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America Among the Nations: Our Debt to Vattel
Since Donald Trump announced “America First” as a new philosophy for American foreign policy in 2016, diplomats and legal theorists have been nervously wringing their hands. The rhetoric of national pride, national interest, and national sovereignty, which many global elites had thought exiled to the periphery of international relations, was suddenly in vogue again. This new nationalism, many seem to fear, represents a return to the law of the jungle, a return to the realpolitik that soaked the soil of Europe with blood for the first half of the twentieth century. The nation that dares to privilege its own interest, we are told, is one that is certain to disregard international laws and treaties, renege on its commitments, repudiate the bonds of common humanity, and aggrandize itself at the world’s expense.
But this stark opposition of national interest and international law would have baffled both the early theorists of the nation-state and the Founders of the American nation. To be sure, national sovereignty relativizes the force of international law: ultimately, the nation must judge for itself the precise extent of its obligations to others. But no nation can ignore the existence of such obligations.
This vision of the nation as proudly self-reliant but not arrogantly self-absorbed is neatly captured in this well-known but little-noted clause from the Declaration of Independence: “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Long before the phrase “separate but equal” became irrevocably associated with civil rights debates, it denoted this key principle of nationalism: that every self-governing nation has an equal right to order its own affairs without being dominated by any other, within the limits of natural law. Yet however “self-evident” Jefferson may have asserted this truth to be, it was anything but in the eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic world. On the one hand, the powerful empires of Europe scoffed at the notion that petty republics deserved anything like an “equal station” alongside their illustrious monarchs. On the other hand, Enlightenment philosophers speculated that, being but collections of free and independent men, nations ought not claim a “separate” authority vis-à-vis one another but should see themselves as part of a civitas maxima—a great world-community governed by the law of reason.
America’s Founders deftly maneuvered between these two versions of imperialism, pursuing a vision of a nation both free and law abiding. In this pursuit, they were guided by the Swiss Calvinist Emer de Vattel. One of the fathers of both nationalism and the law of nations, Vattel, perhaps more than any other eighteenth-century thinker, crisply articulated the delicate balance between national sovereignty and international law, between justice and national self-interest, that came to guide first the Federalist Party in America and later the statesmen of Europe during the Hundred Years’ Peace (1815–1914). Vattel proposed a framework whereby nations could adapt and apply the familiar natural-law concept of “duties toward oneself” and “duties toward others” that would preserve both the independence of each and the interdependence of all. Far from underwriting a nationalism of cynical realpolitik or chauvinistic aggrandizement, this framework offered to early America—and still offers to us today—a principled bulwark against anarchy or imperialism.
Natural Law and the Law of Nations
Born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1714, Vattel—who rose to serve as a diplomat and jurist in Saxony under Frederick the Great—wrote during a golden age of diplomacy and statecraft. In the wake of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the barbarous Thirty Years’ War, Europe’s diplomats put a renewed priority on keeping the peace between the many petty principalities that still dotted the European landscape and maintaining the balance of power between the two behemoths that bestrode the Continent: Bourbon France and Habsburg Austria. As European economies prospered and trade proliferated, forward-looking statesmen recognized the mutual interests that united European states, even while constantly jostling for position to advance the interests of their own lands. Vattel’s 1757 magnum opus, Le droit des gens (The Law of Nations), was an eloquent statement of the spirit of the age but also a creative contribution to it. Masterfully synthesizing the theoretical contributions of scholasticism and rationalism with an attentive survey of the empirical realities of history and European international relations, Vattel provided an authoritative guidebook to the conduct of sovereigns—in relation to their own people and in relation to one another. Vattel steered a middle road between utopian internationalism and cynical realism: “To flatter ourselves with the vain expectation that men, and especially men in power, will be inclined strictly to conform to the laws of nature, would be a gross mistake; and to renounce all hope of making impression on some of them, would be to give up mankind for lost.” (This and subsequent quotes are from the 2008 Liberty Fund edition of The Law of Nations, edited by Béla Kapossy and Richard Whatmore.)
