Plagued by gross exaggerations, contradictory data, unproven assertions, foul name-calling, U.S.-exceptionalist grandstanding, odd grudges and more.
A truly mystifying work of nonfiction, The Internationalists is written as an academic text with more than 120 pages of endnotes. But the book was published by a popular press, not an academic one, and would surely not pass a peer review. In addition to lacking a genre identity, the book is plagued by gross exaggerations, contradictory data, unproven assertions, foul name-calling, U.S.-exceptionalist grandstanding, odd grudges, a lack of care with words and a total disregard for the capacity of any non-juridical force to generate historical change.
Authors Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, both Yale Law School professors, state their argument clearly: that the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which made non-defensive war illegal, was one of the most transformative events in human history, ushering in a fundamental change in the way international society operates. To prove this audacious thesis, they discuss the pre-1928 international society, which they call “the Old World Order,” and its proclivity towards violent dispute resolution; contrast this with the post-’28 society that they call the “New World Order,” and note how it makes war illegal and promotes a different method of conflict resolution; and finally produce statistical analyses that seem to demonstrate that conquest of territory does not really happen in the New World Order. Their argument convinces the reader that international lawyers find the 1928 Pact vital, but never connects legal theory to political action.
Hathaway and Shapiro try to resolve one of the more vexing research puzzles in Peace Studies: why has the nature of warfare changed so dramatically since 1945, from primarily wars between states to mostly wars within states? There are hundreds of books in dozens of languages positing various answers, and whether the authors have read any of them is unclear. What is clear, however, is that they have only a textbook-level knowledge of world history and are either ignorant of or disrespectful toward basic questions of political and social theory and ideas about historical change.
The underlying assumptions of The Internationalists are downright absurd. Most offensively, the book suggests that law and legal change are the foundation for human action. For instance, it lambasts the 17th-century Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius for composing a legal defense of wars of aggression, as if his writing itself conjured or exacerbated wars that were already underway. This assumption is the root of their argument, but it blatantly ignores the growing cultural, social, and economic tide against war throughout the 20th century. Law is reflective, not generative. The book thinks history is created at the top. All of the heroes of the book are white male lawyers and political figures from the North Atlantic. The authors seem like the sort of people who hated the film Selma because it made MLK the hero instead of LBJ; it was the latter, after all, who signed the Civil Rights Act.
What the writers miss is crucial. Specifically, anti-war sentiment generated by outcasts, communists, pacifists, women and people of color suffering in European colonies in the build up to the First World War—and vindicated by that conflagration’s destructive consequences—pushed policy against war. States did not sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact in good faith; at the very moment of its signing, the United States was engaged in an imperial war of choice in Nicaragua (and would remain there until 1933), the British were beating nonviolent protestors in South Asia and the French were exploiting most of West Africa for cheap natural resources. The reluctance of states to make war since 1945 is again related to popular sentiment against war, which has nothing to do with war’s legality or the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Nowhere do the authors address, for instance, the illegal war the US conducted in Laos, wherein more than two million tons of explosives were dropped, a war not allowed by the 1928 Pact but possible because the public did not know it was happening. The interminable Global War on Terror being waged by the US today is a good counter-point: by and large, the US public has been supportive of this war, so the US is conducting military action in several countries in ways that are prohibited by The Internationalists’ vaunted 1928 Peace Pact.
Hathaway and Shapiro’s lack of fluency with historical scholarship leads them to exaggerate their evidence and to ignore contradictory information. For instance, they fail to understand the importance of the Cold War and the way it changed state behavior. They ignore the independence of Korea from Japanese rule and acts of US aggression in Central America in the 1980s. They even leave out ideas supportive of their argument, such as the partition of Vietnam in 1954, which was meant to prevent the communist North from invading the South because such an action would be seen as an act of aggression if it meant crossing an international border. They fail to see that the gunboat diplomacy of the ‘20s has been replaced by foreign aid and economic regulations.
Powerful states still coerce weak ones. In fairness, the authors would say that coercion does not equal war; while this is literally true, such a statement reveals a further gap in their knowledge, about structural violence: bad economic structures that lead people to starve to death or die of curable illnesses are no less deadly than wars that kill with bullets and bombs. In other words, the gunboat diplomacy of the New World Order murders its victims with empty stomachs and infections rather than the guns used in the Old World Order, but it is no less fatal for the victims and no less profitable for the victors. But this is a book for and about the victors; it has no time for alternative perspectives or the voices of the oppressed. The Global South and its centuries of struggle against the violent excesses of the North are not welcome here.