The premise of Steven Ratner’s book is that political philosophers have paid scant attention, in their reflections on justice, to international law. Ratner seeks to correct this, by offering an account of international law in terms of philosophical conceptions of justice. The premise would only be true if one understood political philosophy as beginning with John Rawls. In fact, as the great jurist Hersch Lauterpacht wrote in his seminal 1927 essay “Spinoza and International Law”, “the relation between political theory & international law is of a more pervading character than is commonly assumed.” From Thucydides (see his intricate account of claims of treaty violation in relation to the start of the Peloponnesian Wars), through de Vittoria, Gentili, Grotius, Pufendorf, Montesquieu, Rousseau (a great innovator in humanitarian law), Kant, through the 20th century debates about global order between Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve, political thinkers – sometimes also jurists –have engaged with conceptions of legal order beyond the state.
What Ratner understands as “political philosophy” is what is conventionally accepted as such by the mainstream in philosophy departments in American universities. While political philosophers in the past have questioned the “state”, its meaning, its place in human order, Ratner simply accepts the “state,” and that international law is and will remain the law of a state system. Even the contemporary philosophers of global justice to whom he refers have imagined federative or democratic conceptions of world order, or have attempted to theorise forms of transnational political organization, above all the European Union. Mainstream international legal professionals may well be comforted by Ratner’s book in being confirmed that the status quo that they represent and reproduced can be defended as “thin” justice, or perhaps more properly, rough justice. Others will question whether there is any real philosophical grounding to Ratner’s efforts to control or cabin their dreams of a better world or their critiques of the actual one.