The notion of a “law of nations,” or ius gentium, occurs in Cicero’s De Officiis (On Duties) and was developed by Roman jurists of the first centuries AD. But throughout classical and medieval discussions, the law of nations always paled beside the much clearer and more fully fleshed-out categories of natural law, human law, and divine law. Was the law of nations to be understood as the immutable natural law, only applied to nations rather than individuals? Or was it a species of variable human law, merely the product of agreements between nations? Vattel was convinced that most of his predecessors, including the famous Hugo Grotius, had failed to answer this crucial question clearly. The correct answer, he intuited, was “both, of course.” He thus begins his work with a key distinction between the necessary law of nations and the voluntary law of nations.
The necessary law of nations “contains the precepts prescribed by the law of nature to states” and is immutable and universally binding; it is the basic moral code that should govern the conscience of all statesmen as they consider their responsibilities to their own peoples and to others. But while everyone should respect these principles, of course not everyone will, nor will everyone always agree on how they apply in particular disputes. Thus the need for the voluntary law of nations—sometimes expressed through formal agreement, but often through inherited custom and tradition—by which nations articulate how they expect one another to behave and when they are prepared to enforce those expectations. Crucially, Vattel recognized that this voluntary law will need to be more permissive than the necessary law: there are plenty of things that nations perhaps should do that it would be utopian to demand in practice. The same was true of individuals: as even Aquinas had long ago acknowledged, civil law cannot and should not try and enforce the full weight of what conscience demands.
Throughout his comprehensive survey of international relations, Vattel thus follows a consistent pattern: first highlighting a moral norm that should, in principle, oblige nations in their just treatment of one another, then noting the various ways in which it may in practice be qualified by the nation’s appropriate concern for its own needs in a world of fragile lives and scarce resources. Vattel’s qualification of justice with interest rests on a delicate balance between a nation’s duties toward itself and its duties toward others.
The Nation’s Duty of Self-Care
The first of these is apt to strike an odd note in the liberal ear: after all, to speak of a nation as having duties toward itself (rather than to its citizens) is to treat the nation as a more emphatic unity than many are now accustomed to do. Vattel’s analogy certainly rests upon a strong concept of the nation as a moral person. This idea of the nation as a man writ large has left deep imprints on our political vocabulary, although we rarely notice them anymore. The “body politic,” it often used to be said, had a “head” and “members,” and it was knit together, like a healthy man, by “good constitution”; if it had a bad constitution, it was weak and diseased. The nation, on Vattel’s account, is never merely a sum total of individual wills, a mere means for them to adjudicate their differences and provide for their bodily needs. Rather, it is always larger than the sum of its parts, the bearer of a corporate personality that preserves the people’s traditions, protects the people’s honor, and pursues the people’s perfection. Vattel can even speak of the nation’s having a conscience, which is one of the reasons why he continues to defend the importance of public religion: just as each individual person has a duty to honor and obey God according to his conscience, “Who shall dare to dispute that an independent nation has, in this respect as in all others, a right to proceed according to the light of conscience?”
As a moral person, then, the nation has a moral right and duty to look out for itself. Indeed, such self-preservation is a necessary prerequisite to benevolence: I can be of no use to others if I do not take care of myself. Thus, although Vattel can sound at one moment like a bleeding-heart internationalist when he says that “each individual nation is bound to contribute every thing in her power to the happiness and perfection of all the others,” he goes on to say that these benevolent duties “depend very much on its duties towards itself”; after all, “he who no longer exists can have no duties to perform.” Accordingly, the nation must safeguard its military defense and the maintenance of public order, as well as ensuring that all its material needs are provided for, its public goods protected, and its trade thoughtfully regulated.
