Review: The Baroque Cycle (Neal Stephenson)

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson (2003).
The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson (2004).
The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson (2004).

2.8k words (≈ 10 minutes)

The Baroque Cycle is nothing if not ambitious: three volumes, subdivided into eight books, with chapters covering the 60 years from 1655 to 1715.

And what riveting subject has Neal Stephenson chosen for this grand work? Nothing less than the rise of science and finance, and with them, the modern world. If the proceedings of the Royal Society and machinations of VOC stockbrokers do not sound like the most gripping subjects for a novel:
  1. Stephenson succeeds in building an engaging plot out of them (though it takes nearly three thousand pages).
  2. There are also pirates, sword fights, and even a duel fought with cannons.


Quicksilver starts in 1713 with the ever-mysterious Enoch Root arriving to summon Daniel Waterhouse back to Europe to try to settle the dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (or, perhaps more accurately, the dispute inflicted on Leibniz by Newton). Daniel leaves his home in Massachusetts, where he had founded a small, quaint institute called the Massachusetts Bay Institute of the Technologickal Arts to continue Leibniz’s research on mechanized computation and information storage.

The first part of Quicksilver jumps between the story of Daniel getting to know fellow student Isaac Newton and becoming involved with the fledgling Royal Society in 1660s to 1670s England, and the story of Daniel’s sea voyage in 1713, which, of course, proceeds without any complications, meandering, or pirates.

In the next part we are introduced to the two other main protagonists: Jack Shaftoe, a London-born urchin who comes to acquire a truckload of sobriquets on his adventures (including King of the Vagabonds, L’Emmerdeur, Quicksilver, Ali Zaybak, and Sword of Divine Fire), and Eliza, a former slave who uses her financial acumen to build a fortune and gain a slew of titles herself.

In The Confusion, the second volume, Daniel is mostly relegated to the sidelines, and the story focuses on Jack’s globe-spanning adventures and Eliza’s political and financial machinations in Europe. Whereas the plot of Quicksilver often trudges along slowly, The Confusion is structured better and moves a lot faster. And where Quicksilver focused on science, The Confusion deals heavily with money.

The System of the World returns the focus to Daniel, beginning with Daniel’s arrival in England in the January of 1714. If The Confusion is where Stephenson masters the art of plot, The System of the World is where he masters the art of character. While previous books had touching moments of character development (particularly the scene in The Confusion where Daniel confronts a demented Newton, and the climax of Eliza’s storyline in the same book), The System of the World has all three main characters undergo change, confront their inner demons, and reach the conclusion of their story arcs.

The System of the Cycle

Overall, The Baroque Cycle does not have the structure of a trilogy, but of a single, monstrously intricate novel. Quicksilver acts as an introduction to the characters that sets up the setting and some of the later conflicts, The Confusion is the adventurous mid-section of the novel where side plots are explored and conflicts develop, and The System of the World is a 900-page climax, complete with no less than five different epilogues.

Therefore I recommend that if you choose to read Quicksilver, you should aim to read all three volumes, since the first or even the first two volumes don’t form a satisfying whole on their own. After Quicksilver, I was ambivalent about reading the next volume because of the way that the book felt like a long prologue. However, the ideas in the book stuck with me, and after I had read the remaining parts, I realized that that was exactly what the book was.

(A word of warning: Quicksilver might be an introduction, but it is an essential one; given the information density of the books, skipping straight to The Confusion would be a bit like starting your pilot training by landing a 747 in heavy crosswinds. Also, Quicksilver focuses on the science more than the other books, and its descriptions of Newton’s and Hooke’s work and the spirit of the Royal Society are themselves worth reading the book for.)

Grand themes

The Baroque Cycle is a loose prequel to Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s earlier novel about World War II codebreakers and 1990s internet entrepreneurs trying to start a data haven and an internet bank. Reading Cryptonomicon is definitely not required, though there are several minor connections.

What Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle share are themes. Stephenson says that the idea for The Baroque Cycle came when he read about Leibniz’s early work on computation and realized that the themes of science, computation and money in Cryptonomicon were also present in late-1600s and early-1700s Europe.

