Europe and the Legal Regulation of International Relations

James Gillray, The Reception of the Diplomatique and his Suite, at the Court of Pekin, September 14, 1792. The ambassador of Great Britain, George Macartney, refused to bow before the Emperor Qianlong.

Beginning in the late fifteenth century, the gradual opening up of Europeans to the world prompted them to examine what form their cohabitation in distant overseas spaces would take. Subsequently, the process of colonization forced Europeans to gradually extend to the entire world the principles and practices of an international law originally forged for countries of the old continent. The development of a legal framework on the world level consequently accompanied European expansion, over both land and sea, first in America and later in Asia and Africa. The concept of limited sovereignty in particular made it possible to introduce a hierarchy between states and to legitimize colonial conquests, while imposing a uniformization of norms and practices. From the late nineteenth century onwards, however, globalization and the increasing complication of the international system called the Westphalian model into question, in order to propose other legal traditions that favoured the emergence of a “mestizo” international law.