But a nation, like an individual, has a duty not only to preserve itself, says Vattel, but to perfect itself, and this requires strong national cohesion and unity of purpose. “The perfection of a thing consists, generally, in the perfect agreement of all its constituent parts to tend to the same end.” This telos, or end, of political society includes the usual priorities of “mutual defense against all external violence” and “peaceful possession of property,” but more fundamentally it is the pursuit of happiness. This happiness is not merely material or individual, but entails a common pursuit of knowledge (I.11), piety (I.12), and justice (I.13). The nation, then, must prioritize the education of its people, so they can best understand how to pursue their own perfection:
To instruct the nation, is not sufficient:—in order to conduct it to happiness, it is still more necessary to inspire the people with the love of virtue, and the abhorrence of vice. Those who are deeply versed in the study of morality are convinced that virtue is the true and only path that leads to happiness; so that its maxims are but the art of living happily; and he must be very ignorant of politics, who does not perceive how much more capable a virtuous nation will be, than any other, of forming a state that shall be at once happy, tranquil, flourishing, solid, respected by its neighbours, and formidable to its enemies.
Vattel’s vision of national perfection was no totalitarian one, however. On the contrary, he recognized that for the most part a nation’s happiness and prosperity depended upon the freedom of its citizens to pursue their own happiness and prosperity. He argues strongly for the value of free inquiry, a free press, and religious freedom. How are these private virtues to be channeled into public virtues, in service of the common good? Not by force, but by old-fashioned patriotism. The wise nation will “inspire the citizens with an ardent love of their country” so that “each will endeavour to serve the state, and to apply all his powers and abilities to the advantage and glory of their nation.” Such love of country, says Vattel, is indeed something “natural to all men,” implanted by Providence, but it can be strengthened or weakened by good policy and a wise constitution. Vattel viewed Britain as the premier example of such wise policy:
That illustrious nation distinguishes itself in a glorious manner by its application to every thing that can render the state more flourishing. An admirable constitution there places every citizen in a situation that enables him to contribute to this great end, and every-where diffuses that spirit of genuine patriotism which zealously exerts itself for the public welfare . . . in order to promote the glory and welfare of the nation.
For Vattel, the nation’s glory is as important as its welfare, just as an individual man defends his reputation and honor as fiercely as his material interests. Indeed, the two are inseparable, since in international affairs, as in social life, those who enjoy the esteem of others are likely to gain tangible benefits: “The glory of a nation is intimately connected with its power, and indeed forms a considerable part of it. . . . A nation . . . whose glory is illustrious—is courted by all sovereigns: they desire its friendship, and are afraid of offending it.” Accordingly, one of the foremost duties that every nation owes to itself is to establish and increase its reputation and glory.
This may sound like a recipe for boasting and bluster, in the fashion of Kim Jong-un, or for a chauvinistic campaign of conquest, such as Alexander the Great embarked upon to gain glory for Greece. But Vattel cautions that “true glory consists in the favourable opinion of men of wisdom or discernment.” Thus it is inseparable from virtue and wisdom: a nation full of wise and virtuous citizens will gain glory thereby, as will a nation that conducts itself with wisdom and virtue in its relations to others. Far from promoting Machiavellian power plays, Vattel envisions a virtuous circle of justice, glory, and interest: nations that conduct themselves justly and benevolently toward others gain a good reputation and the friendship of other nations; this serves to advance the national interest, positioning the nation for further acts of magnanimity.
Of course, wise policy, for the state, no less than for the individual, requires self-knowledge. Thus Vattel emphasizes that one of the great moral duties of every nation is to know itself: “what advantages it possesses, and what defects it labours under.” If the basic principles of the law of nations are universal, their application to each nation’s needs are anything but. Vattel is keenly aware that each nation will have different qualities, different needs, and a different national character, and the wise statesman is one who knows better than to copy the policy of another nation thoughtlessly: “Nations cannot be well governed without such regulations as are suitable to their respective characters; and in order to this, their characters ought to be known.” This principle is particularly relevant to commerce and trade, a subject on which Vattel spills considerable ink. While free trade is indeed generally good, all things being equal, all things are not in fact equal, and nations may have any number of sound policy reasons for pursuing forms of protectionism or favored trade relationships with allies. Vattel dismisses as absurd the idea that a nation could have some moral duty to allow other nations to profit at its expense: “Every state has consequently a right to prohibit the entrance of foreign merchandises; and the nations that are affected by such prohibition have no right to complain of it, as if they had been refused an office of humanity. Their complaints would be ridiculous, since their only ground of complaint would be, that a profit is refused to them by that nation, who does not chuse they should make it at her expense.”
