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New Left Review 8, March-April 2001


Peter Gowan on Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant. The origins of 'liberal' interventionism by the NATO powers today in the doctrines of colonial retribution and expropriation of the seventeenth century.

PETER GOWAN

THE ORIGINS OF ATLANTIC LIBERALISM

The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented ascendancy of rights-based liberal individualism as the legitimating ideology of the capitalist world. No longer just the theme song of the American way of life, it has become the official creed of the European Union and the mobilizing doctrine of Western military intervention around the world, from the Middle East to the Balkans, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Caribbean. This is a discourse that links institutional and cultural features internal to the Atlantic states to postulated universal interests of humanity as a whole. All human beings, it argues, are individuals entitled to certain rights, and while the advanced polities of the West may respect a far richer and deeper range of these than anywhere else, liberals have a duty to the rest of humanity to advance and promote minimal human rights everywhere and to strike down those who would deny them. What are the historical sources of this outlook? It has long been believed that this strand of political thought derives from theories of Natural Law and associated conceptions of social contract dating back to the seventeenth century, above all in England—a tradition that combined, within a single framework, a universalist notion of the nature and entitlements of humanity with a specific normative theory of what might constitute a civilized polity for the advanced countries. Out of ideas of the individual moral agent, possessed of attributes common to all mankind, there developed—according to a standard schema—notions of government by consent and, eventually, agreed rules of international conduct.

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Peter Gowan, ‘The Origins of Atlantic Liberalism’, NLR 8: £3
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