These themes are in turn related to the overarching theme of that time period: the Enlightenment, and the gradual rise of modern scientific, financial, and political institutions amidst the lingering medieval background that came with it.

Science & alchemy

Stephenson has clearly done his research on the period. Almost every natural philosopher in Europe at the time makes an appearance, including Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Christiaan Huygens, Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, John Locke, John Wilkins, John Flamsteed, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and Thomas Newcomen. This group of people, all of whom were contemporaries, are responsible for inventing and/or discovering calculus, the inverse square law, the law of elasticity, Halley’s comet, the rings of Saturn, pendulum clocks, the mathematics of probability, the wave theory of light, the particle theory of light, the steam engine, the binomial series, the theory of extinction, the Newtonian telescope, cells, matrices and the method for solving them, dynamics, Boolean algebra, mechanical calculators, and, last but definitely not least, physics as a science.

There are parallels, no doubt intentionally enforced by Stephenson, between the science of Newton’s time and the digital revolution of the late 1900s. In both cases, a new tool (the scientific method / the computer) opened up a new world, which a horde of bright but often eccentric people promptly began exploring, leaving a blazing trail of results and discoveries for later generations to build on. The spirit of discovery and experimentation of this early group of explorers is captured well, particularly in Quicksilver, where we see, for instance, Hooke trying to figure out the law by which gravity diminishes with altitude by lowering a weight into a well.

This period is doubly interesting because even as the vanguard of science made progress by leaps and bounds, earlier superstitions and beliefs remained in favor. At one point, Daniel and Newton discuss how gravity works, with Daniel saying: “The inner workings of gravity, you seem to be saying, are beyond the grasp, or even the reach, of Natural Philosophy. To whom should we appeal, then? Metaphysicians? Theologians? Sorcerers?” Newton replies: “They are all the same to me, and I am one.”

Alchemy, one of Newton’s main interests in addition to physics, theology, and saving England’s economy from ruin, features heavily in the book. In the universe of The Baroque Cycle, alchemy partially works, though it requires knowledge and ingredients that are vanishingly rare. The character of Enoch Root, who also appears 400 years later in Cryptonomicon, is strongly hinted to be immortal (this is not much of a spoiler; the first two chapters of Quicksilver should already make this clear).

The slight speculative touch might seem to be a contradictory addition to a work concerned with the rise of scientific thinking. However, it ingeniously captures something about the spirit of the time. Perhaps the golden age of the supernatural was the dawn of science, the time between the rise of rational inquiry and the discovery of nature’s laws through this inquiry, when theology and alchemy seemed only one experiment away from confirmation. Today we know that we live in the universe of physics, but the people who first charted the border between the natural and supernatural did not have the benefit of this certainty, and often they could not have known which side of the border they were exploring.

Leibniz & Newton

The central scientific figures in the book are perhaps the most important: Hooke, Leibniz, and Newton. All three were polymaths who probed entirely new realms, yet one of those names stands out more than the others.

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” Newton famously wrote in a letter to Hooke, showing the depth of his humility. Or was he discretely insulting Hooke, who is said to have been hunchbacked and short, and thus a poor giant to stand upon? No one knows, because during Newton’s presidency of the Royal Society, all portraits of Hooke, as well as much of his equipment, were removed.

During his long career, Newton waged bitter disputes over priority against Hooke and Leibniz. In particular he used his role as the president of the Royal Society to get the entire English scientific establishment on his side in the war against Leibniz.

Stephenson incorporates this evidence into his portrayal of Newton as capricious, harsh, unforgiving, and unstable. At the same time, he is ruthlessly obsessive in pursuit of his studies, thinking nothing of personal sacrifices like half-blinding himself to study sunspots, sticking things into his eye to probe the nature of optics, tasting chemicals in his quest for alchemy, and starving himself and foregoing sleep to tend to an experiment.

Newton also has a reverence for the old and the sacred, which drives his obsession with theology (particularly the Old Testament), his pursuit of alchemy, and his disdain of even his own calculus in cases where Euclidean geometry is sufficient.