The Freedom of Nations
Although the nation, like the individual, has duties toward others as well as toward itself, Vattel cautions us that there are a couple of ways in which the analogy breaks down. The law of nations cannot be simply the natural law of personal morality writ large.
The first difference is that the relationship between self-interest and benevolence is not the same in each case. Vattel waxes eloquent on the duties of nations to help their suffering fellow men in need, and indeed to cultivate love for one another, “cheerfully to help each other, earnestly to promote their common welfare, and to cultivate peace without jealousy or distrust.” The nation, however, is both a moral person and also a collection of persons, and so the statesman must recognize that it is not a question of self-interest vs. the needs of others, but the needs of his own others and others’ others. Whereas a private individual can and should sometimes sacrifice his personal interest to help neighbors in need, the statesman cannot necessarily indulge the same altruism, since his first responsibility is to see to the needs of his own people.
If a neighboring nation is suffering famine, the just statesman should seek to use the nation’s resources to assist it, but only if there is indeed enough surplus to avoid weakening his own people. Similarly with refugees and asylum seekers: our common bond of humanity leads us to the duty of hospitality, but this duty must be carefully balanced against the nation’s responsibility for its own citizens. Thus “every nation has a right to refuse admitting a foreigner into her territory, when he cannot enter it without exposing the nation to evident danger, or doing her a manifest injury.” Vattel gives the example (strikingly apropos today) of a ship of refugees infected by plague, but the principle also has wider application to the challenges facing the modern West when dealing with refugees: the nation “has a right to send them elsewhere, if it has just cause to fear that they will corrupt the manners of the citizens, that they will create religious disturbances, or occasion any other disorder, contrary to the public safety. In a word . . . it is obliged, to follow . . . the suggestions of prudence.” In the end, each nation must be its own judge of how to balance the moral demands of self-love and neighbor-love: “What she owes to herself, the care of her own safety, gives her this right; and in virtue of her natural liberty, it belongs to the nation to judge, whether her circumstances will or will not justify the admission of that foreigner.”
This leads us to the second, even more important difference between the natural law as it applies to individuals and as it applies to nations: individuals can and do have a superior over them to arbitrate their disputes, but sovereign nations do not. This point is worth pausing to consider, since it is far from obvious to many in our day, and was not in Vattel’s either. Consider the liberal premise about the origins of government. In a “state of nature,” all men might be bound by the law of nature to love and serve one another, to respect one another’s person and property, and to work together for their common interests. But not only is it sometimes hard to agree on what these common interests are; worse yet, humans are also tainted with selfishness and pride, which prevent them from properly living according to natural law. Thus they recognize the need for civil society and civil government as means of adjudicating their disputes, securing peace, and compelling the wayward to serve the common good. With this picture in the background, the question naturally arises: Why can’t nations do the same? Since nations are too proud and selfish to follow their moral duties reliably, and since they often fall into destructive conflicts as a result, why should they not band together into a supranational association, a league of nations, that could compel obedience and punish antisocial behavior?
Far from being a twentieth-century novelty, this idea was already widely discussed in Vattel’s time. In fact, the treatises on which Vattel explicitly modeled his own, Christian Wolff’s Jus naturae (1740–48) and Jus gentium (1749), call for the creation of a civitas maxima, a great republic of nations, that had power to formally legislate and enforce international law. Wolff’s great disciple, Immanuel Kant, was to further develop such speculations in his 1795 essay On Perpetual Peace. But while Vattel championed the idea of international law and indeed the value of institutions to mediate and arbitrate disputes between nations, he emphatically rejected any idea of a superstate that would compromise national sovereignty. When it came to arbitration of disputes, for instance, Vattel insisted that each state reserves the right to reject the arbitrator’s decision if it is “manifestly unjust and unreasonable.”
