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Emmerich de Vattel’s Idea of Sovereignty Essay

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“A dwarf is as much a man as a giant is; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom” – Vattel.

Emmerich de Vattel: “The Law of Nations”

Emmerich de Vattel, born in Switzerland, was an ardent student of Leibniz. He wrote several books of which his most famous work is “The Law of Nations” or, “Principles of the Law of Nature” published in 1758. It was the most influential book on the law of nations for 125 years following its publication (Brown et al, 2002). Vattel derives a system of law governing the nation-state and relations between nations, from this natural law hypothesis (Brown et al, 2002, page 322).

To have legitimacy, all law written by man must be coherent with this natural law hypothesis. “..the entire nation, whose common will is only the result of the united wills of the citizens, remains subject to the laws of nature, and is obliged to respect them in all its proceedings……the nation has also the same laws that nature has given to men, for the performance of their duty”. The first English translation of “The Law of Nations” appeared in 1759 and the first American edition appeared in 1796. The book was reprinted nineteen times in America by 1872.

In The Law of Nations, Vattel establishes a system of law governing relations between nation-states, based on natural law. Vattel’s book treats international law as a branch of natural law and is concerned with both internal as well as foreign affairs. The passages in which Vattel discusses the equality of states and the laws of war indicate the gulf that separates eighteenth-century international law from the laws of medieval Christendom. States had equal rights under international law, no matter how weak or powerful they may be (Brown et al, 2002, 322). In the “Preliminaries” section, Vattel first establishes a natural law hypothesis.

He then applies this natural law hypothesis, in Book I, to develop the law governing nations, and in the three other Books, to develop the law governing relations between nations. Thus, the Law of Nations is the science of the law subsisting between nations and states, and of the obligations that flow from it. Vattel was particularly influential in defining and characterizing the concepts of statehood and sovereignty. The statement that “a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom” summarizes a major part of Vattel’s teachings regarding the sovereignty of nations.

Vattel’s ideas

Vattel described a nation as “a body politic, a society of men, permanently united, to promote their common welfare by their combined strength, and possess of itself, by common consent, a right recognized by the rest of the world, to govern its members”. This definition does not talk about the size of the ‘body of politics’. Hence the laws are universal for both big nations and dwarf nations. Vattel says that when people get together in the form of nation-states they must contribute towards the general happiness of mankind. Society is considered as a moral person possessed of a unique sense of understanding, volition, and strength.

Hence, like the principles of human nature, these ‘societies of men’ or nation-states are obliged to live on the same terms with other societies or states, as an individual man was obliged, before those establishments, to live with other men. According to the principles of nature, the object of the great society was to have a mutual support system for improvement in lifestyle and prosperity. So also, nations are expected to work as mutual support systems (Preliminaries, Sec. 11-12).

From this, Vattel arrives at the first general law of relations between nations: The first general law holds that every individual nation, big or small must do its best to contribute to the happiness and perfection of all others (Preliminaries, Sec. 13). This means, bigger nations cannot take actions that will harm the smaller dwarf nations and vice versa.

The second general law of relations between nations is that all nations have sovereignty and Vattel says: “Each nation should be left in the peaceable enjoyment of that liberty which she inherits from nature.” This is derived from natural law, since nations, like individuals, are naturally free and independent of each other, regardless of the size or strength of the nation. It is in this context that the statement – “A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom”- acquires a great deal of meaning. Thus Vattel is usually considered to be the father of the theory of the equality of States.

According to him, “strength and weakness had nothing to do with the matter. A dwarf is just as much a man as a giant: a small republic is a no less sovereign than the most powerful of kingdoms” – here the analogy between individuals and states about their natural rights was drawn by other authors of natural law school such as Thomas Hobbes, John of Salisbury, Volkerdorf, Pufendorf and Christian Wolf. The principle of sovereign equality professed by Vattel found its place in the Charter of the United Nations]. At the end of the world wars, the principle of sovereign equality came under increasing focus.

The Moscow Declaration of the 30th of October 1943 brought the three Great Powers together recognizing “the necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization, based upon the sovereign equality of all peace-loving states, and open to membership by all such states, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security” (Article 4, Moscow Declaration). This basic principle also formed the basis of the American foreign policy according to which “Every State, large and small, is equal before the law and the rule of law” (Nincic, 1970, 43).

Vattel’s defense of national sovereignty

Most modern writers on international law do not agree with Vattel’s defense of national sovereignty. He explicitly rejects the idea of a world government, or supranational institutions, governing nation-states. Many writers in the early 1900’s opposed Vattel and suggested that he must be reduced to obscurity because he defends national sovereignty. Vattel rejects the formulation, advanced by Christian Wolff, that a civitas maxima, or great republic, exists above all nation-states.

Vattel holds that in a civilized society all members must give up part of their rights to the body of the society and that there should exist a supreme authority capable of commanding all the members, of giving to them laws, and of punishing those who refuse to obey. However, he says that nothing like this can be conceived or supposed to exist between nations.

Each sovereign State, according to Vattel is independent of all others and this includes dwarf nations as well. The sovereign nation-state is the best institution, to understand and perform the duties which the state owes to its citizens. As Vattel puts it, “A nation ought to know itself. Without this knowledge, it cannot make any successful endeavors after its perfection.” He opposes the intervention of bigger nations in the affairs of smaller nations. If nations reserve the right to judge other nations and intervene in their internal affairs, this “opens the door to all the ravages of enthusiasm and fanaticism, and furnishes ambition with numberless pretexts”.

