The American Road to World Peace

By Alfred Zimmern | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 20: International Law

THE second moderating influence on the competition for power between sovereign states was provided by what was called "The Law of Nations" or, as it began to be called early in the nineteenth century, "International Law."

What is this international law, with which we shall be more and more closely concerned as we approch the problem of establishing world peace upon a firm basis?

International law, we are informed by its exponents, is the name given to the body of rules which are considered legally binding by civilized states in their dealings with one another.

To anyone who has followed the preceding argument it is clear at first sight that international law is not law in the Greek or American--not to say English or Swiss--sense of that important word. It grew up in the age of sovereignty, when the idea of basing power upon the consent of the people was unknown, or had died out, over the greater part of Europe. The fact that the word "law" has become attached to it is due to the survival in the minds of its exponents, and especially of the great Dutch writer Grotius, of the Stoic concept of natural law. Writing in an age of general European war, it seemed to Grotius that the competition between sovereigns for power, unrestrained by any limiting factor, was "unnatural," contrary to the nature of things, to the cosmic order, and to the nature of man himself. "There are some notions so certain," he wrote, "that no one can deny them without doing violence to his own nature." There must therefore, in the nature of things, be some limiting or restraining factor and to this Grotius, following the Stoic philosophers, gave the name of law; no doubt, he hoped that this august appellation would awaken some faint spark of awe or reverence in the minds of self-centered sovereigns.

We cannot pause to deal more fully with the concept of natural law, which is still a powerful intellectual and moral influence in


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