06 April 2017

3629) Legacies Of Pre-Modern International Law: American Interventionism And Ottoman Christians In The 1890s

“The Legacies Of Pre-Modern International Law: American Interventionism And Ottoman Christians In The 1890s”

University of Wisconsin-Madison

My remarks address the Armenian crisis from the standpoint of the United States, particularly as both American foreign policy and American public opinion were shaped in the years between 1895 and 1915. But my remarks are also set against the backdrop of a much longer history of the Western legal tradition. This backdrop necessary in order to highlight important jurisprudential developments in international law that privileged Christian identity, sought the division of the Ottoman Empire, and urged Ottoman Christian communities toward ill-advised and tragic action in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. . . .

From the standpoint of international law, the military conflicts that stretched from the Balkan crises of the late nineteenth century until the end of World War I, presented an irresolvable collision between two foundational principles. On the one hand, nation-states and empires possessed a sovereign integrity that was to be respect-ed by other sovereigns. Indeed, this mutual respect for sovereign domestic order was the very basis of international law in the first place. On the other hand, increasing calls for intervention into the domestic affairs of sovereign nations emerged in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century international law, and began to gain considerable traction in regard to subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Today, international law tends to see intervention as justified, if at all, on humanitarian grounds. And the language of humanitarian aid was prominent in Western discussions of the Ottoman Armenians at the turn of the twentieth century (1).

But in addition to the language of humanitarianism, it is also the case that the diplomatic and journalistic discourses in the United States (but not only the United States) were inflected with a great deal of religious rhetoric in the late nineteenth century. In particular, American and English newspapers routinely urged intervention Ottoman affairs on religious, not just humanitarian grounds. As the Great Powers abandoned the old international order and began carving up parts of the Ottoman Empire in Southeastern Europe, interventionism, humanitarianism and Christianity were often conflated into a knot of arguments that demanded action against a beleaguered Ottoman Empire.

There were historical roots to this phenomenon. The Christian roots of inter -national law reach back to the Middle Ages, when jurists in Europe actively debated whether non-Christians (particularly Muslims) could properly exercise the full sovereignty (2). In regard to Christian rulers in the Middle Ages this posed no problem, since their authority was bolstered by ecclesiastical approval and granted by divine right. By the sixteenth century, the majority opinion of European jurists held that it was not necessary for a ruler to be a Christian in order to be recognized as a sovereign and that even non-believers had certain natural rights that must be respected (3). Nonetheless, the question of Muslim sovereignty over Christians remained a debated issue. Moreover, even when the legitimacy of non-Christian rulers was recognized, it was often considered inferior to that of Christian sovereigns.

By way of one prominent example, one can look to Francisco Vitoria, a Spanish jurist and theologian. In the sixteenth century, Vitoria wrote a highly influential treatise concerning the legal rights at stake in Spanish exploration of the new world (4). In that treatise, Vitoria argued that the indigenous peoples of Latin America, despite being pagans, had legal ownership of their land, were ruled by legitimate princes, and could only be attacked militarily if they gave just cause (5). This did not exactly make for an even playing field. For Vitoria also argued that principles of natural law gave the Spanish unconditional rights to enter the land of the natives and to carry out commercial activities whether they were welcomed or not. Refusal on the part of the natives to allow entry, or refusal to allow trade, were viewed by Vitoria as causae belli, justifications for war and conquest (6). In Vitoria’s vision of international law, war, once begun, justified the reduction of the native peoples into slavery:

And inasmuch as war with pagans is of this type, seeing that it is perpetual and they can never make amends for the wrongs and damages they have wrought, it is indubitably lawful to carry off both the children and the women of the [Muslims] into captivity and slavery (7).

Vitorio was one of the most influential jurists in the period up until the 19th century. He, like many others, thought that without membership in the Christian community, new world natives, like Muslims, did not enjoy the full protections of international law. Put another way, when Christian powers were dealing with non-Christian peoples, Vitoria understood all of the privileges to be on the side of the Christian princes (8).

