It might seem somewhat paradoxical that in the Wars of 1898 and their aftermath—the era in which the United States expanded its imperial reach deep into the Caribbean and Pacific—international law became a feature of US foreign policy. In the midst of all of the militarism (think of Teddy Roosevelt’s roughriders storming Cuba), colonial conquest, and the use of torture to quash Philippine resistance to US colonial rule, the US government sought to make its empire legalistic and to help build a broader international legal order. Benjamin Coates, in his book Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford UP, 2019), ably dissects this project, and, in the process, helps illuminate aspects of the United States’ overseas empire that other scholars have overlooked.
Coates, an associate professor at Wake Forest University, explores the many ways in which international law bolstered imperial rule and interimperial relations. International-law arguments, for example, helped justify the seizure of the Panama Canal Zone. In Coates’ telling, then, it was not a coincidence that the US foreign-policy apparatus lawyered up—filling the State Department’s ranks with a multitude of international lawyers—at the same moment that it began to administer colonial populations abroad. I hope you enjoy our discussion!
Dexter Fergie is a doctoral student in US and global history at Northwestern University. His research examines the history of ideas, infrastructure, and international organizations.