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They Called It Peace: Worlds of Imperial Violence by Lauren Benton - Laying bare ‘a global regime of violence’

A radical, provocative and important book by one of the leading historians of international law

They Called It Peace: Worlds of Imperial Violence
They Called It Peace: Worlds of Imperial Violence
Author: Lauren Benton
ISBN-13: 978-0691248479
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Guideline Price: £35

“Plunderers of the world,” the Caledonian chief Calgacus calls the Roman empire in Tactitus’s Agricola. “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

Today the desolation of imperial “peace” leaves Gaza, Mariupol, Homs and countless other cities in ruins from the type of darkly named “small wars” that Lauren Benton argues have long been, “and perhaps still are, the beating heart of the global order”. From the ancient Roman frontier to 21st-century Afghanistan, imperial powers have relied on forms of war that dare not speak its name: “police actions”, “emergencies”, “special military operations”. To truly understand geopolitics and international law, Benton argues, we must pay greater attention to this endemic pattern.

“Small wars” were (and are) not necessarily small, and Benton uses the label because “for centuries the world has worked with an impoverished vocabulary to describe violence at the threshold of war and peace”. The term does, however, convey “how imperial violence was organised – its staccato rhythm and ad-hoc justification”. While such conflicts are now often seen as failures of the global order, instances of great powers or rogue states flouting international law, Benton provocatively argues that international law and the global order are themselves the products of empires legalising and justifying their violence “at the threshold of war and peace”.

Instead of outbreaks and aberrations, Benton shows how for centuries the “baseline condition” of empires was “low-level violence”: dispossession, enslavement and slaughter were “integral parts of the global imperial order”, not departures from it. Most importantly, they were legalised: “law, defined broadly, infused all forms of imperial violence”.


In early modern Europe, and indeed around the early modern world, “war waged, paused or threatened; it hardly ever stopped”. While the brutal and seemingly never-ending wars of their own continent certainly affected how Europeans thought about violence when they began to colonise the rest of the world, Benton shows how it was often their experiences far from home that coloured developing European ideas of law and international relations. She highlights an often overlooked “preoccupation in the early modern world with defining violence between war and peace”, one that exercised not just jurists and theologians but bureaucrats, soldiers, sailors and captives too. Her research from their diaries, petitions and letters is meticulous and illuminating.

The first era of European imperialism was very much a private-public partnership, as venture capitalists, merchant adventurers, privateers, pirates and trading companies did the risky dirty work that fledgling states could not always afford. In her previous work, Benton has argued for seeing “pirates as lawyers”, with ships as “vectors of law”: where private initiative went, public legalisation would generally follow, no matter how dubious or egregious the actions. Hernán Cortés’s conquest of the Aztecs was undertaken initially in defiance of legal orders, but Benton shows how he was “ever careful to present a legal rationale” for each escalation of his campaign: reprisals and massacres were justified by accusations of indigenous truce-breaking or betrayal.

Such arguments would underpin increasing European violence against indigenous people around the globe. The conquest pattern of signed and broken truces, Benton writes, was “so well established and so pervasive that we can recognise them as key elements of a global regime of violence”. Truces created an almost permanent state of paused or threatened violence, encouraging paranoia, instability and recrimination. “In the global regime of plunder, serial truces and their inevitable breakdown turned massacres into lawful responses.”

Benton is one of the leading historians of international law, and she shows how when read against small imperial wars, the canonical works of Hugo Grotius, Emmerich de Vattel and others “appear both less original and less Eurocentric” in their origins and implications. Due to the vast distances, colonial authority was often de-facto or explicitly devolved, and those waging imperial small wars often “came up with their own justifications”, Benton writes, drawing on cherry-picked legal doctrine and improvisation.

Debates about law and war “echoed up and down imperial chains of command”, creating a “disordered production of justifications”. On the Coromandel coast of southern India, French and English imperial agents were allied with rival (and more powerful) local empires. But their “diplomatic back-and-forth created a European frame of reference”; indeed, small wars encouraged imperialists to exclude many indigenous political communities from the idea of “statehood”.

