Rethinking the Principle of (Sovereign) Equality as a Standard of Civilisation

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The standard of civilisation is most often identified as the infamous legal doctrine that legitimised imperialist rule and the exclusion of non-European non-Christian states from the international society. In disciplinary narratives of both International Relations and International Law this colonial project is usually presented as a mere interlude on the way to a mature and inclusive international society based sovereign equality as its organising principle. In line with more critical historiography, which shows how colonialism is the condition of possibility for both sovereignty and international law, this article investigates how a standard of civilisation is inherent in political legal practices of international ordering. Moreover, while usually presented as a practice of exclusion, this article will analyse the more intricate dynamic of inclusion and exclusion as a basis for international order by addressing the legal politics of subjecthood (as objects and subjects of the imagined global regime). More specifically, it will address how law operates as a technology through the interplay between a standard of civilisation, the principle of equality and legal subjectivity. The article will look into legal practices of different historical periods (in the age of discovery, during the colonial expansion, and in modern international society) to analyse the workings and transformations of these legal technologies. Together this will show how an (implicit) standard of civilisation is entrenched in the operation of law as a technology of international order. This does not stop with the universalisation of sovereign equality as the organising principle of an inclusive or 'global' international society. This article will argue that this reveals the productive power of law which functions not just as a juridical rule to regulate relations between independent and equal sovereign subjects, but operates as the norm to produce appropriate sovereigns as members of the international society. © The Author(s) 2014.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)767-789
JournalMillennium: Journal of International Studies
Issue number42 (3)
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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