«If sovereignty, then nonintervention»*

* This article served as background paper for the author’s lecture delivered at the Norwegian Military Chaplain Corps symposium on military ethics – Humanitarian Intervention, – Oslo 14 September 1999

The book, which evolved out of Vincent’s doctoral work, Nonintervention and Inter­national Order, is a major example of the kind of theory-led empirical investigation of the theory and practice of an international institution, which Wight thought inter­national scholars, should produce.1In terms of method and style, Vincent is wholly representative of the qualitative essayism of the English School. Wight had no interest in the behaviourist turn of the 1960, and perhaps the most widely known piece of English School writing is Bull’s (1966) attack on it, which played a crucial role in IR’s ‘second debate’. If the text is on the one hand an epitome of the English School, however, the markers pointing beyond that tradition are barely hidden below the polished façade. What follows is an exercise in façade-climbing, an examination of the mortar, which reveals a crack, and an attempt at explaining why the crack is there.

Twenty-five years later, after the end of the cold war, it is easy to forget that the political circumstances in which Vincent wrote the book did not invite speculation on concerted great-power interest in humanitarian intervention, the possibility of which it ends up investigating. By way of introduction, however, Vincent rings in the phenomenon of intervention in terms of the nature of actors, targets and the deed itself, their classification, purpose and context, only to conclude that the core of the idea is coercive interference ‘in the domestic affairs of another state’. (Vincent 1974: 13) The principle of non-intervention derives from and requires respect for, it indeed protects, the principle of state sovereignty. The definition of sovereignty is Hinsley’s, the standard formulation that ‘there is a final and absolute political authority in the political community’, and no final and absolute authority elsewhere (Hinsley 1966: 26). Thus, Vincent concludes, ‘To ask what areas the principle of nonintervention protects is equivalent to asking what matters are within the domestic jurisdiction of states’ (Vincent 1974: 15). Conversely, that which is not protected by the principle is the subject matter of international society.

Vincent then embarks on a tour de force of the history of ideas in order to examine how the present state of affairs came about. He sees the following gene­rations in the chain of thinking on non-intervention: First, Grotius because he con­ceived of what we now call international politics and international law (ius inter gentes rather than ius gentium), and Hobbes because he formulated the ideas a state of nature between states and state equality, the latter of which was embellished by Pufendorff. Secondly, Wolff because he formulated the concept of the civitas maxima brought about by an imagined quasi-agreement between peoples. The premise of this agreement was equality between peoples, and therefore rested on a mutual acceptance of sovereignty, which ruled out meddling in the affairs of others. Also Vattel, who ‘reiterates Wolff’s doctrine of natural rights, but adds to it by pointing to a general law requiring respect for those rights’ (1974:29). Thirdly, the positivist lawyers of the nineteenth century, who observe that the internal order of states empirically seems to rest on internal will, and takes this to indicate that other states do not have a right to interfere in domestic concerns. Fourthly, people like Mill (who formulated the doctrine of counter-intervention to enforce non-intervention), Cobden, Mazzini and Kant, all of whom made it their business to put forward a number of diverse arguments why, given certain conditions, it would be prudent for states to adhere to a principle of non-intervention.

The crucial epistemological twist of the School is in evidence in Vincent’s insistence on covering not only what he calls the theory and principle of non-inter­vention, but also the role it has played in the practice of states. He turns to state practice in order to discuss how the principle of non-intervention has constrained the policy of the powers – that is, the importance of ideas for foreign policy out­comes. Flanked by sketches of the doctrine as interpreted by revolutionary French and pre-Second World War American statesmen, the centerpiece of this part of the book is an analysis of its place in the foreign policy of Castlereagh, Canning and Palmerston. Given their common views of Britain as a constitutional status quo power with an interest in playing the role of balancer in the balance of power poli­tics in their European policies, the three had to face the same dilemma. On the one hand, there was a perceived long-term interest in promoting the introduction of constitutionalism in continental countries as the best safeguard against revolution. This interest was predicated on Britain itself already being by institutions if not by letter constitutionalist, so seeing a regime change in this direction as a confirmation of its supreme qualities. On the other hand, there was an interest in legitimism, that is, in supporting the ancien régime monarchs that were actually in power in most states. Given the attitude of most continental monarchs, who tended to see con­stitutionalism as part and parcel of revolution, the British foreign minister had deli­cate choices to make every time some legitimist great-power monarch inter­vened in another state in order to squash a constitutionalist uprising.

