Favourite Readings 2018: The Passage of Time

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Editor’s note: Continuing a tradition started by Isabel Feichtner a few years ago, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, invited members of the EJIL board to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2018. In the following days we will present some selections here on EJIL:Talk! They comprise a wide range of books, from (a few) doctrinal legal texts, to (many more) historical accounts and works of fiction. Unlike in many official book prize competitions, 2018 does not necessarily stand for the year of publication; rather, board members were asked to list books they read or re-read this year, and found inspiring or enjoyable. Today we give you Guy Fiti Sinclair’s favourites.

None of my chosen books would be found in the ‘341’ (or even ‘340’) stacks in a Dewey Decimal classified library, or in the KCs in a Moys-organized library such as the one at my law school. This is not because I haven’t read any books in those stacks this year. To the contrary, it turns out, somewhat to my own surprise, that I’ve actually managed this year to work my way through a fair few international law books – and books about international law, to adopt a to adopt a useful distinction I have heard from Joseph Weiler more than once – and read parts of many more. Nor is it that I’m worried that if I start listing books by international lawyers, one or another colleague will feel offended that I didn’t mention theirs (although I must admit this has crossed my mind).

Rather, I have decided to highlight books that I have read this year which spoke most directly to my current interests (one might say obsessions). Like many people, I suspect, I have spent much of the past year oscillating between trying to understand our current perplexing moment and trying not to think about it. These books have helped, one way or the other.

Nitsan Chorev, Remaking U.S. Trade Politics: From Protectionism to Globalization (Cornell University Press, 2007)

Kristen Hopewell, Breaking the WTO: How Emerging Powers Disrupted the Neoliberal Project (Stanford University Press, 2016)

These two books may be seen as companion works. They ask different questions, focus on different periods, and employ different methods, but their accounts are complementary and together help to explain how we arrived at our current moment in international economic law, with the global trade institutions we have. Both offer thought-provoking narratives and arguments with many insights into the relationship between the current international trade regime and neoliberal thought and practice. In this respect they can also usefully be read alongside Andrew Lang’s terrific World Trade Law after Neoliberalism: Re-imagining the Global Economic Order (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Quinn Slobodian’s blockbuster Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018) (which I regretfully haven’t managed to finish reading in time for this blogpost).

Nitsan Chorev’s book was published over ten years ago, and presents a historical narrative beginning in the 1930s. Hers is an account of how the political struggles over institutional arrangements, rather than substantive policies, drove and shaped economic globalization. The struggles she describes occurred between ‘protectionists’ and ‘internationalists’, and took place both domestically within United States political institutions and internationally at the GATT/WTO. Chorev identifies three major institutional shifts or turning points in the United States, marking the moves to what she calls ‘selective protectionism’ (completed in 1947 with the GATT), ‘conditional protectionism’ (in the 1970s), and ‘legalized multilateralism’ (in 1994, with the creation of the WTO). The book is admirably slim and easy to read, and it made me think more deeply about the interplay between (domestic and international) political struggles and (domestic and international) institutional arrangements, and what this reveals about globalization as an institutional project.

The timeline of Kirsten Hopewell’s book dovetails quite neatly with Chorev’s, picking up the story of the WTO from the end of the first decade of this century. As her title suggests, Hopewell is interested in how states such as India, Brazil, and China disrupted the neoliberal agenda promoted through the WTO. In this respect, among others, the book complements Chorev’s by widening the lens beyond the US (though the latter remains important), and Hopewell spends considerable space analysing the domestic political economies of the three ‘emerging powers’, and the dynamics between them. What might be surprising, as Hopewell shows, is that these countries didn’t set out to attack or undermine neoliberalism. To the contrary, their success in the neoliberal world economy led them to adopt its tenets and attempt to apply its standards (albeit selectively) to others, including the US, while still employing a rhetoric of ‘Southern’ solidarity. By relying on extensive interviews and ethnographic observation, Hopewell gives us a fascinating ‘inside view’ of how the WTO came to a crisis point even before the turbulence of the Trump era. In the process, the book also exposes, in a wonderfully nuanced way, the continuing inequalities and power dynamics of our neoliberal world order.

