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The Normativity of International Constitutionalism?

Published on December 18, 2009        Author: 

Professor Gráinne de Búrca is Professor of Law at  Fordham Law School, and during 2009-10 is a Straus Inaugural Fellow at NYU Law School.  She was previously Professor of Law at the European University Institute and Lecturer in Law at Oxford University

One of the aims of Ruling the World?, the interesting collection of essays which Jeff Dunoff and Joel Trachtman have assembled, is to try to understand the increasingly common practice of referring to instances of international or transnational governance in constitutional terms.   What does the vocabulary of international constitutionalism signify, and what is it intended to mean?   They argue for clarity on this basic analytical issue, and propose an understanding of ‘international constitutionalism’ in functional terms.   International constitutionalism should, they argue, be understood to refer to norms which enable or constrain the production of international law.   Their account is entirely neutral (international constitutionalism as a process with no particular teleology) and resolutely functional, such that even their description of the normativity of international constitutionalism has an instrumental rationality. Thus they argue that international constitutional norms should be assessed according to “their ability to enable individuals and states to advance the international public policy goals that they aim to achieve”.

Neil Walker’s concern with international constitutionalism, on the other hand, is with the normative implications of drawing on the language of constitutionalism in the first place to describe the growth and mutation of forms of legal authority across the transnational domain.  The implicit suggestion here, contra Dunoff and Trachtman, is that the development of international constitutionalism is not a natural or a neutral process.  In other words, the decision to frame a development in the language of ‘international constitutionalism’ is a conscious and consequential one, given the symbolic capital of the discourse of constitutionalism and its deep domestic origins. A similar point has recently been made by Stepan Wood and Stephen Clarkson in their rather more sharply critical analysis of ‘supraconstitutional’ regimes such as the NAFTA (“NAFTA Chapter 11 as SupraConstitution“). Like Dunoff and Trachtman, they define international constitutionalism in functional terms but, unlike Dunoff and Trachtman, they do so by reference to what they describe as the function of supraconstitutional regimes in constraining and transforming domestic law and constitutionalism.  Like Neil Walker, they also emphasize the symbolic capital of constitutionalism in noting that almost all of those who use the language of constitutionalism draw on liberal political theory with implicit or explicit reference to concepts such as the rule of law, constraint of power, protection of rights and democratic deliberation.

Already here, amongst three recent sets of commentators sharing a similar analytical approach to the phenomenon of international constitutionalism, we see three different normative evaluations.   Read the rest of this entry…

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