Leibniz, on the other hand, is portrayed as a far gentler, more genial figure. He is also markedly more forward-looking, particularly in his vision that computation and even thought can, in principle, be mechanized.

One of the main overarching plots in The Baroque Cycle is the dispute between Newton and Leibniz over not just the invention of calculus, but also over the broader differences in their philosophical views. Ultimately, this plot line is somewhat overshadowed by other conflicts, which is somewhat disappointing given the buildup. The System of the World does have one chapter where Newton and Leibniz fight it out over their philosophical and theological views, but it gets cut short by an interruption.

Paying for it all

In addition to his scientific, alchemical, and theological work, Newton was also the Master of the Mint for the latter half of his life. He presided over a recoinage of the English currency that helped stave off disaster, and persecuted counterfeiters with his typical ruthless zeal.

That The Baroque Cycle’s themes happen to coincide so well in this time period and its key figures is no accident. The rise of science happened at the same time, and probably for at least some of the same reasons, as the rise of modern financial institutions.

Stephenson gives plenty of examples of the backwardness of doing business in the 1600s. People were only beginning to trust banks, cheques, and other indirect means of payment. One chapter goes to some length in describing the difficulties of shipping timber across the borders of a few dozen fragmented states and provinces, each with its own complex and expensive system of tariffs. Even in the relatively modern England, the inconsistency of the coins means that paying with them is more like bartering than using money; this, and counterfeiters, are the main problems that face Newton in his role as Master of the Mint.

Just like with science, The Baroque Cycle portrays a world in transition from one system another. And also just like with its depiction science, parts of the older system refuse to budge: Jack’s dealings in The Confusion center heavily on gold, the eternal store of value.


The Baroque Cycle also deals heavily with the politics of the time. This is probably partly due to plot reasons: historical events are the core of the plot of many a historical novel, and historical events tend to be driven by politics. But another factor is that many of the political changes of the period are part of the grander narrative of the Enlightened world order that The Baroque Cycle charts. The dispute between Whigs and Tories, or between the Roundheads and Cavaliers before them, features heavily, as do the schemes of Louis XIV.

As with natural philosophers, countless political figures of the time make an appearance, including William III of England, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, James Stuart, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, Caroline of Ansbach, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, and Peter the Great, who makes an “incognito” visit to London during which he tears apart half the city.

Even the Spanish Inquisition makes an unexpected appearance. But though Jack bemoans that “This Inquisition is as patient as Death. Nothing can stop it”, another character replies: “Nothing […]except for the Enlightenment”.

Baroque is the soul of wit

Upon being handed a draft of Isaac Newton’s Principia, a character in Quicksilver complains about its length and exclaims: “Some sharp editor needs to step in and take that wretch in hand!” I can’t help but think that Stephenson was reflecting on his own experiences when he wrote that line.

Neal Stephenson is known for complex, lengthy works, and The Baroque Cycle is the lengthiest and most complex. While each page may not be quite as significant as a page of Newton’s PhilosophiƓ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, it is not nearly as bloated as it may seem.
In any fictional work of this scale, there will be slow parts. Especially in Quicksilver, the plot occasionally meanders a bit too much, though The Confusion and The System of the World are a lot better in this regard.

On the smaller scale, Stephenson explains historical background in great detail, often hijacking two characters into having a somewhat stilted conversation that conveniently reveals relevant historical details. But this also means that readers do not have to do their history homework before reading to follow the plot. In addition to historical details, Stephenson delights in relating the particulars of different mechanisms, whether mines or phosphorus purification plants. How interesting these are depends heavily on the reader.

Like Stephenson’s other novels, The Baroque Cycle features plenty of his enviable dry wit. Stephenson is also not afraid to freeze the narration for a paragraph, or even half a page, to go off on some tangent that eventually circles back like Halley’s Comet after setting up the perfect metaphor or humorous remark. The Baroque Cycle does not have any of the hilarious multipage tangents found in Cryptonomicon, and thus has less laugh-out-loud moments, but on the other hand the tangents and humor in The Baroque Cycle tend to be more topical and better integrated with the atmosphere and setting. Some may find the idiosyncrasies of his style distracting, but I found Stephenson’s prose to be very enjoyable.

