A Case Study of the Construction of International Hierarchy: British Treaty-Making Against the Slave Trade in the Early Nineteenth Century

Keene, Edward
March 2007
International Organization;Spring2007, Vol. 61 Issue 2, p311
Academic Journal
This article evaluates different theories of hierarchy in international relations through a case study of the treaty system that the British constructed in the early nineteenth century in an effort to abolish the slave trade. The treaty system was extraordinarily wide-ranging: it embraced European maritime powers, new republics in the Americas, Muslim rulers in northern and eastern Africa, and j‘Native Chiefs’ on the western coast of Africa. It therefore allows for a comparative analysis of the various types of treaty that the British made, depending on the identity of their contracting partners. The article argues that a broadly constructivist approach provides the best explanation of why these variations emerged. Although British treaty-making was influenced by the relative strength or weakness of the states with which they were dealing, the decisive factor that shaped the treaty system was a new legal doctrine that had emerged in the late eighteenth century, which combined a positivist theory of the importance of treaties as a source of international law with a distinction between the ‘family of civilized nations’ and ‘barbarous peoples.’


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