Gartland on Coates, 'Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century'

Benjamin Allen Coates
Charles Gartland

Benjamin Allen Coates. Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 298 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-005558-5

Reviewed by Charles Gartland (Air University, JAG School) Published on H-War (December, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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A great power needs great lawyers. That may sound like an odd prescription for achieving global hegemony, but in Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century, the historian Benjamin Coates proves beyond a reasonable doubt that American lawyers, their doctrines, and their arguments played a pivotal role in America’s entrance onto the global stage. Coates also is effective at debunking the notion that international law is merely a tool used by adversaries to undermine US foreign policy; at least as far as the early twentieth century is concerned, US forays into international law worked to advance, not stymie, US interests abroad. International law offered a nonviolent and hence globally palatable approach to projecting American power abroad in a manner consistent with America’s domestic legal traditions and internal interests. It was not until the Cold War and war on terror that waning influence abroad diminished America’s ability to tailor international accords and institutions to its favor, thereby making submission to international law a riskier venture. 

Legalist Empire’s signal contribution to the scholarship of American foreign affairs and international law is Coates’s chronicle of what he terms “the legalists.” A cadre of elite attorneys operating in late 1800s and early 1900s foreign policy circles, the legalists devised legal justifications for America’s emergence from isolationism into the international arena, and then fashioned international accords and institutions to sustain the emergence. Every secretary of state during the period was an attorney. The territorial acquisitions and governance of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines; the construction of the Panama Canal; and the justification for entry into World War I: all these events and many more reveal the hand of influential lawyer-politicians and lawyer-diplomats such as President and then Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft and Secretary of War and State Elihu Root. These were ambitious men with grand ambitions for America who saw legal arguments and international legal regimes as both facilitating and legitimizing America’s international aims. It was a distinctly American way of building empire for a nation that from its inception had been a land of lawyers and laws. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the early nineteenth century in Democracy in America, “there is almost no political question in the United States that is not resolved sooner or later into a judicial question.”[1]

Throughout the book, Coates showcases a handful of historically significant figures who were standard-bearers of the American legal community, yet whose reach extended to fields outside the law itself, especially statecraft and diplomacy. How strong was the pull of the legal profession? So strong that William Howard Taft, a one-time president, preferred the Supreme Court to the presidency itself. Taft invested considerable energy during his administration to backing Senate ratification of a series of arbitration treaties to resolve various US international disputes. The treaties had been signed by his secretary of state, Philander Knox, himself a former corporate lawyer and attorney general. Elihu Root was another example, omnipresent throughout Legalist Empire. A titan of New York corporate law (he billed personal clients over $2.5 million in current dollars in 1904), President Theodore Roosevelt made him his secretary of state. During Root’s tenure, he dramatically expanded the State Department’s legal staff, unleashing lawyers on America’s thorniest and most delicate foreign policy challenges, especially in Latin America. Among other endeavors, he pushed for a new international court in Costa Rica, the Central American Court of Justice (CACJ). The CACJ had the authority to impose binding judgments in disputes between Latin American nations and even between individuals and nations. Root was less successful in advocating for a similar body on a global scale, but nonetheless, his mark on international affairs is indelible.

Legalist Empire succeeds not just in recounting how American lawyers literally transformed the world, but also shows how international law could be reconciled with American interests. At least through the World War I period, America’s foray into international law, Coates argues, highlighted and furthered American exceptionalism. The embrace of international law and its corresponding institutions, such as the CACJ, projected an image of the United States as a benevolent and civilized hegemon that opted for rational deliberation over the brute force it could have easily and immediately brought to bear. An example par excellence was Elihu Root’s backing of the Platt Amendment, a masterpiece of legalist statecraft that enshrined American interests in both Cuban and American law. Under the Platt Amendment, Cuba would receive its full independence, but only on condition that the Cuban government was willing and able to protect “life, property, and individual liberty” (p. 118). Cuba’s constitution would explicitly authorize US military intervention to protect those rights. Root had essentially succeeded in enshrining the Monroe Doctrine in another country’s constitution.  

Coates furnishes empirical data to substantiate his thesis that in the early twentieth century, American adherence to and promotion of international law worked to America’s benefit. US interests met favorable results, especially corporate interests. Arbitration panels, for instance, offered the American business community legitimate legal mechanisms to obtain claims against foreign nations and competitors. One study found that through 1914, the United States was the winning side in 78 percent of international arbitrations; in arbitrations against Latin American countries (excluding Mexico), the US paid out $85,000 in awards, but received over $13 million (p. 101). It literally paid to play the game of international law.

It is only at the end of Legalist Empire that Coats’s evidence gets a bit thin. In the frost of the Cold War and then the War on Terror of the 2000s, many Americans came to view international law as weapon wielded by adversaries to thwart if not undercut the nation’s dominance on the international scene. To his credit, Coates does give voice to the twenty-first-century voices that reject his thesis as applied to the current era, but these dissenters are crammed into the book’s conclusion. Moreover, their quotes—with little elaboration or context—come off as cavalier and unsophisticated, certainly as compared to the imposing stature and erudition of Elihu Root. George W. Bush administration figures such as UN Ambassador John Bolton and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are cited disclaiming international law; the former stating that international law is no law at all, the latter saying that the Geneva Conventions had been rendered “obsolete” (p. 177). Since Coates provides no elaboration to the legal underpinnings of these viewpoints, an otherwise very thorough work thus loses some of its balance toward the end. Messrs. Bolton and Gonzales have a point. International law is of an entirely separate nature compared to domestic judicial systems; the former relies on the consent of the parties, the latter does not. And the Geneva Conventions did not contemplate nation-state confrontations with transnational terror groups nebulously backed by nation-states, for example, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the war on terror. Bolton and Gonzales were not Root and Taft, but they were different men for different times.

Putting aside the minor critique above, Legalist Empire is a tremendous contribution to scholarship on America’s investment in and relationship to international law. In-depth historical research and Gilded Age biography are seamlessly interwoven with the law, making for a historically enlightening read that is not bogged down in legalese.  Ironically, for all the book’s focus on lawyers, Professor Coates happens not to be one—but few lawyers could have made a stronger case.


[1]. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. and trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (1835; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 257-58.

Citation: Charles Gartland. Review of Coates, Benjamin Allen, Legalist Empire: International Law and American Foreign Relations in the Early Twentieth Century. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020. URL:

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