Neither of the three British ministers came down solidly on either side. They avoided promoting constitutionalism vis-à-vis reigning monarchs, so steered clear of the role of an interventionist crusader which aimed to ground order in the similarity of domestic régimes. Indeed, such a policy would only have made for inverted legitimism, where legitimacy did not arise directly from thrones as in the scheme of a Metternich, but from some configuration of the bond between the rulers and the ruled. At the same time, however, they also avoided embracing legitimist inter­ventionist practice. Of course, in 1822 Canning took Britain out of the formalized Concert system over the issue.

Vincent demonstrates how Canning steered a middle course on this issue com­pared with Castlereagh, who was more prone to privileging legitimism, and Palmerston, whose preference went more in the direction of constitutionalism (1974:73). The main point, however, is that, whereas they clearly did not hold the same doctrine of non-intervention and even seemed to subscribe to different versions as prudence prescribed, foreign policy making was always discussed, presented and defended in terms of the doctrine. To the School, including Vincent, the embellish­ment they and others gave the doctrine and other concerns qualified as one of the fountainheads of international theory (Wight 1966: 20).

Vincent draws the following conclusion from this material (141-142): States’ lack of observation of the doctrine when it does not suit their perceived interests bears out the general point that international law does not live up to the expected standard of domestic law in this regard. However, the doctrine clearly plays a role inasmuch as the discourse on non-intervention is conspicuously present when foreign policy is formulated, implemented and justified. And, crucially, this discourse was trans­national, so contributed to international law as a medium through which statesmen could communicate.

Vincent then brings this material with him into an assessment of the doctrine of non-intervention in contemporary international relations. Theory-led analyses of the role of the doctrine in Soviet and US post-war foreign policy, and of the debates about it in the forum of the United Nations, bring the narrative up to the early 1970s. The main points here are how the bipolarity of the Cold War lent a special flavor to superpower intervention in the ‘third world’ outside the two alliances, how the doc­trine of nonintervention was put on the defensive by the contending doctrine of socialist internationalism inside the Soviet bloc, how the US stuck to a ‘Metternichian’ solidarist view rather than a ‘Castlereaghian’ pluralist one (1974: 242), and how the doctrine of non-intervention was strengthened where inter-bloc relations were concerned.

So far, the building blocks of the analysis are exactly those advocated by Wight and the presuppositions going into the mortar of the construction are ostensibly also those central to the English School. Vincent is intrigued with sovereignty and, as he announces already in the title of the work, order.

First, sovereignty: Vincent’s roll-call of thinkers on non-intervention reads like one on the functioning of international relations in the modern states system gener­ally, and that is of course the whole point. ‘If sovereignty, then non-intervention’ is the epigrammatic form of this text. Where the relation of sovereignty to inter­national law is concerned, Vincent adheres to what he terms the ‘dominant doctrine’ of inter­national law; that sovereignty exists within the law, so is ‘limited by rules of inter­national law binding upon it’, and therefore relative. The consequences of this choice of the ‘dominant doctrine’ of sovereignty are wide ranging. It was mentioned above how the School formulates the entire question of the nature of international relations as a question of what kind of international society may be said to exist. The episte­mological ordre du culte of formulating a trilectic into the middle position of which one may then effortlessly slide is a similarly basic rule of procedure for the School, Realism, rationalism, and revolutionism being the paramount example. This is the task to which Vincent now turns, and he seems to tackle it in a manner incon­sistent with the one he actually professes to follow. The most pressing issue, he insists, is not whether international law is

the common law of mankind in an early stage of its development or not, as proposed by C. Wilfred Jenks and others: It is not proposed to examine Jenks’ contention that the contemporary international system presents a challenge to legal science similar to that which confronted Grotius in the seventeenth century; it is rather to ask whether the contemporary international society resembles more closely the Grotian [or Solidarist] conception of a universal society or the Positivists’ conception of a primitive society of states combining for minimum purposes, for on such an analysis hangs the place of the principle of nonintervention in contemporary international law (1974: 295-296).