Vattel rejects the civitas maxima by rejecting the premise on which it is built. Political society, for Vattel, is founded not simply on a Lockean or Hobbesean need for mutual protection, but more fundamentally on the fact that individuals are not self-sufficient and need one another to achieve their ends. “Individuals are so constituted, and are capable of doing so little by themselves, that they can scarcely subsist without the aid and the laws of civil society.” But it should be clear, he says, “that the civic association is very far from being equally necessary between nations, as it was between individuals,” because the nation, like the Aristotelian polis, is essentially self-sufficient. Only relatively so, to be sure—nations still benefit immensely from trade and mutual communication—but these are not strictly necessary. Humans certainly benefit from banding together and regulating their common life together, but only up to a point—if we try to move beyond the great association that is the nation and to form an international superstate, we will pass the point of diminishing returns and will indeed undermine the ability of each nation to effectively provide benefits to her own people: “Independence is even necessary to each state, in order to enable her properly to discharge the duties she owes to herself and her citizens, and to govern herself in the manner best suited to her circumstances.”
However, in a world of large states and empires eager to devour more territory and secure more wealth, such independence would not be guaranteed by good intentions alone. It would require a careful balance of power. In a fascinating section of his treatment of just war in Book III of The Law of Nations, Vattel considers whether it is legitimate to go to war to prevent a state, or an alliance of states, from becoming too powerful. The question was no mere hypothetical: earlier in the eighteenth century, several of Europe’s leading states had waged the War of the Spanish Succession to prevent a dynastic alliance between the crowns of France and Spain. While deeming this particular war to have stemmed from a policy that was “too suspicious,” Vattel conceded that in some such cases “it may be reasonably presumed that the object of their coalition is to domineer over their neighbors,” in which case preemptive war would be justified. Order, liberty, and independence could only be maintained in Europe, argued Vattel, by constant vigilance and attention to “the political balance, or equilibrium of power; by which is understood such a disposition of things, as that no one potentate be able absolutely to predominate, and prescribe laws to the others.” This concept was to exert great influence on European diplomacy over the following century, and particularly in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, when the great powers united in the Concert of Europe to maintain peace and stability on the Continent.
Unfortunately, this nineteenth-century project, committed as it also was to preserving the positions of the leading empires and quashing nationalist movements, ignored another of Vattel’s key doctrines. For Vattel’s balance of power was no mere pragmatic concession to the demands of power politics as he encountered it in the Europe of his day. Rather, it stemmed from a principled commitment to the good of nations as such. This becomes evident when we consider how radical Vattel’s nationalism was in its mid-eighteenth-century context. A visitor from afar wandering around Europe would have been unlikely to describe it as made up of nation-states, each with its own sovereignty and national honor to defend. He would rather have seen it as a patchwork of empires, principalities, and city-states, a continent dominated by a few Great Powers—Austria and France preeminently, plus a handful of second-tier rivals—amid a host of small counties, confederations, and republics trying hard to avoid becoming the prey of the great states. As F. G. Whelan writes, “To assert the existence of a generic type of sovereign state as the basic political unity in eighteenth-century Europe required a rather daring act of the theoretical imagination on Vattel’s part.”
