International Law
01 February 2018

For a Humanist Dialogue between Chinese and Western Thoughts on World Order

Interview with Janne Nijman

The European and Chinese traditions of thought on world order are generally considered to be widely different. Is there a way to organise a much-needed humanist dialogue between them? This question is at the core of a book coedited by Janne Nijman, Visiting Professor in International Law at the Graduate Institute, and Anthony Carty, Professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology School of Law. Interview with Professor Nijman on “Morality and Responsibility of Rulers: European and Chinese Origins of a Rule of Law as Justice for World Order”, forthcoming this month at Oxford University Press.

In your book you explore the genesis of the “rule of law as justice” by seeking to highlight main features but also turning points and contingencies in European and Chinese traditions. What would you consider to be the particularity of this book and how would you place it in the broader literature? 

I suspect there are many particularities to this book, one of which is for sure the hope Professor Antony Carty and I have that it could serve as a basis for what we understand to be a much-needed transcultural humanist dialogue on international law and international relations. I know, it sounds terribly ambitious, but frankly it has been one of the main drivers. That is: to find a way to organise a dialogue between the European and Chinese traditions of thought on world order, which is not an easy thing as they are such seemingly different traditions. What is particular about this book is that it is both a history and a philosophy project. It carves out histories of international thought that show how diverse the Chinese and Western traditions are in themselves. In the European part – and that is another “particularity” of the book – I have made a first attempt to free up “Northern humanist” thought on world order. And this leads me to an answer to your question about the volume’s place in the literature: in a way it is a response to Richard Tuck’s history in The Rights of War and Peace where Northern humanism (and thus for example Erasmus) is equated with the Italian humanist tradition or Italian war jurisprudence as the humanist view on international order. So, we respond to that and provide a richer image of early modern humanism.

Another element of the book that situates it in contemporary literature is our engagement with the liberal model of the international rule of law. There is more out there in the world of ideas than a largely Hobbesian positivist rule-of-law concept, which moreover translates into an unduly minimalist order at the international level, without substantive elements. Hence “rule of law as justice for world order” in the subtitle. Ultimately, the volume as a whole is very much about how (international) law is a space in which rulers have to take up their moral responsibility when making choices. In both traditions, European and Chinese, we find clues and building blocks for an argument we develop in the Introduction: international law is about judgment guided by moral standards, and so we cannot escape from talking about these moral standards. Antony Carty and I propose this on the basis of a humanism that is transcultural, a moral standard based on mutual recognition and respect (as is a central theme in for example intersubjective philosophy). That said, I must admit we both wonder sometimes who will engage with this volume…

What are the book’s main findings and how do you believe they would impact on legal thinking and beyond?

Well, there are too many findings to mention here! Each of the chapters, written by different expert scholars, offers something new. The exploration of the European tradition provides an alternative history of international thought as it carves out the Northern humanism just mentioned. There is a chapter on Erasmus’s thinking on world order and a chapter about rule of law as justice thinking during the transition from the medieval to the modern period. The explorations of Chinese thought open up and show the depth of Chinese thought about moral responsibility of rulers, and they also show the – often violent – interactions in the second half of the 19th century between the Chinese and Western worlds, including the world of international legal thought.

This may be a book about the past – with histories of ideas about law as justice and world order – but it has very much been driven by concerns about the present and the future. Its impact lies, I guess, in the attractive instances of intellectual history it offers, which then invite the reader to reflect on their own thinking about international law and about the moral standards used when working with international law.

Could you elaborate on your contribution called “A Universal Rule of Law for a Pluralist World Order: Leibniz’s Universal Jurisprudence and His Praise of the Chinese Ruler”?

Leibniz is an interesting lawyer. He is known for being as good in maths as Newton, for his appearance in Voltaire’s Candide, and for writing endless letters to the female rulers of his time, but he was also a proper lawyer, and the one who introduced the concept of international legal personality in international law. He was the first to use it in 1697. In my days as a PhD student I wondered, Why did he introduce and use that concept? What did he need it for? Why did Leibniz introduce this notion and not his contemporary and still famous international lawyer Pufendorf? Ultimately I concluded that he wanted to bring all power under the rule of ius gentium, and hence needed a notion like international legal personality (persona jure gentium). So in my view, there was a rule of law sensibility there behind that conceptual and doctrinal innovation. In recent years I got interested in Leibniz’s fascination for China. In the same years in which he was working on sovereignty, international legal personality and the law of nations, he was also working on China and corresponding with Jesuits who travelled there and worked at the Court of the Emperor. I wondered whether these interests were in any way connected. Indeed they were, in many different ways, but my chapter means to show that Leibniz understood Emperor Kangxi as a ruler who ruled in accordance with his ideal of justice as “wise charity”; Leibniz basically said that European rulers could learn from him…

From where did you get the inspiration to edit such a book with Professor Carty and how did you choose the contributors?

I already mentioned my interest in the moral standards to constrain the exercise of power as a conception of the rule of law, as well as in a transcultural dialogue on foundational issues such as these. Antony Carty and I share this interest and perspective. He is also an eminent scholar whose work I have always admired. When we came into contact, soon enough the project was born. The contributors were asked on the basis of their expertise and scholarship; fortunately everyone was happy to participate!

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Full citation of Professor Nijman’s book:
Carty, Anthony, and Janne Nijman, eds. Morality and Responsibility of Rulers: European and Chinese Origins of a Rule of Law as Justice for World Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Interview by Oana Ichim, PhD Candidate in International Law.