Rousseau ends The Social Contract by saying that he has yet to speak about the state’s foreign relations, international law, rights of war, commerce, and so on. In short, he can write an entire treatise on the ideal sovereign state without addressing these questions. This puts the matter too simply, of course. He does not go so far as Aristotle does, imagining a city with no foreign relations whatsoever – that would be a true Utopia, because it would never exist. But it serves to show the extent to which Rousseau thought the questions that we present-moderns take as primary – security, war, peace, external relations, markets, trade, THE ECONOMY – Rousseau thought to be secondary to the important question of the just and good regime.
From the autobiographical preface to his mammoth History of England:
I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible, except the improvement of my talents in literature.
I’ve read a lot of Rousseau. Far more than most but also less than those self-identifying as “Rousseau Scholars”. Still, I think I understand him once in a while. Reading his Statement on St Pierre’s Project, that is, Rousseau critique of the idea of Perpetual Peace, I see Rousseau confirms something that I was accused of getting wrong in a public setting. Sour grapes this is not. Rousseau is exasperating and confusing. He means everything he says and refuses to say everything he means. Once in a while I get confirmation from him that I was on the right track, and this just happened once again. (n.b. I say this in full knowledge that he’ll pull the rug out from under me soon enough – but this is the price you pay when studying him).
The point at issue here is the status of International Relations in his thought. I am returning to some research on Rousseau and Schmitt re: Sovereignty pretty soon, so I thought I’d give the St Pierre commentary a closer read than I previously have. Now, one of the points that I thought was clear to me was that foreign relations in Rousseau are totally subordinate to the pursuit of the good and just society. What matters is approximating the society of the General Will in one’s particular community and international relations matter only insofar as they impact this pursuit. I thought this was suitably clear from The Social Contract or his fragmentary essay The State of War. When I made this point in a public setting it was met with bewilderment. “This isn’t IR…” Sure, but that’s because Rousseau doesn’t see it as a separate domain of politics. Anyways, I offer this quote, pp.37–38 of Vaughan’s translation:
No man can have thought long upon the means of bringing any Government to perfection without realizing a host of difficulties and obstacles which flow less from its inherent nature than from its relations to its neighbours. The result of this is that the care which ought to be given to its internal warfare has to be largely spent upon its outward security; and we are compelled to think more of providing for its defence against others than of making it as good as may be in itself.
All I have ever done is try to understand Rousseau’s books as he did.