British Association for American Studies


Book Review: Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century by Benjamin Allen Coates

Benjamin Allen Coates, Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. 296. $35.00.

Legalist Empire is an admirable analysis of United States foreign relations in the early twentieth century that focuses on the influence of international law. Having consulted an impressive array of their published material and personal papers, Benjamin Coates convincingly demonstrates that, during the first two decades of the twentieth century, international lawyers helped shaped the ascendency of the United States and justified the expansion of its empire among governmental policy makers and within wider intellectual discourses. Driven by a desire to put ‘international law into the history of American empire, and the history of empire into international law,’ Coates successfully collates disparate scholarship that has, until now, been scattered across several disciplines (5).

In the early twentieth century, international lawyers developed a style of policy that Coates describes as legalism, namely a ‘commitment to expanding the use of legal techniques and institutions to resolve international problems’ (3). The central argument of Legalist Empire is that by advocating an adherence to the rule of international law and supporting systems such as international arbitration and adjudication, international lawyers were influential in justifying and facilitating United States imperialism. Whilst the rule of international law seems antithetical to notions of empire, given its emphasis on maintaining peace and sovereignty, the two were often compatible. To begin with, law was intrinsically linked to notions of civilisation in the early twentieth century and the application of international law was understood as ‘the application of civilization to restrain irrational behavior’. Coates demonstrates that by advocating legalism, international lawyers framed the United States Empire as benevolent, because it was perceived as having extended law and civilisation to backward and uncivilised nations (10). Secondly, Coates reminds the reader that international law did not prevent the practice of imperialism. Whilst adherence to international law could restrain state activity, it frequently enabled aggression and permitted the use of force in a variety of circumstances, such as the protection of nationals and capital abroad. As such, international lawyers were able to implement practices of informal imperialism ‘by spreading legal regimes that protected the prerogatives of US capital while assuaging opposition from domestic and foreign opponents’ (3). In short, national and international aversion to United States imperialism, whether formal or informal, was frequently sated by the efforts of international lawyers to frame empire in legal terms.

Coates argues that international lawyers were able to influence United States policy through serving the government both directly and indirectly. Every Secretary of State between the Spanish-American War and the end of the First World War, such as Elihu Root and Robert Lansing, had been a lawyer beforehand, and many others, including John Bassett Moore and James Brown Scott, held governmental positions from which they could rationalise and shape the direction of United States foreign relations. Because most international lawyers held a variety of prominent positions throughout their careers, serving as academics, statesmen and leaders of organisations such as the American Society of International Law, they were able to tap into a discourse of professionalism that prospered during the Progressive Era. Presenting themselves as respectable and learned ‘defenders of an ethic of self-restrained manhood’, international lawyers justified their policy suggestions and the value of legalism to policy makers (9).

Elihu Root – An influential lawyer who held the position of President of the American Society of International Law, Senator for New York, Secretary of War and Secretary of State throughout his career. Coates describes Root as ‘a fixer. You turned to Root when you wanted something done, and he got it done.’ (108).

Legalist Empire explores these issues in a chronological structure. It opens with a short pre-history of international law before turning to the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. It was in this moment that lawyers such as Root and Moore sought to legitimise the formation of an overseas empire, turning from a discourse seeped in ‘narrow technical obfuscations’ to one that promoted notions of civilisation (41). The following two chapters chart the professionalisation of international law and how a ‘legalist-imperialist complex’ was embraced by policy makers (100). The fifth chapter presents a fascinating case study of legalism’s implementation in Latin America in which Coates argues that legalism facilitated United States hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. The final two chapters trace the legalist project through the First World War and examine the ultimate failure of legalists to provide an alternative to the League of Nations. Even though legalists began to divide among themselves in the inter-war period and brought about the dissipation of the legalist project, Coates ascertains that ‘international law would remain a part of global politics even in the dawning age of American superpower’ (176).

With its engaging narrative and convincing arguments, Legalist Empire is highly recommended for scholars with an interest in legal, imperial and diplomatic history and is a must-read for historians working on early twentieth century United States foreign relations.