ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Need a Common Law of Nations?

Troublesome decisions about international interventions are a conspicuous feature of diplomacy. Diplomatic practices have their roots in domestic polities of democracies that rely heavily on the Common Law principle of legitimising change on the basis of incremental accumulation of precedent. There are striking similarities in the manner in which the Common Law has developed in the 800 years since the Magna Carta. Multilateral diplomatic methods build on the legacies of the Magna Carta and that of collective security bequeathed by the Congress of Vienna and Versailles. Common Law contributed to the demolition of monarchial divine right. This process has lessons that are relevant to the current discourse on whether international interventions dilute state sovereignty and transfer it to supranational structures.

Diplomats in the first two decades of the 20th century operated on ground that would have been familiar to their predecessors a hundred years ago. The industrial revolution and colonisation had profoundly changed the world. For diplomats, however, operating in their charmed circle, it was a business as usual.

The diplomatic establishment had grown in size and become more professional. Resident missions had increased. Pomp and ceremonial were less important. Notes verbale were transmitted telegraphically rather than through courier on horseback. The players, the methods and even the issues, nevertheless, remained largely the same. The number of major powers remained relatively constant with the only major change being the entry of the United States (US) and Japan. The Congress of Vienna that met in September 1814 was attended by five “major” powers: Austria, Russia, Great Britain, France and Prussia. The Treaty of Versailles signed, a century later, in June 1919 had six major signatories, Germany, the United Kingdom (UK), France, Italy, Japan and the US. Over a largely peaceful century, diplomats parleyed, negotiated and concluded treaties away from the public eye. Whether they were attempting to contain France in Vienna or Germany in Versailles, their methods were largely unaltered. They balanced power equations by adjusting territories, haggled over reparations and attempted to limit armed forces. They were also united in embracing the newly respectable notion of laissez-faire economics to the detriment of their colonies.

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