive claims about the distinctive eras of this Euro-American global order, Verdebout (pp. 213-319) methodically ‘deconstructs’ the self-serving discourse of 20th century scholars’ assumptions that they have improved on the previous era of relative ‘disorder’. As World War I was the key turning point according to these retrospective studies of International Law (IL), its outbreak in 1914 (a datethat disregards the global destabilizations of ‘order’ throughout the 19th century), was, for all subsequent accounts, the logical consequence of a legal ‘indifference’ to the Use of Force. It was a 19th century failure, in other words, to adopt mechanisms of enforcement only seen with the rise of the postwar ‘new world order’ that produces the analytical paradigms Verdebout critically engages.

At the forefront of the 20th century myths Verdebout confronts are the scholars writing during an interwar context dominated by American industrialists like Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, and their bankers. Invited to define their era as one that finally pursued global governance through institutions like the League of Nations, scholars hired by universities and think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment and Rockefeller’s Council of Foreign Relations became the de facto apologists for the global spread of capitalism. These globalist institutions are celebrated as the necessary response to the previous era’s characteristic ‘…absence of a superior authority capable of laying down determinate obligations and forcefully enforce them…’ (p. 225). Verdebout rightly contextualizes this self-promoting scholarly differentiation as part of an overall campaign to commandeer a new role for an IL field otherwise proven to be, at least prior to World War I, ‘…incapable of controlling the behaviour of States’ (p. 225). 

While Verdebout’s welcome rehabilitation of 19th century scholars (pp. 113-211) challenges the reductive tropes adopted since World War I, there may be some room for expanding the focus to link prewar commentators with the global violence that accompanied the gradual rise of the Euro-American State. Verdebout’s book does monitor IL as it becomes a (sub)discipline inhabited by self-proclaimed experts claiming an advisory role during decades of Euro-American institution building (and corresponding State ‘might’ to dictate what was ‘right’) associated with the ‘Long 19th Century’. This scholarship, however, may not only reflect a theoretical debate but perhaps an at times psychological struggle about how to account for a colonialist enterprise shifting away from a private company investment to one where costs are outsourced to the state.

It is possible that the way 19th century IL scholars responded to this transition acknowledges a struggle between the primary agents of capital benefiting from this emerging modern state and those set to lose out. Throughout this period, the would-be profiteers of empire  struggled against fiscal conservatives, the European ‘proletariat’ expected to both labor cheaply and fight in their empire’s wars, and finally the peoples of the larger world whose resources would face capitalist plunder. By claiming a role in this transformation of the Euro-American modern state, IL scholars often adapted ‘principles’ that aimed to further the advantages gained from a push toward a global ‘monopoly of violence’ characteristic of 19th century capitalist imperialism.

This process described by Charles Tilly as the equivalent of an organized criminal operation may serve as a critical context to the underlying political economy of knowledge production within the IL discipline. What Verdebout’s scholars were likely doing, in other words, was positioning their work to fit a process in which the Euro-American capitalist mafia started to impose (granted haphazardly and with many violent failures) the foundations of modernity. In the end, what informed the debates around how to interpret and frame interstate relations during this violent transformative period was the confrontation with other peoples’ understanding of what constituted international order.

In my reading, the 19th century IL scholarship seemed to be responding to the resistance from, for example, Muslim polities throughout the world which drew on their own principles and legal codes on how to organize life. As presented in Verdebout’s analysis of numerous cases in which these Euro-American legal scholars studied the confrontations with Muslim polities, the rationales of opposition were glaringly ignored. Indeed, the predominate response was an overt, almost pathological denial of Muslim (read: Asiatic) relevance.

Although rarely engaged in their writings directly, these complex, historically profound legal, commercial, and diplomatic traditions, nevertheless informed how first Euro-American companies and then states (and the powerful men of capital who controlled them) could conduct their affairs beyond the North Atlantic. Put differently, whether the men based in major universities or law firms (representing the interests of capital) liked it or not, the way the rest of the world still resisted Euro-American capitalism impacted the evolution of the state in the North Atlantic world.

One possible reason for this strategy of disregarding Asian agency is the expansionist apparatus of violent suppression evolving to serve as a cost-cutting mechanism those commandeering this massive transfer of wealth. The fact that it had not yet been fully ideologically instrumentalized meant conflicted interests (including, in Marxian terms, the proletariat of the West, but NOT the rest of humanity) debated the consequences. These debates articulating frustrated, conflicting interests took place between ‘gentlemen’, stock market speculators, and industrialist patrons of the think tank/university who invariably commissioned the scholars in question. The resulting models of analysis often evoked ‘European civilization’ as confronting its ontological (Islamic, Chinese, Catholic, Asiatic/African, Savage) ‘Other’. This was an ideological, perhaps even ‘emotional’, backdrop to these 19th century IL debates that undoubtedly contributed to the mythmaking linked to the violent evolution of Euro-American capitalism and its impact on the world (pp. 9-10, 255-58).

As noted in Said’s Orientalism, in their self-aggrandizing discourse advocates of Euro-American imperialism claimed their ‘… mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, … us[ing] force only as a last resort’. Here Verdebout’s scholars’ offer the ‘…calming words about…altruistic empires…[despite] the evidence of … the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilzatrice’ (p. xxi). Crucially, Joseph Massad observed that the very liberalism of that self-isolating ‘European civilization’ necessitates an ontological Oriental Other in order to claim universal authority. Verdebout’s study thus misses the opportunity to complicate an overtly Eurocentric response by excluding the very global and regional orders (Comanche, Indian Ocean, Ottoman and Afro-Islamic, Chinese and Japanese) that throughout the 19th century resisted the ‘inevitability’ of Euro-American liberalism’s ascendency.