The most daring bit of all comes in Book II, Chapter 3, titled “Of the Dignity and Equality of Nations.” In Vattel’s time, some still imagined the Holy Roman Emperor to possess a uniquely exalted status among the sovereigns of the earth, while also “at present kings claim a superiority of rank over republics . . . disdain[ing] to admit them to an equality.” Vattel contended, however, that nations every bit as much as men must be considered to have been created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. Not in the empirical sense: nations, like individuals, vary enormously in size, strength, and advantages. But when it comes to their moral and legal status, “power or weakness does not in this respect produce any difference. A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” It was on the basis of this Vattelian maxim that Jefferson could so brazenly assert in the Declaration of Independence that the backwoods confederation of rebellious colonists in America should “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”
America Among the Nations
Although The Law of Nations became a canonical text of jurisprudence and international relations, and Vattel was held in great respect among many statesmen of the young American republic, his most eager devotee would prove to be not Jefferson but the Founder’s bête noire, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton first read Vattel in 1782 and became a strong advocate of his value to the new republic. This perhaps should not be surprising, given that Hamilton, unlike Jefferson, shared Vattel’s deep esteem for the British constitution. More fundamentally, however, Jefferson’s emphasis on the natural rights of individuals stood in tension with Vattel’s greater stress on the role of positive law and national sovereignty. For Federalists like Hamilton, however, Vattel provided a blueprint for nation building.
During the 1780s, as J. M. Opal has argued in “The Republic in the World, 1783–1803” (in Jane Kamensky and Edward G. Gray’s Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution), Vattel’s work was particularly central to the Federalist project. Throughout its first decade of existence, America was something of a laughingstock in Europe, a ragtag confederation that would probably go to pieces within a decade, and certainly not a state that deserved a seat at the table alongside Europe’s great sovereigns. No wonder that Britain largely ignored the terms of the Treaty of Paris and that few European nations accorded America full diplomatic recognition. The only way to resolve this, and for America to genuinely take her “separate but equal station among the powers of the earth,” was for America to become an authentic nation, with sovereign authority internally and with a willingness, as John Jay argued in Federalist No. 3, “to observe the laws of nations toward all European powers.” These laws of nations, Vattel had argued, were a delicate balance of immutable norms and pragmatic realism.
This balance was soon tested by the crucible of the French Revolution. Faced with the first great diplomatic crisis of the young nation, Hamilton turned to Vattel’s ideas to defend American interests in the midst of an existential threat. America had entered the 1790s with only one firm friend in the world, France, and that was a nation now embroiled in radical revolution. The French Revolution and the ensuing European war threatened to tear America apart, pitting our leading Founders against one another and laying bare fundamental disagreements about the nature of the new nation. In 1793 revolutionary France declared war on Britain and sent Citizen Genet to call upon America to honor her 1778 Treaty of Alliance and Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which gave France the right to use U.S. ports and U.S. sailors in conducting maritime war with Britain. Hamilton argued that since those treaties had been signed with Louis XVI, whose head was now in a basket, America was free to renounce those treaties. Jefferson, citing Grotius and Pufendorf, and convinced that the universal natural-law principle of keeping promises must bind nations just as much as men, strongly demurred. Even more important to Jefferson were the “natural rights” of freedom that France stood for, which justified her war against Britain.
Hamilton returned brandishing Vattel, who had argued that although treaties were not automatically invalidated by changes in government, a nation could nullify a treaty in such cases if the changed circumstances rendered the treaty a threat to the nation’s survival. President Washington steered a cautious middle course, neither yielding to Genet’s entreaties nor formally renouncing the treaties. But as the Revolution became more radical, and Genet more theatrical, the administration coalesced around Hamilton’s Vattelian idea that natural and international law must be adapted to the protection of critical national interests.
The crucial but much-maligned Jay Treaty continued the Federalists’ Vattelian policy of keeping one eye on the natural law and one eye on the voluntary law of nations. If America wanted to trade with Europe, it would have to play by European rules, rather than asserting its “natural rights” of commerce. When Jefferson took power in 1800, he quickly sought to shift American foreign policy in his own more cosmopolitan direction, championing universal free trade and free emigration into western territories that lay beyond American sovereignty. These moves almost ended in disaster under the Madison administration in 1812, alienating the British, undoing the careful work of Federalist diplomacy, and blundering into the middle of a great European war. Although America emerged from the War of 1812 chastened, many were still willing to push the boundaries. J. M. Opal notes that when Andrew Jackson invaded Florida unauthorized in 1819, Congress debated the action in terms set by Vattel: “One [congressman] even waved a copy of The Law of Nations while denouncing Jackson.”
