Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date


Publication Information

103 Am. Soc'y Int'l L. Proc. 116 (2009)


Comments on Douglas M. Johnston, The Historical Foundations of World Order, the Tower and the Arena (2008). Douglas Johnston's history of international law makes an important contribution to our understanding of the field. We have too few histories of international law and are fortunate now to have this creative new addition.

When I began to study international law in earnest in graduate school, I soon discovered Arthur Nussbaum's Concise History of the Law of Nations. Like Professor Johnston's book, Nussbaum's is written in an accessible, enjoyable style; it follows certain themes; and it examines these themes in the setting of various regions of the world. Nussbaum, like Johnston, includes many stories and comments on personalities.

Johnston, like Nussbaum, pursues themes and personalities through major phases of world history. Johnston's book is also enjoyable to read. More than Nussbaum, he takes a creative approach to his subject and includes many surprising and unexpected points. As other panelists have pointed out, it is not an A-Z compilation, but makes its accessible style and broad focus similar to Nussbaum's. Johnston also has stories and a focus on personalities, but not necessarily the personalities who have gone down in history as the main movers of international law.

I would agree that questions on the use of force remain among our most important, if not the most important, in international law. Johnston pursues the topic throughout the book, and it becomes one of the themes that ties the whole together. He might, however, have situated this topic and others as part of law generally, and not just as an aspect of international law. It may have been particularly helpful at our current moment in history to demonstrate that international law is part of law, not a different sort of animal than law. In all of law, the fundamental purpose is to subject force to the authority of the community, to resolve disputes peacefully and not through the imposition of brute force. I think Elisabeth Zoller expresses this well: how in all human communities, law develops to create a monopoly on the use of force in the community's authorities. It is true in the international community and is why Johnston is right to give such prominence to the topic in his long book.


Reprinted with permission of the American Society of International Law Proceedings.



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