Throughout the cases discussed in Verdebout’s study, indigenous resistance is only rarely recognized as such. When acknowledged, it is due to Verdebout consulting a robust secondary literature on American imperialism that highlights the commercial ideology undergirding the violent annexation of Hawaii (p. 196) and Spanish lands in the Caribbean and Pacific (p. 140), the bullying of Latin American countries like Mexico (p. 28) and Nicaragua (p. 176), or simply imposing a global ‘moral’ order via the Rockefeller funded League of Nations. Crucial to this historiography has been the recognition of the corrupting influence of capital. Be it the corporate media that spoke for the ‘people’ via the use of yellow journalism, the corruption of politicians commissioned to interpret the law in ways that suited their industrialist patrons, or the commandeering of scholarship, much of what was written in the era served to help realize the expansionist interests of a capitalist, increasingly racist imperial order. Considering the resistance these measures faced, a growing cadre of historians of empire are finally acknowledging a dynamic of ‘white mythmaking’ that alert us to similar factors at play in the theorizing of IL, even if contemporary scholars did not admit such factors existed.

Recent histories of the production of ‘colonial knowledge’ highlight its structural origins germinating out of American and British universities. These institutions employed the main economists, anthropologists, medical researchers, and lawyers who helped shape Euro-America’s ascendancy. These were also institutions financially dependent on industrialist-cum-colonialists like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Duke, Vanderbilt, and Rhodes. Scholars hired by these universities invariably represented an instrumentalization of scholarship that explicitly serviced the interests of industrialist capitalism, as, for example, when quarantines in Egypt threatened to render British trade with India unprofitable, Oxford-based ‘scientists’ reversed their own determinations about the threats posed by cholera. Such infusion of knowledge and capitalism must include the arguments around what constituted IL and what did not.

Despite being subsumed under a set of tropes that rendered non-White humanity ‘uncivilized’ and thus deserving the violence that accompanied Euro-American imperialism (a kind of brutal ‘White Love’ that only a caring father could give), the very presence of a defiant Imperial China or the many Muslim polities influenced the intellectual navigations of competing legal paradigms inside the imperial ‘core’. Prior to the Opium Wars and before Euro-American ships monopolized Indian Ocean maritime trade using anti-Slavery claims as justification to destroy their indigenous commercial rivals, Europe was hemorrhaging its gold and silver. Silver and gold, plundered from the Americas, was flowing to the ‘Orient’ to pay for Europe’s addictions to imported tea, high quality fabrics, and spices. As it lost its primary sources of wealth to republicanism in the America’s and had little to offer in terms of ‘equal trade’ with the rest of the world, ‘Europe’ faced financial disaster, a reality that invariably shaped the way IL scholarship demonstrated a contradictory ‘indifference’ to some cases of state violence.

Having learned from the destruction of a French monarchy that could no longer pay for its grain shipments from Ottoman ports, Verdebout’s scholars were witness to a period of transition that started with (Latin) American revolutions, continued with collaborative efforts to impose IMF-like economic austerity on Ottoman Muslim polities (including Syria where the resulting violence led to the 1860 case of French intervention, p. 103) and ended with a political economy of starvation. Without properly contextualizing these economic, political, and cultural events in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, including Russian threats to British merchants’ access to Ottoman grain markets or a growing Egyptian state that promised to impose a powerful model of state capitalism on the larger Ottoman Empire (both important rationales for supporting ‘Greek’ separatism, pp. 153-59), it proves impossible to appreciate the conflicted interests behind the scholarship Verdebout seeks to rehabilitate. 

Recognizing ‘conflicts of interest’ in the debates over the use of force provides the necessary complimentary deconstruction of IL scholarship that is in essence an extension of capitalist violence. Unfortunately, the foundational works heralded for their complexity throughout Verdebout’s study invested energy to effectively ignore (or deny) a place for these conflicting interests in the evolution of a modern State’s use of force. It was, I argue elsewhere, resistance from the ‘uncivilized world’ that shaped how first John Austin criticized the claims that an ‘order’ existed among still fragile European states and then retrospectively reconfigured to become, out of necessity, ‘law’ as codified by Calvo, Woolsey, or Pradier-Fodéré several decades later (pp. 226-27). Theirs was the necessary production of a myth of exclusive rights that ostracized and then ‘silenced’ the peoples of the larger world from any contributing place in how history would be subsequently written.

While there are any number of contributing factors to the debates around International Law, paying attention to the likely influence capitalists secured when donating money to universities or hiring law firms to provide legal cover for their crimes helps illuminate first the vulnerability of Euro-American power when facing still entrenched non-European polities. Secondly, the very precarity and the enduring resilience of alternatives to a ‘global order’ 19th century apologists of capitalist imperialism claimed, required a plethora of ideological, structural, and technocratic ‘myths’ to emerge. Thusly, 19th century IL was equally compromised for it too was embedded in universities, law firms, newspapers, and halls of government that were all dependent on imperialist capitalism’s patronage.

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Books, Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Use of Force
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