Vol. 16 No. 3 (March, 2006) pp.204-206


IMPERIALISM, SOVEREIGNTY AND THE MAKING OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, by Antony Anghie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 378pp.  Cloth. £60.00/$110.00.  ISBN: 0-521-82892-9.


Reviewed by Denise DeGarmo, Department of Political Science, Southern Illinois University. Email: ddegarm [at] siue.edu


Approaches to international law have traditionally been framed in terms of the European experience and rooted in a Westphalian understanding of sovereignty.  Thus international law is viewed as the basis of order in a system of sovereign equals. According to Antony Anghie, the chief problem with this perspective is that it marginalizes the experiences of the non-European world and excludes “others” from full membership in the global community of states.  Anghie’s book, IMPERIALISM, SOVEREIGNTY AND THE MAKING OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, attempts to redress the absence of the “other” in the literature by providing an alternative lens that examines international law in light of the colonial experience.


Anghie begins his examination by focusing on problems associated with the traditional Western understanding of sovereignty and international law.  He argues that, while the Westphalian definition of sovereignty may provide for equality among Western states, it does not extend the same status to the non-Western world. Sovereignty in this context acts as a reinforcing agent of inequality between the developed and developing world.  Inequality, in turn, provides a justification for the interference, exploitation or conquest of the “other” by the West in order to fulfill a multitude of missions—e.g., exploitation of resources for industrialization or civilizing the uncivilized.   Instead of viewing international law as providing order among sovereign equals, the non-Western world perceives it to be a tool used by the West to embed structural inequality into the international system.  If this assertion is true, then the creation of sovereignty and international law may very well be heavily influenced by the colonial period as Anghie asserts.


Two broad areas of inquiry inform Anghie’s work.  First, he explores the connection between development of international law and codification of structural inequality.  Specifically, he is interested in how inequality, perpetuated through international law, has led to systematic exploitation of the “other” through a violent “civilizing mission” while embedding notions of racial discrimination and cultural subjugation into international practice.  Anghie believes that even today, international law not only promotes interference by the West, but also continues to exclude the non-West from full partnership in the international community.  The other area of inquiry involves the impact of traditional interpretations of sovereignty and international law on the understanding of sovereignty in the non-Western world.


Anghie traces the creation and development of international law [*205] from16th century Vitorian jurisprudence to the current “War on Terror.”  These historical cases allow Anghie to test his assertion that imperialism is the foundation upon which traditional notions of sovereignty and international law rest. Francisco de Vitoria’s jurisprudence provides the launching point for the analyses.  With law shifting from divine ordinance to the natural law of man, one might believe equality would encompass all beings inhabiting the global landscape.  According to Anghie, this was not the case.  Since natural law is informed by the norms and values of Europe, it is inapplicable to peoples whose norms and values differ.  Natural law by definition thus creates a framework which prefers the West to the exclusion of all others.  Therefore, the West and non-West are not treated as equals, nor is the “other” afforded the legal protection of sovereignty.  The absence of “sovereign equality” creates space for the justification of colonization and conquest of the “other.”  This is one example of many that Anghie uses to illustrate his belief that imperial underpinnings of the West influenced the character of international law.


Anghie’s discussion of the West’s “civilizing mission” is particularly insightful. As Europeans moved away from Vitoria’s jurisprudence and began creating law in their own image, additional attributes were proscribed for the non-Western world, further differentiating the two groups.  In addition to inequality, characterizations of “uncivilized” and/or racially different were used to create barriers to sovereign equality.   It is these last two characteristics that provide the foundation for the West’s “civilizing mission” or as Anghie asserts, justification for colonial domination. According to Anghie, the need to engage in the “civilizing” of the “other” promotes the idea that non-European sovereignty is insufficient.  Only through Westernization can the “other” achieve full partnership with the international community. 


The “civilizing mission” did not end with decolonization according to Anghie.  Instead, new characterizations of the “other” emerged to maintain the status quo of the international system.  In addition to being unequal, uncivilized and racially different, the decolonized world was deemed “underdeveloped” as a result of existing political, economic and social structures that refuted Western values and norms of behavior.  The West viewed newly decolonized states as in desperate need of guidance in creating new economies and governments.  Democratization and liberalism triumphed over competing visions of human rights, economic and political reforms, leaving the “other” as victims of continued structural inequality. For Anghie, sovereignty takes on two meanings.  There is one form of sovereignty for the western world in which sovereign equals interact on the international stage. There is another form of sovereignty applicable to the non-Western world, a world characterized as uncivilized, different and in need of Westernizing.


Anghie’s final case study involves the “War on Terror.” He argues that, although the war on terror invokes new language and military postures, it is [*206] really nothing more than an attempt by the West, specifically the United States, to maintain the status quo and further differentiate the West from the rest.  The US global vision, according to Anghie, is quasi-imperial and embraces the old Western mindset of domination of the “other.”  Through the reintroduction of language and symbols used in previous incarnations of international law, the US can maintain control over sovereign states through military imperialism.  Anghie’s fear is that military domination will be institutionalized in international law, impeding progress toward creating a more equitable international system.


Anghie makes an important contribution to the field of international law.  First, he offers a comprehensive look at the history of international legal developments from their inception through the current war on terror.  The historical case studies provide more than merely evidence to support Anghie’s assertion.  They present a detailed and comprehensive history of international law more generally.  Anghie also offers a competing interpretation of those factors influencing the historical direction of international law, including the “other” in these developments.  Finally, in an unexpected twist, Anghie incorporates “power” into his discussion of international law.  Whereas most scholars treat international law and power as mutually exclusive, Anghie positions power at the center of his consideration.  Exercising power through international law established and embedded practices favorable to those who have dominated the system, which, in turn, has produced structures that have prevented acquisition of sovereignty equality by non-Western entities.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Denise DeGarmo.