Winds of change and engines of change

The Baroque Cycle is certainly baroque. The number of characters, subplots, and events - let alone pages - nears the astronomical. But from this mess Stephenson manages to erect a surprisingly compelling image of a world in transition.

Consider medieval society. The standards of human welfare are atrocious and stagnant. The world remains at least as great a mystery as it was a thousand years prior. The Spanish Inquisition is knocking on doors. And then consider the modern world, with its unprecedented and ever-expanding level of well-being, depth of knowledge, and individual freedoms.

What’s more important - at least for a novelist - is that somewhere in between things changed, and the world was caught in the turmoil of that change. Somewhere in between were the people who first thought of science and liberalism, and the forces that supported them, and the people and forces that were against them.

The Baroque Cycle is a story about this change - specifically, about the moment when the roots of the modern world began to sprout. For a while, alchemy coexisted with science, swords with guns, pirates with stock-markets, and slaves with steam engines - and in each case it was still unknown which way the scales would tip. The new mixed with the old, and the old with the new. It is this moment that The Baroque Cycle captures so well, and from which it forms its soul.


Review: The Internationalists (Oona A. Hathaway, Scott J. Shapiro)

Book: The Internationalists, by Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro (2017).
3.2k words (≈ 11 minutes)

Today war is not only rare, but also illegal and condemned.

Things have not always been that way. The Bible gives an idea about what was seen as just in ancient times. When Moses heard about the campaign of vengeance on the Midianites, he berated his officers for allowing women and children to live (all men had already been massacred). When King Saul merely imprisoned the last of the Amalekites instead of killing them, Prophet Samuel had to finish the job by hacking the chained prisoners to pieces. Saul’s heinous crime even caused God to announce that He had made a mistake in appointing Saul as king. As Hathaway and Shapiro put it: “In the Hebrew Bible, it was often a war crime not to kill civilians.”

Accepting the mass murder of civilians is not just a feature of biblical times, but a feature of international law until the mid-1700s. For instance, Couhnt Pappenheim, after sacking the city of Magdeburg in 1631, let his soldiers run loose through the city, killing, pillaging, and stealing as they saw fit. He described the sacking in a message to the Holy Roman Emperor: “I believe that over twenty thousand souls were lost … All our soldiers became rich. God with us.”

Something has definitely happened in the past few centuries. Many explanations have been offered. War has become more expensive, trade has become cheaper, and economic growth means that prosperity is not a zero-sum game. Nuclear weapons have prevented war. Countries have become more democratic over time. Perhaps the cause is the gradual advancement of morality.

The Internationalists does not dismiss the importance of these factors, but makes a case for the importance of another: the legal status of war has changed, and that these changes have marked shifts in the international order. Hathaway and Shapiro identify two key events: Hugo Grotius’s construction of a legal basis for war in 1625, and the Peace Pact’s (AKA the Kellogg-Briand pact) outlawing of war in 1928.

The Old World Order

Hathaway and Shapiro refer to the legal framework of the international order from 1625 to 1928 as the Old World Order. Its rules were laid out by Grotius in De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace), who began writing it as an effort to justify the capture of a Portuguese frigate by Dutch ships near Singapore in order to avoid legal troubles for the VOC (Dutch East India Company). This is not quite the most virtuous of motives, and it shows.

The essence of Grotius’s argument is the principle that might makes right. Since there is no arbiter for disputes between nations, nations have the right to defend their interests with war, and neutral nations, who do not have the authority to judge which nation’s claims are right, should simply accept the outcome of the war as right. Even if a nation had an unjust cause to fight a war, the nation, its leadership, and military must not be prosecuted or in any way punished for it; they have the right to take their claims to the ultimate court (war).

In some ways, Grotius was ahead of his time. He recognized poison, rape, and “treacherous” assassination as war crimes, and argued that soldiers who committed these crimes could be tried and punished for them. However, Grotius explicitly stated that torture, enslavement, pillaging, execution of prisoners of war, and the killing of unarmed civilians could not be prosecuted. Grotius did consider the needless slaughter of civilians to be unjust, but in his view it was not a criminal offence.

