17(3) Quinnipac Law Review (1997)

A Grotian Tradition of Theory and Practice?: Grotius, Law, and Moral Skepticism in the Thought of Hedley Bull

Benedict Kingsbury

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Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) occupies a prominent position in the canon of those who have argued, against the grain established by many of the most distinguished contemporary historians of political thought and international law, that it is possible and valuable to explore the history of problems of international order through identification of, and counterpoint among, enduring traditions of thought. An inquiry into efforts to connect Grotius to ideas and approaches current more than three centuries later thus seems well fitted to this symposium on Traditions of Thought About International Order. This article will examine the uses of Grotius and the idea of a “Grotian tradition” in the work of Hedley Bull (1932-1985), one of the most incisive and historically-minded modern theorists of international relations. Bull was an intellectual heir of Mar­tin Wight (1913-1972), whose approach to elucidation of fundamental problems in international relations rested upon the heuristic interplay among contending but interdependent traditions of thought. Wight’s favored division was three-fold: a “Machiavellian/Hobbesiart” tradition of realpolitik, a “Kantian” progressivist or cosmopolitanist tradition, and a “Grotian tradition” which represented a middle way between the two. Wight’s elaboration of a “Grotian tradition,” like Hedley Bull’s work on Grotius, drew upon and engaged critically with the manifestations of varying but increasing interest in Grotius among international lawyers from about the middle of the nineteenth century, and especially the efforts of Van Vollenhoven and Lauterpacht in the wake of the two world wars to expound a “Grotian tradition” of international law for the twentieth century. Bull adopted from Wight much of the language of the three traditions, while pointing explicitly to their limitations, but Bull’s systematic rigor caused him to distinguish sharply between the writings of Grotius and the tenets of a “Grotian tradition.” He was decidedly cautious as to the senses in which any such tradition could usefully be said to exist. Bull, more than Wight, produced close and thoughtful analyses of particular works of Grotius that were intended to demonstrate, quite apart from any connections with neo-Grotians or a “Grotian tradition,” their intrinsic interest for modern students of international relations. This article aims to show, however, that Bull’s reflective modern outlook on the contemporary states-system and the universal but pluralist international society, was so far from Grotius’ understanding of his world as to render Bull unable to follow Grotius’ views on the nature of law and the possibilities of moral commitment in the face of moral skepticism. It is unsurprising that no direct bond of tradition transcends the gulf between Grotius and Bull in these key respects. Grotius nevertheless held a powerful appeal for Bull. This appeal rested not only on Grotius’ much-discussed conception of an incipient international society and his equally noted concern with the central problem of war, but also on Bull’s appreciation of Grotius’ distinctive approach to the relations of theory and practice. It will be argued in the final section of this article that Bull’s approach to the problem of theory and practice is both a wrongly-neglected and notably Grotian feature of his intellectual project. Consideration of Bull’s approach to this problem provides insight into a recurrent issue for international relations theorists, and illuminates an undervalued aspect of the contribution to international relations of the discipline of international law.