Yet once a nation becomes powerful enough to throw its weight around without serious repercussions, prudence unchecked by principle may no longer demand carefully following the rules. Thus, as the nineteenth century proceeded and America increasingly enjoyed uncontested power on the North American continent, Opal observes, her statesmen tolerated an increasing disregard for international law. American pioneers ranged freely into lands that treaties had guaranteed to others, provoking conflicts that then demanded American military intervention and a steady expansion of the boisterous young republic. “Believing that their citizens’ incessant demand for markets and lands strengthened rather than weakened the Union, they framed those demands as universal and natural rights. In this way Americans could understand themselves as inherently lawful, could celebrate their isolation and innocence while spreading themselves and their business across the continent and around the world,” Opal writes.
The ideology of Manifest Destiny, with its annexation of large parts of Mexico and extirpation of Indian nations, is often seen today as the foul fruit of nationalism. It is nationalism, we are told, that runs roughshod over the rights of other nations and provokes wars. Yet the early American experience shows that the opposite was true: an idealistic faith in the universal rights of man, coupled with a supreme confidence in American goodness, led America into one disastrous war, nearly embroiled her in another, and resulted in an imperialistic land grab almost unparalleled in history.
In contrast, Vattel and his Federalist disciples show us that though nationalism repudiates woolly-headed utopianism, its commitment to national sovereignty need not imply a hard-headed realpolitik that disregards any higher law between nations. Although often engaged in describing international law as it actually existed in his time, Vattel was also undertaking an essentially normative project. He looked beyond the age of empire toward a time when sovereign states, dedicated to preserving their national customs, national characters, and national interests, recognized one another’s freedom of action, seeking friendship with all but admitting subservience to none.
The ideology of Manifest Destiny and its modern-day analogues is not nationalism, certainly not in the Vattelian sense. If the freedom and self-government of nations is in fact a moral good, if “a dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom,” then one nation cannot absorb a smaller neighbor simply because it is strong enough to do so. Indeed, it cannot even take it upon itself to “fix” another nation that it is convinced is broken. According to Vattel:
Though a nation be obliged to promote, as far as lies in its power, the perfection of others, it is not entitled forcibly to obtrude these good offices on them. . . . Those ambitious Europeans who attacked the American nations [that is, native Americans], and subjected them to their greedy dominion, in order, as they pretended, to civilise them, and cause them to be instructed in the true religion,—those usurpers, I say, grounded themselves on a pretext equally unjust and ridiculous.
The same narrative continues to play out today. Sober-minded nationalists realize that protecting our nation’s interests means acknowledging the interests of others. Liberal internationalists, on the other hand, convinced of the universal rights of man and the goodness of their own ideals, seek to export Western products and Western values to every corner of the globe, forcing their good offices on backward nations. Is it any wonder that such a strategy finds us mired in conflict after conflict, while eroding all the while the national honor and glory whose cultivation, Vattel says, “is one of the most important of the duties it owes to itself”?
Those early American statesmen who were authentically committed to the good of nations and the good of their nation thus minimized conflict, sought to respect national boundaries, and cautiously negotiated trade agreements that would benefit the new republic. By eschewing idealism, they insisted that America grow up and act like a nation, playing by rules while also maneuvering—as every nation must—in her own interest. The result, they hoped, would be “a nation whose reputation is well established . . . whose glory is illustrious—[who] is courted by all sovereigns . . . [whose] friends, and those who wish to become so, favour its enterprises, and those who envy its prosperity are afraid to show their ill-will.”
Bradford Littlejohn is a senior fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation and the founder and president of the Davenant Institute.
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