As trading posts became colonies, single male adventurers gave way to settler families, creating households that needed to be “protected” from indigenous violence. The need to distinguish between the subjects needing protection and the “enemies” threatening them led to legal distinctions that encouraged legalised escalation of violence. From the American “frontier” to Tasmania, “protection emergencies” often expanded into “all-out war on enemy-subjects”, and even to campaigns of “extermination”. Perhaps most extremely, “the vast system of enslavement of millions in the Atlantic world was predicated on something very much like a permanent state of war between enslaved men and women and their enslavers”.

It was not just people who demanded armed protection in the imperial world. In the 1800s, as colonial commerce became ever more globalised, the security of trading routes became a central concern. While many liberals and anti-imperialists felt that “free trade” should mean a retreat from empire and its inevitable wars, the imperial powers believed that “Free trade, paradoxically, depended on force, and force was different from war”.

Navies on patrol became a ubiquitous part of ocean commerce, protecting trade routes or violently forcing “free trade” on to recalcitrant partners, as in the Opium Wars (initially justified by the need to protect British merchants who had been jailed in Canton for selling opium). A “global order of armed peace” would be regulated by “European states acting together or in competition and enforced by violence on patrol”.

Benton deliberately chooses to focus on less well-known but fascinating case studies from all over the globe, ranging from the Spanish-Portuguese alliance that cracked down on both indigenous and Jesuit communities on the Uruguay river, to the British royal navy’s violent repression of the Solomon Islanders in the Pacific. It is perhaps a little disappointing for Irish readers that she does not mention Ireland, where the violence and legal discourse of “small wars” were part of English and then British imperialism for centuries.

British rule in Ireland certainly ended in yet another series of small wars, as did European colonies around the world. Benton argues that we should not, however, see the 20th century as an era of “decolonisation, as if the end of empires was predictable and resulted from a plan”. Instead it was characterised by “continued patterns of serial, small warfare”, violence that imperial powers still considered legal, but eventually failed or became too costly or unpopular to continue.

This is a radical and important book, but Benton emphasises how it is “only one starting place and only one strand of a multifaceted, truly global process” of rewriting the history of international law. Most importantly, she writes that we need to know more about non-European thinking, especially beyond “elite pronouncements using European concepts”. Benton argues that the imperial order involved much more negotiation and mutual understanding “than contemporary propagandists or modern observers often think”, especially in the long periods when Europeans required local alliances or were weaker than local powers.

Today, echoes of the age of imperial “armed peace” are everywhere. Vladimir Putin justifies his invasions as “protection” of Russian minorities. Israel finds legal justifications where it needs them for “protection” of settlers or its appallingly excessive reprisals in Gaza. America’s “global war” draws its scope from the imperial idea that “armed peace” can involve “action anywhere in the world”. And the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping evoke the imperial obsession with protecting trade routes.

These are not, Benton powerfully argues, just echoes; our “forever wars belong ... to a much longer pattern”, and the international law and order that we mistakenly feel they violate are in fact their fruit. This history “exposes the myth that law worked to contain violence”; indeed it shows that it has instead structured it, providing ways for imperial powers to create and justify ever more forms of violence. The very “hybridity” of small wars makes them more likely to perpetuate or escalate, their faraway nature often helping us to deem them “small”, even if on the ground thousands are dying.

Relying on “international law” to stop or regulate today’s conflicts seems, from this vantage point, nonsensical. The system was designed for and through such violence. Benton wrestles with the knowledge that eschewing all war would “render us helpless in the face of bloodthirsty regimes and overt acts of aggression”, but that no amount of “containment” ever works: even the smallest wars beget horrendous violence or metastasise far beyond their original boundaries. Perhaps the only “lesson”, she writes, is “to say no to war, at any scale”.

Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer, and host of Ireland’s Edge.

Further reading

The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice, and Britain’s Colonial Legacy by Philippe Sands (Orion, 2022)

After excellent books on international law (Lawless World) and the origins of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” in his ancestral home city of Lviv (East West Street), Sands explores the UK’s eviction of the Chagossian people from their islands in the Indian Ocean.

Born in Blood: Violence and the Making of America by Scott Gac (Cambridge University Press, 2024)

Gac shows that far from a story of peaceful democracy, extreme violence has always been central to the political culture and history of the United States.

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins (Bodley Head, 2022)

Elkins explodes the myth of a peaceful and orderly British empire, revealing the violent “legalised lawlessness” with which administrators ruled colonies around the globe.

Christopher Kissane

Dr Christopher Kissane, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a historian, writer and presenter of the Ireland's Edge podcast