Still, we may ask what the state of sixteenth century international law has to do with the Great Powers, the Ottoman Empire, and the Armenian tragedy. But this will become clear if we examine the attitudes being shaped in the United States in the 1890s. For the United States, the 1890s was a pivotal decade for attitudes toward intervention into foreign affairs. For most of it history from its founding up until the late nineteenth century, American interventions into other parts of the world were limited to private channels, and were rather infrequent. The Greek uprisings attracted the sympathetic attention of some private American groups during the 1820s, but Congress steadfastly refused to involve itself in the affairs of a foreign power. Congress would not recognize the Greek belligerents or appropriate funds for charitable relief (9). Likewise, during the Irish famine of the 1840s congressional lawmakers insisted that the burden of assistance remain on private charities and religious organizations. Throughout mush of the nineteenth century, American humanitarian intervention remained private and episodic. However, by the 1890s America’s humanitarian reformers became both better organized and more attentive to distant calamities (10). In 1891, private charities sent over one million dollars worth of food and aid to Russia to ameliorate the effects of famine. This effort was spearheaded by the fledgling American Red Cross, a private entity engaged in its first international activity. Interestingly, the American press paid little attention to the Bulgarian uprisings of 1876, the so-called “Bulgarian Horrors,” even though they had rendered the British press breathless in a frenzy of religious and national chauvinism (11).

But beginning in the 1890s, Americans seemed more receptive to the idea of assisting distant lands where natural disasters or political turmoil had erupted. This coin -cided with a reassessment by federal officials of the role the federal government might play in distributing the humanitarian energies of the American citizens. Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire were front and center in these developments. American missionaries had been active among Christian populations in Anatolia since the 1820s, but these efforts had not been directly supported by state action. Nonetheless, these missionaries, along with Armenian nationalists active in the United States and Europe, provided an important source of information about the “Turkish Outrages” – as critics of the Ottoman Empire called them. There was some irony in the alliance between nationalists and missionaries as the two groups did not share common goals or approaches. The nationalists often had ambivalent views toward the form of religion espoused by the American Protestant missionaries. Even so, Christian clergy-men, evangelical ministers, and propagandists united into a knotted alliance, unified primarily (and perhaps only) by antagonism toward the Ottoman Empire and Islam. Yellow journalism and religious prejudices led the propagation of many ugly caricatures of Ottomans as cruel, bloodthirsty, and barbaric. The Christian minority with the Ottoman Empire was on the other hand portrayed as helpless, innocence victims. Little attention was paid to the role of Ottoman Christians in insurrections and bloody uprisings, while much attention was paid to the reprisals.

On the stage of international law, these events were partly enabled by the language of national self-determination, also rather new to international law, which began to taken on increasing potency in the nineteenth century. For example, the great nineteenth-century scholar of international law, the Italian jurist Pasquale Stanislao Mancini, developed ideas of national self-determination. He inverted the relationship between the state and nation, claiming that the “nation and not the state . . . represent-ed the basic unit of the international legal order (12). By the term nation, Mancini understood “communities united by natural and historical factors such as territory, race, and language, as well as by consciousness of shared nationality.” Such unified nation -al communities, he argued, “should be allowed by international law to organize into states, and exercise sovereignty on par with the other members of the international order” (13). Mancini did not include religion in his list, but many others were willing to do so, easily portraying religion as an aspect of political identity.

Such notions of a Christian political identity were gaining new traction in the United States at precisely the same time. David Brewer, an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court from 1889-1910, was an outspoken proponent of such “Christian nation” ideas, articulating them in his private writings and in some of his judicial opinions.14 Brewer, conincidentally, had been born in the Ottoman Empire. His parents were Protestant missionaries who led a school in Izmir (15). Such formulations also dovetailed smoothly with the older western ideas that privileged Christian sovereignty over other forms, and gave a forceful impetus to the claims of peoples, such as Christian communities in the Balkans not only to justify separation from the Ottoman Empire, but to achieve the status of an autonomous state in the international order.

There is some irony here. The impetus behind American missionaries establishing schools in the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s onward had been a perception that Armenian Christians were backward, practicing a corrupt form of Christianity. These efforts were not well received by Armenian Church leaders who complained loudly that the Americans were trying to convert Christians to Christianity. The Armenians practiced their religion quite differently from Protestants in America, and were seen as appropriate targets of a “civilizing” mission. Students of American and European expansion will be familiar with these themes. It is beyond the scope of this presentation to discern what exactly vaulted the “backward” Armenians into the center of the world community of Christians within a few short decades, but by the 1890s Armenian Christians were perceived to to be natural members of the Christian community and worthy of unwavering support.

