Neff, Stephen C. Justice among Nations: A History of International Law

By Bradley, Gerard V. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Neff, Stephen C. Justice among Nations: A History of International Law


Bradley, Gerard V., The Review of Metaphysics


NEFF, Stephen C. Justice Among Nations: A History of International Law. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014. 628 pp. Cloth, $45.00--This magisterial work is not a history of international law" in the most conventional senses of the term. The author is not concerned to identify the origins or to trace the rise and fall of specific norms of international law. Nor does he provide a history of institutions which traverse national borders. This is not a book about globe-rattling events, such as world wars, era-defining treaties (Westphalia, Versailles), or the comings and goings of great men (Caesar, Churchill). It is not about the practice of international lawyers.

Neff seeks instead to answer the following question: how has it come to be that there is such a thing as international law at all? He sets out to describe, more specifically, the general nature and character of international law; how it was made, interpreted, and applied; and why it has taken the course that in fact it has taken. Neff opines that international law [itself] is not so much a list of rules, as a response to the challenge of devising answers" to these questions.

The scope of Justice Among Nations is breathtaking. The narrative begins in ancient Greece among contending city-states and concludes with events of the recent past, discussing such topics as the United Nations, the conflict in the Middle East, and nuclear-armed superpowers. Along the way, Neff explores patterns of thought (about justice among nations) originating in the Christian, Islamic, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions. He is equally adept discussing Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. Neff is enough of a philosopher, theologian, lawyer, and diplomat to do justice to his sources. The chapters are topical and fit within an overarching chronological structure. The sixty-page bibliographical essay is a tour de force.

Justice Among Nations is nonetheless written for the nonspecialist. Neff writes for lay readers" as well as for lawyers. No prior legal knowledge or training" is presumed. The author's model is Vattal's Law of Nations, a literary gem," useful to men of affairs," and not merely moral [philosophy]."

One reason Neff hits his target audience is that he writes well. Another is that he presents the thinking of a huge cast of sophisticated characters straightforwardly and, as far as I can tell, without novel or complex interpretation. One more reason for the book's accessibility is that Justice Among Nations is not a philosophical work: Neff does not critically assess the validity (soundness, truth) of propositions governing the right conduct of states in their relations with one another. Justice Among Nations is expository.

The book is perhaps best described as an intellectual history. The question remains, then, of what is it an intellectual history. The subject matter of most intellectual histories is ready made. It is Marxist, Maritainian, or inspired by some recognized group of thinkers (the Physiocrats, the Cambridge Platonists). Sometimes it is an idea or a concept (progress, authority, order) or a discrete set of practices, such as ancient diplomacy or warfare among nations. Yet, Neff writes in his brief conclusion: If there is any lesson to be drawn from our juridical voyage, it is that there cannot be said to be any such thing as a history of international law as a single unitary thing."

Now, one might instinctively identify international law as a set of posited rules for the conduct of states interacting with other states. But, before there were states," there were kingdoms and empires. And before that, there were smaller bearers of what could be called public authority. Before them there were diverse protopolitical entities. At which point in the skein does the history of a specifically international" anything begin? …

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