In the School’s own terms, he wants to discuss whether contemporary inter­national society is ‘pluralist’ or ‘solidarist’. This notwithstanding, and in confirma­tion of how gelatinous is the line drawn by the School between ‘solidarism’ and ‘Revolutionism’, he then spends the remaining part of the chapter on feigning off three challenges which emanate from a ‘Revolutionist’ position. Even when he announces that he is going to concentrate on the ‘Realist’ challenge to the middle position, he is drawn towards discussing the ‘Revolutionist’ challenge instead. This shows up his fascination with the idea that there actually may be a number of signs that the transformation of world politics today are on the scale of those which had to be confronted by Grotius and others who lived through an early phase of the modern states system. Thus, this passus points to a possible crack in the whole edifice.

Vincent then proceeds to patch up the three strands of this crack. First, the pro­gressivist insistence that sovereignty is basically a hindrance to the rule of inter­national law. Vincent wards off this assault by drawing on a standard empirical argument against what is usually called the idealist position of the inter war period. At that time, he insists, it was exactly because of the progressivist insistence that the more international law constrains sovereignty the better – because one forgot that it was a cart and not a horse – that international law ran into a dead end (1974: 297). The idea of ‘relative sovereignty’ strikes a balance between the need to privi­lege sovereignty and the need to maintain the discourse on international law, and highlights the role played by the doctrine of non-intervention not only in im­munizing states from interference, but also in serving as ‘the frontier between international law and domestic law’. For these reasons, it fits the state of play in contemporary international relations better than the contender does.

Secondly, the view that the sovereignty of states is not being eroded directly, but is becoming submerged in a maze of transnational relations which invite the practitioner and the analyst to move ever further afield from the body of inter­national law which focuses exclusively on inter-state relations. This argument is sidestepped by an insistence that the description is simply too far removed from overall practice in world politics. World politics is still dominated by a relatively autonomous inter-state order, and may be expected to remain so. Vincent appeals to the authority of Aron (1966: 748), who argued that it is ‘…the great illusion of our time […] that economic and technological interdependence among the various factions of humanity has definitely devalued the fact of «political sovereignties», the existence of distinct states which wish to be autonomous’. Aron’s (and Vincent’s) point, then, is not to deny that interdependence is on the upsurge and that this makes for new challenges to states – it is and it does – but that states will maintain the final say on questions of vital importance.2Bull (1977) takes on the same idea when he sees the modern international system hold out against a possible ‘mediaevalist’ order where state sovereignty is being relativised in a maze of differentiated power relations, so that different questions are decided on different levels.

In the same vein, Vincent denies the charge that international organizations are taking over more and more of the running in world politics. The global organi­zation of the United Nations is written off on empirical grounds, as being simply not strong enough to be more than an arena for inter-state politics. Regional organizations like the European Community, if undoubtedly important, will not for the reasons he has already given do away with sovereignty by increasing inter­dependence alone. And even if it should be turned into a state, this would simply entail a re-creation of the phenomenon of sovereignty at a larger scale, thus not changing the basic outline of the states system.

Thirdly, Vincent takes on the view that the inter-state order is being eroded as the main basis of world politics and international law by the introduction of indi­viduals as actors and subjects in their own right. The main problems in seeing the world as a relevant arena for individuals are a lack of worldwide solidarity. The world simply does not add up to a ‘justice community’. And even if it could be said to do so and individual rights were acknowledged as legitimate and relevant, Vincent insists that the lack of possibilities for enforcing such rights would still keep them from being realized.

