Thursday, February 03, 2011

Lipsius, Grotius & International Law

Today evening, I was walking down the 3K corridor for a cup of coffee when I heard the words "East India Company" and "International Law" from one of the classrooms. Prof. Klienschimdt was halfway through one of his sessions, and I wondered if I could just drop in... The lecture sounded really interesting, so I slowly sneaked in (nothing ventured, nothing gained!) and settled on one of the  rear seats.

On the boards, there was ample evidence that the session had been on for a while. On one side there was a list of trading stations along the coast of Africa, South Asia (Goa, Daman, Diu) and East Asia (Malacca), and, on the other, names of European kings of the late 1500s and early 1600s - Philip-II of Spain (aka Philip-I of Portugal), the House of Orange (Holland) and Elizabeth-I of England. The discussion had now reached an interesting juncture: how did little Holland manage to win the trade wars against the big boys - Spain & Portugal?

A part of the answer, apparantly, lay in the University of Lieden (est.1575!). Here, a professor named Justus Lispius (1547-1606) wrote two best-sellers that were to form the bedrock of Dutch pragmatism, as well as International Law and the Modern State. The two books - On Constancy and Politics - put forth, for the first time, a set of guiding principles that was not based on religious texts. These guiding principles (Natural Law) essentially said that any action should be such that its rationale is self-evident, without the need for enforcement by external agents.

The practical outcome of this was that while Spain and Portugal looked up to the Church for legitimacy, approval and guidance, the Dutch were driven purely by profits. Any trade venture that yielded less than 400% profit was not worth the trouble.

So, when the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan imposed a simple condition on the European traders ("don't mix trade and religion"), the Spanish and Portuguese opted out while the Dutch landed a monoply for the next 100 years! The Dutch quietly raked in the profits by following the rules set by the Shogunate, but while their ships were on the open seas, they followed the "Free Seas" (Mare Liberum) principle of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and stoutly attacked any Spanish blockade.

Both these principles continue to be at the foundation of International Law, in its present form....Now that is someting to think about - over a cup of coffee! :)


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