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Carl Schmitt's Vattel and the 'Law of Nations' between Enlightenment and Revolution

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This article questions the status of Vattel's Law of Nations as an exemplary illustration of eighteenth-century developments in the history of international law. Recent discussions of the relation between eighteenth-century thinking about the law of nations and the French Revolution have revived Carl Schmitt's contention about the nexus between just war theory and the emergence of total war. This evaluative framework has been used to identify Vattel as a moral critic of absolutism who helped undermine the barriers against total war, as well as an architect and defender of those very barriers. Neither of these opposing readings is corroborated by late-eighteenth-century commentators on Vattel's treatise. To its late-eighteenth-century critics and defenders alike, Vattel's Law of Nations was distinguished by the weakness of its derivation of the law of nations from principles of natural law. Insofar as these readers did link Vattel to justifications of relatively unrestrained forms of warfare, they did so in connection with the perceived weakness of Vattel's moral position rather than with its strength. This late-eighteenth-century consensus on the defining features of Vattel's approach to the law of nations sits uncomfortably with Schmitt's evaluative framework, and indeed with other assessments of Vattel that limit themselves to orienting his treatise along fault lines in the historiography of international law.


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