However, Vincent acknowledges that he is not happy with the patching up of the crack in this way. His doubt springs from the ambiguous role played by the phenomenon of humanitarian intervention, an issue which, he points out, has haunted the debate about non-intervention since the time of Grotius (1974: 283). On the one hand, Vincent is dismissive of humanitarian intervention as a blanket exception to non-intervention. It would, he argues, be impossible generally to uphold human rights by means of intervention without endangering the crucial inter-state order by means of side-effects and ulterior motives on behalf on the intervening state (1974: 308). On the other hand, he acknowledges that genocide constitutes a special case (loc.cit.347). Yet  at this point he does not commit himself:

Between a naturalism careless of state practice and a positivism that would simply render any and all state conduct as the law, international law has to find a middle way. In the present case, it is not clear that a middle course of humanitarian intervention has been traced between a vir­ginal doctrine of non-intervention that would allow nothing to be done and a promiscuous doctrine of intervention that would make a trollop of the law. Until that course can with confi­dence be traced, it is perhaps nonintervention that provides the most dignified principle for international law to sanction (1974: 348-349).

Thus, Vincent’s state-centrism does not dismiss individuals as actors out of hand. Indeed, he acknowledges their obvious ontological edge as actors of a type which easily goes beyond that of modern international society: ‘There is no reason to suppose that men must always choose to live together in states, and no warrant for the claim that there is some natural law suggesting the necessary conditions of existence for international society’ (1974: 339; compare Bull 1977: 22). The war­rant for nevertheless treating states as the main agents in world politics are mainly to do with the continued imperative of territoriality.

To Vincent, thinking in the terms of the English School, the question of the status of individuals in international society was basically conceptualized as a tug-of-war between two strands of rationalists or ‘Grotians’. On the one hand the plu­ralists – he has already given the example of Castlereagh – who are happy to let politics within states remain exclusively domestic both practically and morally. On the other hand the solidarists – for example, Metternich – who also see domestic regime type and the political plight of each individual as a matter of international concern. Vincent acknowledged that Grotius himself had seen international society as a universal community of mankind, where natural law applied directly to indi­viduals as well as to states (1974:24).

At this early point in his career Vincent is, however, unwilling to acknowledge the full destructive potential of this crack in the theoretical edifice of the English School. Only in one place does he mention the possibility that sovereignty may be a spent force as the pivot of international relations, and then the thrust is still on the continued relevance of it in a transitional period: ‘In the rush to work out a new international law to meet the new political facts of the postwar world, it is worth remembering the principles established in an old sovereign-state order, which, if it is obsolescent, is taking a long time dying’ (1974: 361-362). The text bears the marks of a struggle between Vincent’s interest in individuals as actors on the one hand, and the tradition’s insistence on keeping such preoccupations away from the heart of the research agenda on the other. No text can be entirely wrapped up into itself, and there is no such thing as a 100% orthodox text. The reason why I nevertheless draw attention to this, is that in almost all his texts it seems to be in this area that Vincent struggles most fruitfully with the tradition he chose to work within.

Indeed, the fact is that Vincent brought this problem with him already when he went to study with Bull. He went up with the intention of writing a doctoral thesis about when military intervention would be warranted. He would himself tell the story of how he tried and tried to write up such a thesis, without success. Only when he realized that the material could more easily be ordered into a defense of the doctrine of non-intervention was he able to finish the work. And the doctrine of non-intervention, as he himself pointed out, precluded the working out of a fully-fledged solidarist political program (Vincent 1974: 341).

To sum up the discussion so far, Nonintervention and International Order epito­mizes the English School’s interest in great power politics, the way they have evolved inside the modern states system to form an international society, and the way this development contributes to order. However, there is a subterranean theme, which is to do with the tension between seeing states or individuals as privileged actors and whether inter-state relations and the dyadic legal doctrines of sovereignty/non-inter­vention in which they are imagined will continue to dominate world politics.

Fotnoter   [ + ]

1. In terms of method and style, Vincent is wholly representative of the qualitative essayism of the English School. Wight had no interest in the behaviourist turn of the 1960, and perhaps the most widely known piece of English School writing is Bull’s (1966) attack on it, which played a crucial role in IR’s ‘second debate’.
2. Bull (1977) takes on the same idea when he sees the modern international system hold out against a possible ‘mediaevalist’ order where state sovereignty is being relativised in a maze of differentiated power relations, so that different questions are decided on different levels.