August 19, 2011


We are coming to the end of modernity (David Warren, 8/07/11, Ottawa Citizen)

My little treatise for today - which I will entitle, De fato ("On destiny") - is inspired by a Dutchman from the 17th century. Huig de Groot, or Hugo Grotius as we say in Latin or English, is as large a figure in the history of international law as one might hope to see. As ever, given my day job as a political commentator, often on international affairs, I was trying to understand the legal principles which lie behind, or might possibly lie behind, the life of nations. You know: war and peace, stuff like that. (Libya and Syria were on my mind.)

Also as ever, I found myself distracted by an issue quite different from the one which I was supposedly researching. Not, Hugo Grotius and the legal basis for the intervention of one state into the affairs of another; but rather, Hugo Grotius and the whole idea of what is a state.

He did not write or even draft international law, such as it is. The world does not work like that; one man never decides everything. What made him such a pioneer was his ability to ask very interesting questions. (His answers to them were subsequently amended over centuries of European debate.)

But what interests me about him today, is not what he questioned but, as it were, what he didn't question. He didn't question the "nation state" as the irreducible responsible unit in world affairs. And his failure to question this was, to my mind, perhaps his greatest intellectual innovation. [...]

I puzzle often about the origin of things. I do so because, unless we can understand how, when, where, and why things started, we cannot begin to think behind, around, and ahead of them. We will, in this case, take the "nation state" entirely for granted, as something that always was, and therefore always will be. When in fact, under current circumstances, its days are numbered.

...only a little over a century after his death, we had already established the idea that war is just wherever the state is not governed by popular sovereignty. What we're nearing is the end stages of the realization of that fundamental principle.

Posted by at August 19, 2011 7:26 AM

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