Cartoonish images circulated, frightening readers with images of barbaric Turks, persecuting and killing Christians. This motivated loud cries from certain segments of the American public who wanted intervention on behalf of the Armenians. However, this intervention could not occur under international law because America was a signatory to the Treaty of Berlin, which set out the responsibilities of the Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers. Yet, the Great Powers were unwilling, for a variety of reasons, to intervene in the straightforward way that the Armenian lobby in the USA had been demanding since the 1890s. Overtures by the American Secretary of State Walter Gresham to join with Great Britain in intervening in the Armenian Question were rebuffed. European powers were more loathe to allow the United States to intervene in European interests than they were keen to assist the Armenian nationalists. Indeed many diplomats in Europe privately remarked the Americans were trying to use the Armenian crises as a pretext to influence European diplomacy in the region. In any event, there were no clear grounds in international law, as it existed up until and beyond 1915, for any intervention at all. What is perhaps most remarkable in all this is that the Armenian Crisis appeared to call for a common solution for American advocates. They uniformly thought Armenia should have political independence from the Ottoman Empire. That this was seen as the only solution to the humanitarian crises is instructive of what was driving much of the debate. Only political considerations, not humanitarian ones, could arrive so simplemindedly at such a solution – which was clearly aimed at weakening insofar as was possible, the Ottoman Empire.


The deep polarization we see today is the result of these early conflicts, which built upon narratives of religious incompatibility and conflict that are deeply ingrained in American and European culture. What began as a cry for religious solidarity, and made the US for the first time willing to call for intervention on the international stage, has continued to be irresolvable issue. Categories and vocabularies of international law that did not develop until World War Two, are now routinely projected backward onto an era in which they did not exist. Even today humanitarian concerns are often conflated with religious identities and faith commitments, shrouding political commitments beneath confessional prejudices.


(1) Theodor Meron, “The Humanization of Humanitarian Law,” 94:237-278 The American Journal of International Law (2000).

(2) Karl Shoemaker “World War I, Self-Determination, and the Legacies of Medieval Jurisprudence,” 15: 59-75 Uluslararasi Suçlar ve Tarih (International Crimes and History) (2014).

(3) James Muldoon, “The Contribution of Medieval Canon Lawyers to the Formation of International Law,” 28: 483-497 Traditio (1972). (4) Francisco de Vitoria, Relectio de Indis, (Madrid: 1989, reprinted from 1517 edition).

(5) See, for example, the discussion in J.M. Kelly, A Short History of Western Legal Theory (Oxford: 1992), pp. 200-1.

(6) Antony Anghie, “The Evolution of International Law: Colonial and Post-Colonial Realities,” in 27 (2006) Third World Quarterly pp. 739-753.

(7) Vitoria, De indis et de iure belli relectiones, ed. Ernest Nys, trans. John Pawley Bate (Washington, D.C.: 1917, reprinted from 1557 edition), p. 181.

(8) Antony Anghie, “The Evolution of International Law: Colonial and Post-Colonial Realities,” 27: 739-753 Third World Quarterly (2006).

(9) Ann Marie Wilson, “In the Name of God, Civilization, and Humanity: The United States and the Armenian Massacres of the 1890s,” 227:27-44 Le Mouvement social (2009).

(10) Id. at p. 27.

(11) Ayten Kiliç, “The International Repurcussions of the 1876 April Uprising with the Ottoman Empire,” 15: 11-46 Uluslararasi Suçlar ve Tarih (International Crimes and History) (2014)

(12) Guido Comparato, Nationalism and Private Law in Europe (Oxford, and Portland, OR: 2014) p. 69

(13) Kelley, “A Short History of Western Legal theory,” p. 346.

(14) See, for example, Davis J. Brewer, The United States: A Christian Nation (Philadelphia, 1905); and his opinion in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892).

(15) http://www.robinsonlibrary.com/law/unitedstates/supreme/justices/brewer.htm (accessed June 2, 2015).


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