Vattel constantly reiterates that a nation can exist only under a good government that provides its citizens with an atmosphere to grow and flourish. Vattel held that when men join together in society, they must be governed by a public authority which may be in any form: democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy. The government must ensure the survival and progress of the individuals in the nation. Vattel further says that every nation must be governed by a constitution.

The constitution should provide the framework for government functions and it must act as the foundation for the nation’s safety, perfection, and happiness. The constitution of any nation – dwarf or big can be changed only with the support of the entire nation. Neither the legislature nor the sovereign has the power to change the constitution on its own. The point to be noted in this context is that for a dwarf nation to achieve growth and perfection comparable to bigger nations it must have a good constitution. Only by a good constitution, every nation can flourish.

After establishing the principles of nations derived from principles of nature, Vattel next declares the rights and duties of nations about others. He states that “maxims will appear very strange to cabinet politicians, and such is the misfortune of mankind”. Vattel lays out a detailed set of laws governing relations between nations, regarding such areas as aid and treaties. However, he also emphasizes that these agreements are meaningless unless they flow from a spirit of friendship and mutual affection between nations. He writes:

“How happy would mankind be, were these amiable precepts of nature everywhere observed! Nations would communicate to each other their products and their knowledge; a profound peace would prevail all over the earth, and enrich it with its invaluable fruits; industry, the sciences, and the arts would be employed in promoting our happiness, no less than in relieving our wants; violent methods of deciding contests would be no more heard of; all differences would be terminated by moderation, justice, and equity; the world would have the appearance of a large republic; men would live everywhere like brothers, and each individual is a citizen of the universe. That this idea should be but a delightful dream! Yet it flows from the nature and essence of man”. (Book II, Chap. I, Sec. 16)

However, in reality, nations do not peacefully co-exist together. Bigger nations, being more powerful often attack dwarf nations and deprive them of their rights. Therefore, these dwarf nations must act to protect themselves. Vattel points out that the law of nature requires them to fight for survival. It cannot be obliged to strengthen another nation with evil intentions. However, according to Vattel, all nations, big and small must ideally follow moderate righteous policies and act as an example for others to follow. Moreover, Vattel feels that learned nations should help less privileged nations.

This could also mean the dwarf nations that are less privileged due to fewer natural resources and less population. However, he also warns that although nations must help each other in seeking happiness, no nation has the right to impose its view of happiness on others. This is a direct reference to big powerful nations trying to impose their views on smaller nations: “The liberty of one nation will not remain entire if the others arrogate to themselves an inspection into the rules of its conduct. For this must be contrary to the law of nature, which declares every nation free and independent of others.”

Vattel understood the problems faced by small nations in the context of European colonization. He also understood that European commercial prosperity demanded international cooperation and hence he put forth the idea of a binding international code of conduct that would conform to contemporary circumstances. While Vattel, like his Enlightenment contemporaries, professed a belief in the theory of natural law, his law of nations integrated the positivist customary practices of European diplomatic affairs (Garrison, 2002, page 69). Vattel believed that the principles of international law had to be capable of implementation by practical means. According to Vattel, international peace and order could be constructed only by compromises and contracts among civilized nations.

To Vattel, the secret to protecting weaker nations from more powerful and aggressive states was not an overarching international authority but the establishment and preservation of a balance of power, and he encouraged small nations to band together in security arrangements with larger and more powerful ones (Garrison, 2002, page 69). Regardless of their relative powers, however, Vattel believed that a nation in such an alliance remained sovereign and independent if “it [continued to] govern itself by its authority and laws”.

Lawyers and judges who supported the principle of tribal sovereignty in the nineteenth century, including William Wirt and John Marshall, occasionally referred to this section of Vattel’s treatise as a metaphor for the unique federal Indian relationship (Garrison, 2002, page 69). This grouping of dwarf nations with bigger nations can be seen in terms of regional treaties such as NAFTA where smaller countries are included along with bigger countries.

Ideally, Vattel wrote, all nations were independent and deserved to be left alone, free from the interference of other nations in their affairs. If singular nations violated these general principles, Vattel warned that the order provided by his international code would soon disintegrate (Garrison, 2002, page 70). Vattel also recognized that wars of conquest were an essential element of international law.

He adopted Rousseau’s view that war was a contest between governments. Ideally, Vattel noted, conquest should not affect individual property rights. While the conquering national acquired sovereignty over the land of the conquered, he wrote that the individual inhabitants of the vanquished country retained the right of possession of their private property. Thus Vattel bifurcated the right to land into individual ownership and overarching national sovereignty.


In today’s world, small republics are often exploited by bigger countries for their defense and trade purposes. According to Vattel sovereignty resided in the people and people delegated authority to the government. War can only be a conquest between governments and individuals within the societies should hold on to their rights to private property. Vattel felt that leaders of all nations had a duty to work towards the common welfare of their people and also to advance the interests and happiness of all nations. But when a state’s interests or survival is threatened, then, Vattel felt it could override this obligation to the community of nations (Garrison, 2002).

But ideally, all nations, big or small should be allowed the freedom to handle their internal affairs. Thus, it is clear that just as a dwarf is as much a man as a giant is, a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom. This statement of Vattel is by both logical and ethical thinking.


Brown, Chris; Nardin, Terry; and Rengger, J. Nicholas (2002). International relations in political thought: Texts from the Ancient Greeks. Cambridge University Press.

Garrison, Alan Tim (2002). The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary. University of Georgia Press.

Nincic, Djura (1970). The Problem of Sovereignty in the Charter and in the Practice of the United Nations. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Vattel, de Emmerich (1758). The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law. Carnegie Institution. Washington DC.

Wellens, Karel and Suy, Eric (1998). International law: Theory and Practice : Essays in Honour of Eric Suy. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

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