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The Constitution of Constitutionalism

Published on July 15, 2010        Author: 

From August 2010, Professor Daniel Bodansky will be Lincoln Professor of Law, Ethics and Sustainability at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Previously, he was Emily and Ernest Woodruff Chair in International Law and Associate Dean for Faculty Development at the University of Georgia. In 2009 and 2010 he has been a Visiting Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford.

The recent appearance of two new books on international constitutionalism – Jeff Dunoff and Joel Trachtman’s Ruling the World (the subject of an earlier EJILTalk symposium) and the volume by Jan Klabbers, Anne Peters and Geir Ulfstein that is the subject of this symposium – suggests that constitutionalism is becoming the latest concept du jour in international law, following on the heels of legitimacy, legalization, and fragmentation.   Both books are the fruits of multi-disciplinary, international collaborations:  Ruling the World includes contributions from more than a dozen scholars from the US and Europe; likewise, The Constitutionalization of International Law grew out of an international conference in Kandersteg, Switzerland, organized by Anne Peters, involving lawyers, political scientists and economists, which was the subject of a special issue of the Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies.  Both books involve top international law academics and are enormously valuable contributions to the field.

The newfound interest in international constitutionalism raises many questions:

  • First, there are conceptual questions about the meaning of constitutionalism generally and international constitutionalism more specifically.  What is a “constitution,” what is “constitutionalism,” and what is the relation between the two?  How might constitutionalism translate to the international sphere?  What would an international constitution look like? Here it is useful to distinguish a thinner and thicker sense of a “constitution”?  On the thinner view, a constitution is simply the body of law that sets forth the fundamental (that is, superior and more difficult to change) rules of a political community.  A constitution both constitutes and constrains political power, by creating and setting limits on the basic institutions and decision-making processes of a regime.  The thicker view – embraced by Klabbers, Peters and Ulfstein – associates constitutionalism with a number of more specific procedural and substantive limits that reflect liberal political values, including democracy, separation of powers, fundamental human rights, and judicial review.
  • Second, there are explanatory questions about the causes and effects of constitutionalism?  For example, what are the social preconditions of constitutionalism and are they present internationally?  Is constitutionalism possible only when there is a political community with a common history, language, and “public space”?  What explains the sudden upsurge of interest in constitutionalism among international lawyers?  Does this reflect actual changes in international relations, for example, – an actual growth in constitutionalism as a mode of governance?  Is it a reaction to increased concerns about fragmentation and illegitimacy in international law – an attempt to put international law on a stronger normative footing?  Can it be explained as an effort by European lawyers to extrapolate or generalize from the EU experience to global politics more generally?  Or does it have some other explanation?
  • Third, there is the descriptive question: Is there, in fact, an international constitution?  Or, at least, is international law becoming more constitutional?  Is it developing constitutional aspects or dimensions?
  • Finally, there are normative question about the proper role of constitutionalism in international law.  Should there be an international constitution?  If so, what should an international constitution look like?  How well does existing international law measure up when evaluated against the standards of constitutionalism?  And what changes are needed?

Of these various questions about constitutionalism – conceptual, explanatory, descriptive, normative, and meta — which do Klabbers, Peters and Ulfstein address?  Read the rest of this entry…

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