Academic journal article German Quarterly

Imagining World Order: Literature and International Law in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Imagining World Order: Literature and International Law in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800

Article excerpt

Tang, Chenxi. Imagining World Order: Literature and International Law in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800. Cornell UP, 2018. XII + 341 pp. $59.95 (hardcover).

As we see our world order crumble in an age of a tribal fragmentation of the public sphere and of populist uprisings against globalist institutions, tracing the history of the construction of a world order that aspired to promote the wellbeing of humanity is an important project. Chenxi Tang's important book is an intellectual history of the emerging world system in early modern Europe, discussing both political theory and representative European literary texts that both fed off and informed this world order.

Tang's introduction explains how poetic literature can "cope with the uncertainty, instability, and incompleteness of international law" to configure "a normative world order that international law is incapable of realizing" (9). Tang concedes that the term international law was only coined in the late eighteenth century by Jeremy Bentham but asserts that it has existed as a concept since around 1600 as ius gentium (law of nations, Völkerrecht). Yet it remains unclear what "international" and "nation" mean in this context. Tang refers to the underlying issue in a case study on the question of whether relatively minor German princes, specifically Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, should be allowed to participate in the peace negotiations at Nijmegen (1678-79) along with kings, electors, and Italian princes. Tang is interested in the intellectual rather than political solution: to make a case for Anton Ulrich, Leibniz, who was in the employ of the Welfs of Braunschweig and Hannover, offered his theory of relative sovereignty, against Grotius's notion of sovereignty.

If public international law emerged only in the decades around 1600, how did jurists and poets respond to the transformations of the sixteenth century, particularly the emergence of a global trade system? The hapless responses in the Empire and in France show how unprepared they were to deal with this question politically and intellectually. While the first chapter is entitled "The Old World Order Dissolving," Tang barely touches on this issue. The Treaty of Tordesillas from 1494, briefly mentioned by Tang, didn't just pragmatically map out a new world order but also offered a blueprint for settling international disputes through diplomacy. Such a conflict arose in 1521 when the Spanish Magellan expedition reached the Moluccan spice islands that already had been claimed by the Portuguese. For years, two teams of diplomats, jurists, and mapmakers negotiated the 1529 Treaty of Saragossa that extended the Tordesillas line to the other side of the globe. A discussion of how the rise of Iberian diplomacy-as well as more generally the theater of the colonial conquest-informed Spanish Neo-Scholasticism would have enhanced Tang's argument. Instead Tang jumps straight to Camôes's Os Lusíadas (1572), an epic poem about Vasco da Gama's first voyage to India in 1497-99. He arrives at the compelling conclusion that the classical epic was no longer able to restore the cosmic order nor to repair the disorderliness of the world, thus rendering it an obsolete genre.

It is with the discussion of the beginnings of public international law (Gentili, Suárez, Grotius) in the second chapter that this book comes into its own and the methodological premise develops its full potential. This coincides with the rise of the absolutist state that thrived on a growing administrative apparatus and on a theatrical staging of the world order. Its performative aspect gave rise to two basic fictional modes: poetic plots in the tragic mode that tracked the descent of increasingly isolated princely persons into discord and destruction, and poetic plots in the comic mode that tracked the movement of princely persons toward concord. This activated the tragedy and the political romance that both functioned within an absolutist doctrine of state. …

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