Grotius was also against “hygienic” wars, in which the principal aim is to cleanse a land of a particular group, often for religious reasons. In this way, even the Old World Order was a step above the biblical extermination campaigns and holy crusades of previous centuries.

Follow the rules

One of the most striking aspects of the Old World Order is how deeply and strictly nations adhered to it.

Under the Old World Order, war truly was, as Clausewitz said, “the continuation of politics by other means.” Slaughter and killing were just another part of a complex, formalized system of rules and procedures for settling differences between nations.

To justify wars, war manifestos were written, often commissioned by the state from esteemed intellectuals (for example, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was recruited to write a defense of the Holy Roman Empire’s participation in the War of the Spanish Succession).

War manifestos and complex traditions for declaring war go back far before Grotius. Consider the (frankly hilarious) Roman practice:
During the Roman Republic, a priest would approach the border of any territory Rome intended to attack wearing a wool veil. Once there, he would announce a legal grievance, called the clarigatio. If the other side ignored the clarigatio for thirty-three days, the Senate could authorize war. War would officially commence when the priest returned to the border and, in the presence of three military-age men, threw an iron-tipped spear over the line. As their empire expanded overseas, Rome had to alter the process, for no priest could fling his spear over the ocean. In the revamped system, a priest would take a prisoner from the soon-to-be enemy’s territory and force him to buy a small plot of land on the Campus Martius, the field of Mars, just outside the ancient city walls of Rome. When the prisoner proved unable to meet the priest’s demands, the priest could then throw the spear into “foreign soil,” thereby starting the war, and still be home for supper.
However, the Old World Order differed from past times in standardizing the rules across all “civilized” (i.e. European) countries, and making sure that these rules were followed with a rigor and consistency that would make many modern international institutions envious. The Internationalists offers countless vivid examples, of which a few are summarized below.

Napoleon’s wars killed 7 million people over 11 years across Europe. He was vilified by the press of Britain and many other countries, and thought of by much of Europe as the physical manifestation of evil.

Yet after his defeat in 1813, the Allies made no attempt to execute or imprison him. By the rules of the Old World Order, as the leader of a country he had the right to wage war, and therefore could not be put on trial since he had done nothing wrong. He retained the title and role of Emperor (albeit of Elba, not France), where he lived in comfort until escaping to France and starting another war.

When he lost yet again in 1815, he surrendered to the English, who once again were unable to prosecute and punish him because of legal difficulties. This was not due to lack of trying. One solution was to treat him as a pirate (a criminal offense) because he had escaped Elba on a ship. However, the British Parliament had recognized the conflict as a war, which foreign nations had the right to wage, and so this idea had to be dropped. Ultimately the British Parliament had to pass a special law to justify detaining Napoleon on St. Helena.

In 1891, a Sioux Native American called Plenty Horses shot, without provocation, a US lieutenant delivering a message. He was tried in court, and acquitted after it was established that there was a state of war between the Sioux and the US. War was not just a justification for murder, it was a strong enough justification that the courts of a country acquitted murderers of its own citizens on that basis (though conveniently enough, the ruling that there was a state of war between the Sioux and US also justified a mass murder committed earlier by US forces).

The Old World Order also stated that neutral countries have to treat belligerents in a war equally, a stark change from classical Greece and Rome (ancient Greek and Latin do not even have a word for neutrality). This, too, tended to be followed to the letter.

Old World Disorder

Significant changes to Grotius’s model began to appear only a century after his seminal work.

By the mid-1700s, a distinction started being made between civilians and soldiers, and the slaughter of the former was increasingly frowned upon. The international lawyer Emer de Vattel even declared: “[civilians have] nothing to fear from the sword of the enemy” (I assume the civilians themselves were not polled).

In the 1800s and early 1900s, war was further regulated by international treaties against killing the wounded, fragmenting small arms ammunition, and the execution of surrendered prisoners of war.

