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  • Imagining World Order: Literature and International Law in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800 by Chenxi Tang
  • Peter A. Coclanis (bio)
Imagining World Order: Literature and International Law in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800. By Chenxi Tang. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2018. xii + 341 pp. $59.95.

International law is much in the news these days, albeit often because of breaches by one party or another. Whether one points to the later years of the Kyoto Protocol, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, transboundary water conventions, dispute adjudication protocols under the World Trade Organization (WTO), or human rights violations in Rakhine State in Myanmar, we find serious problems upholding international agreements, whether formal and explicit, or informal, and based on customary usages. Or, to use legal lingo, whether said agreements and protocols emanate in the former case from ius inter gentes, or ius gentium in the latter.

Getting parties of various kinds first to agree on, then to adhere to international pacts or protocols of any kind is notoriously difficult and always has been, but we can hardly stop trying, can we? Indeed, however difficult it is to bring about and maintain international law today, five hundred years after modern Western notions of international law began to develop, it was equally, if not more difficult early on to imagine, justify, and attempt to sustain legal prescriptions that would bind to a greater or lesser extent relevant international constituencies—peoples, parties, princes, and principalities, as it were—to the same. Such efforts, which began in the sixteenth century and received crucial support from most unlikely places, are the subject of Chenxi Tang's difficult, dense, rigorous, and often brilliant new book.

Broadly speaking, the central problem with which Tang deals is relatively straightforward, to wit: As discrete nation-states began to emerge in the sixteenth century and as such states and diverse constituents and bodies therein began to interact more frequently and intensively and in more varied ways beyond territorial borders, what types of normative rules would govern such activities? Who would create and enforce such rules and how would such [End Page 770] rules be sustained and legitimated? Over the years, scholars have approached these questions in different ways and with varying degrees of success. Few, however, have done so in such a creative and stimulating way as does Tang in Imagining World Order.

For example, some scholars have focused their energy on early diplomatic efforts by states and principalities—sometimes with timely support from the transnational papacy—to craft and uphold treaties, while others have suggested that interstate conduct at the beginning of the early modern period was governed less by mutually agreed upon normative rules, let alone international "law," than by the thrust of the lance and increasingly by powder from the gun. Tang proceeds differently, privileging ideas, and literary texts and conventions. More specifically, he argues that as a new world of nation-states and increasingly transnational interactions and exchanges began to come into being in the sixteenth century and seventeenth century, literary texts and "fictions" provided crucial imaginative, ideological, and evidentiary support for the jurists, diplomats, and statesmen tasked with creating and justifying new norms for transnational behavior, new rules for the game. Indeed, according to Tang, literary texts, albeit texts representing different forms and genres, continued to play important roles by underpinning and supporting the development of the still fragile body of international legal norms (ius gentium) through most of the early modern period. Similarly, "fictions"—constructions regarding international "legal persons" and "international communities" come immediately to mind—proved instrumental as well. Ironically, or perhaps dialectically, the imaginative need to uncover, explain, and justify such norms in turn "contributed significantly to the development of a European literature" (3).

This ambitious and challenging thesis is articulated and defended with brio by Tang in the six chronological/thematic chapters and brief epilogue comprising Imagining World Order. The author begins by demonstrating how and why social developments in the sixteenth century—the rise of the nation-state and nascent globalization in particular—forced policymakers to reconceive older concepts of "world order," international relations, and so on, which led over time to the beginnings and early...


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