Vattel's Rousseau: Jus Gentium and the Natural Liberty of States

22 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2011 Last revised: 13 Mar 2011

Date Written: March 1, 2011


From the context of mid-eighteenth-century Swiss debates on the natural liberty of small states and the commercial liberty of imperial powers, this paper will trace two distinct - but ultimately irreconcilable - approaches to accommodating the liberty of states and obedience to the law of nations within an emerging modern European political system. Throughout his writings on war, Rousseau struggled to overcome his own skepticism, but in the end remained trapped in his pessimism for international peace. It was Vattel who provided an alternative vision to Rousseau's deep-seated pessimism, and one that was sensitive to the new political arrangements in Europe at the time. For Vattel such adherence was derived from reciprocal voluntary relationships, in which states enter through trait├ęs publics. The liberty of states was not a product of a union of wills, as Rousseau would have it, but emerged from the interaction of rival societies based in pragmatic-driven sociability. The first part of this essay will explore Rousseau's state of war and show that Vattel's conception of international relations is best situated as a rejoinder to Rousseau's pessimism for international peace. The second part will then engage Vattel's description of modern Europe as his model for international sociability, held in equilibrium through commercial relations. The conclusion will remark on the uniquely Swiss nature of these debates and their relevance for present-day transformations of the European Union.

Suggested Citation

Christov, Theodore, Vattel's Rousseau: Jus Gentium and the Natural Liberty of States (March 1, 2011). Western Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper , Available at SSRN:

Theodore Christov (Contact Author)

Northwestern University ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

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