Locke on the Moral Basis of International Relations


  • An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2005 Midwestern Political Science Association Annual Meeting and the 2005 Southwestern Political Science Association Annual Meeting. The author would like to thank Tim Collins, Mark Kremer, and the anonymous referees of the AJPS for their comments.

Lee Ward is assistant professor of political science, Campion College at the University of Regina, 3737 Wascana Parkway, Regina, SK, Canada, S4S 0A2 (Lee.Ward@uregina.ca).


This article aims to focus analysis of Locke's theory of international relations away from the familiar discourse of sovereignty and natural law and toward a different discourse involving self-government and international society. It argues that Locke's conception of international society balanced interrelated, overlapping, and even competing claims about sovereignty and natural law in a normative framework in which the right of self-government replaced the principle of sovereignty as the moral basis of international relations. Thus, for Locke the norms deduced from the law of nature govern the international state of nature even as independent societies remain the primary executors of the law of nature in international society. The article concludes by considering how Locke's reflections on international relations may contribute to our understanding of contemporary debates about sovereignty, the use of force, and the ethics of intervention.