Why? Enlightenment ideals and a growing appreciation of the value of life were certainly a part of it. Other possible reasons that Hathaway and Shapiro cite are the influence of chivalrous aristocrats who considered wars to be formal duels between nations, as well as the horror of long wars in the 1600s and 1700s.

Whatever the reason, by the late 1800s the trend was towards war being made ever more humane by regulations. There is a limit to how humane war can be made, however, and so the natural next step was to ask whether war itself should be outlawed.

The New World Order

World War I was the culmination of the Old World Order. It was a colossal waste of human life and potential, triggered by nations sleepwalking into war to defend against perceived wrongs. It was fought in precise accordance with Grotian rules: nations had issues with each other, and took them up “by other means” once normal politics had failed.

World War I set in motion various plans and movements to prevent another world war. The solution of the League of Nations was to prevent war by threatening war on those who waged war (though it still allowed nations to go to war after three months if they were unsatisfied with the verdict of the League’s tribunal). This was, to put it mildly, somewhat self-defeating. Hathaway and Shapiro do not mince words: “The League of Nations did not herald the end of the Old World Order. The League was its reprieve.”

The book details the story of how several people, most importantly James T. Shotwell and Salmon O. Levinson, gradually built momentum for the outlawry of war movement in the 1920s, leading to the signing of the Peace Pact in 1928 by fifteen nations. Kellogg, the US secretary of state, took much of the credit, and an undivided Nobel prize, for the achievement. This was mostly thanks to his attempts to discredit Levinson: to the Norwegian ambassador who had much influence in the Nobel Committee, he wrote, among other more direct attacks: “… a man by the name of Levinson in Chicago - I have forgotten his first name - … claims to be the originator of the idea”.

(This is not the only instance of dubious credit being given in the field international law: Grotius has often been honored for his contributions to peace, and, is, ironically, the patron saint of the building that houses the International Court of Justice.)

The Peace Pact, as we all know, succeeded perfectly, and never again was a war fought on Earth.

Happily ever after … ?

Not three years after the signing of the Peace Pact, Japan invaded Manchuria. Japan, a quickly modernizing power, had had a rather sudden introduction to the Old World Order in 1852 when four US ships arrived on its coastline and engaged in classic gunboat diplomacy to get the country to open its trade. Just as the country had begun exploiting the Old World Order to its own benefit, the world order had changed.

The League succeeded in not recognizing Manchukuo (Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria) as a state. However, it is telling that the League’s greatest success in the situation was to not do something. Many countries, foremost the US, resisted imposing sanctions because of concerns about profitability and lingering Old World Order beliefs about mandated neutrality.

Some sanctions were, however, imposed on Italy following its annexation of Ethiopia, but nations were not willing to set up sanctions strong enough to be effective. The use of sanctions against a warring nation was a revolution; under the Old World Order, it would have violated the duty of neutral nations to treat the aggressors equally.

Thus the 1930s were marked by nations being caught halfway between the Old and New World Order, unable to effectively use enforcement methods from either. At the same time, other nations, most prominently ascendant industrial powers like Germany and Japan, began to increasingly shun the New World Order of non-violent conflict resolution, partly out of a (not entirely unjustified) belief that it was an attempt to lock the world’s borders in place to the benefit the ruling colonial powers.

If World War I was the culmination of the Old World Order, World War II was the battle of the Old against the New. The Axis powers acted according to the older model - the principle that might makes right - and thus sought to increase their power through conquest. The genocide perpetrated by the Nazis drew upon an even older basis for war: the concept of hygienic war, waged for the purpose of ethnic cleansing.

On the other hand, the Allies belived, to varying extent, that this is not a valid basis for international law. Of course, any side in a war, particularly the ones who write history afterwards, tends to believe they were motivated by some higher purpose. But the end of the war shows that the idealism of the Allies was genuine. Surviving Nazi leaders were given a trial at Nuremberg, in accordance with the principal that they had committed a crime. The book gives an excellent overview of the trials and the key legal figures on both sides: Carl Schmitt (a Nazi), and Hersch Lauterpacht (a Jew).

The end of World War II also saw the formation of the United Nations and other international organizations. The rise of supranational organizations ameliorated the lack of arbiters for international disputes that had formed the bedrock of the Grotian model. (It was not without hitches, though: negotiations for the formation of the UN almost stalled when Stalin demanded separate votes for all 16 Soviet republics. In the end, he settled for instituting the veto system.)

Finally, in an act that would have made most of their predecessors for the past four hundred years turn in their graves like propellers, Allied leaders largely refrained from dividing the spoils and claiming territory for themselves. Germany was split into East and West, but otherwise borders largely reverted back to an earlier date.

Law & order & changing values
Which earlier date? 1928. This is the basis for the authors’ claim that the Peace Pact was a seminal event; though it did not quite end war, it marks the date before which most conquests were recognized, and after which most conquests were not recognized and later reversed.

This is illustrated in the following graph of conquered territory (the units on the y-axis are millions of square kilometers):

(The spike in the late 1800s is partly due to colonial powers claiming big chunks of Africa.)

In charting the story of the outlawry of war, The Internationalists argues for the importance of the 1928 Peace Pact. While it provided a legal basis for post-war reversions of territorial changes and for the Nuremberg trials, it is still a legal document. Thus, half the question of why war has declined remains unanswered: yes, it was made illegal, but laws, especially toothless international treaties, tend to be reactions to changes in values rather than causes of it.

Somehow, Levinson and Shotwell managed to create enough momentum to outlaw the most fundamental part of international law for the past three centuries. They did not achieve this in a vacuum. World War I certainly played a major role in forcing a reconsideration of war. The transition from brutal hygienic conflicts to a more codified form of mass slaughter to an increasingly regulated form of massacre, and finally to the complete outlawing of armed conflict, indicates that some sort of background pattern of accumulating humanism must also be at play. In the post- World War II era, the economic benefits of trade are another factor. But what are the relative importances of these factors? Are the factors keeping the world at peace different from the ones that inspired the Peace Pact in the aftermath of World War I? The Internationalists is ultimately a legal history of the Peace Pact - though a surprisingly fascinating legal history - and so these questions remain outside its scope.

Peace, what is it good for?

Whatever the reasons for the decline of war, the decline has been massive. As Shapiro’s and Hathaway’s statistical analysis points out, before 1928, an area of territory equal to eleven Crimeas was seized by conquest every year (almost one per month), though admittedly the seizing of massive parts of Africa in the late 1800s pulls up the average. The average state before 1928 was invaded once in a lifetime; today, the average is once in a millennium. And, of course, conflict deaths have also fallen massively.

The outlawry of war has, however, had one major side-effect. Whereas frequent wars previously pruned the ranks of nations (in fact, modern nations emerged mainly to fight these frequent wars), in today’s world strong nations do not invade the weak and therefore failed nations can continue to exist. Thus one main category of armed conflict in the modern world: civil wars and violence in failed states (and, of course, terrorist activity operated out of these states, but the resultant deaths are massively outnumbered by deaths within the states themselves).

The second category is cases where there is legal dispute over ownership. Since 1928, states cannot gain territory by occupying it with troops; the only way to get land is to get the rights to it. If the legal status of a territory was unclear in 1928, and the claimants have not reached a diplomatic solution, it largely remains unclear today. Most cases are the result of vague or even contradictory agreements by retreating colonial powers (like Palestine) or uninhabited islands no one bothered to claim, (like those in the South China Sea - or is it the West Philippine Sea?).

In the latter case, Shapiro and Hathaway note that part of the reason why the islands are so contested is not because international law has failed, but precisely because it has succeeded so well: the main perk in owning the islands is the 430 000 square kilometer (370 km radius) exclusive economic zone that is granted by the UN to owners of coastal territory, which is only valid if recognized by the international community.

Whatever the failures of international law and organizations in keeping peace, they are massively outweighed by the benefits. On any conceivable metric, the post- World War II era is more peaceful than any before.

The book ends with a plea for upholding the vision of the “Internationalists” who organized the outlawing of war. The real danger is not that the New World Order fails, but that the world forgets how much it has achieved.