Shirley Hazzard, People in Glass Houses (Macmillan, 1966)

This selection continues the focus on international institutions, albeit from a very different perspective. An Australian national who relocated to the United States in her early adulthood, Hazzard worked for about a decade at the United Nations, and later wrote two rather critical non-fiction books about the UN. This book, however, is cast as a series of interlinked fictional vignettes about the employees of ‘the Organization’, a worldwide institution that just happens to be very similar to the UN. Like many collections of short stories, the book’s tone remains subdued, unencumbered by dramatic plot devices or heightened emotions. Rather, it focusses on the small victories and failures of life in an international bureaucracy; the stultification and ennui it can induce; the slow defeat of idealism (to paraphrase the title of one of Hazzard’s books on the UN) in the mundane everyday. Its sometimes heavy atmosphere is lightened by moments of satirical humour, such as the description of a staff member who had become infatuated with the Organization:

He held, no doubt correctly, that the dissolution of the Organization would be calamitous for the human race; but one felt that the survival of the human race, should the Organization fail, would be regarded by him as a piece of downright impertinence.

In its almost ethnographic evocations, People in Glass Houses provides an invaluable window into the internal institutional life of an international organization of high modernity. There is no direct mention in the book of the upheavals of decolonization, but one gathers that is only because the charismatic politics of the era had already become routinized within the Organization. We thus glimpse, in one story, a small reforestation project carried out somewhere in North Africa under the auspices of the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented (DALTO). Later, one of the book’s characters ruminates on the Department’s work:

It was true that the grievous condition of many of the countries assisted by DALTO seemed to justify almost anything that was done to them – providing, as it were, a mandate for any change, the bad along with the good. About the development process there appeared to be no half-measures: once a country had admitted its backwardness, it could hope for no quarter in the matter of improvement. It could not accept a box of pills without accepting, in principle, an atomic reactor. Progress was a draught that must be drained to the last bitter drop.

I’m considering assigning this chapter for my course on international institutions.

Mercè Rodoreda, The Time of the Doves (David Rosenthal trans, Graywolf Press, 1981)

I received this novel as a gift from a close friend after my doctoral defence, but for whatever reasons, good or bad – relocating to another country, starting a new job, raising children… – it sat untouched on my bookshelf. I regret waiting to read it. Rodoreda tells a story which at surface level appears quite plain: a young woman in Barcelona meets a young man, they get married and have children, he raises doves and then goes off to fight in the civil war with his friends… The simplicity of the story means there can’t really be spoilers, but I will stop there out of abundance of caution. What is really remarkable, however, is how the book at once gives insight into ordinary lives at a time of great upheavals and conveys the particular psychology of its protagonist. Narrated in first-person, the novel shows – without ever telling – how Natalia observes the world and records events in rich detail, but is unable to process their meaning, though their accumulated weight clearly has an effect she can’t articulate. The novel begins abruptly in the middle of the action (it took me a while to find my feet in the narrative) and moves forward in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner. While its climactic scene is certainly shocking – and there are other, smaller yet more disturbing shocks along the way – I found one of the quieter, perhaps uncharacteristically reflective passages the most profoundly moving, when Natalia finds herself standing on her daughter’s shadow:

And I got a strong feeling of the passage of time. Not the time of clouds and sun and rain and the moving stars that adorn the night, not spring when its time comes or fall, not the time that makes leaves bud on branches and then tears them off or folds and unfolds and colors the flowers, but the time inside me, the time you can’t see but it molds us. The time that rolls on and on in people’s hearts and makes them roll along with it and gradually changes us inside and out and makes us what we’ll be on our dying day.

A beautiful, poetic book, recommended without reservation.

Wisława Szymborska, View with a Grain of Sand (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995)

Poetry is a refuge and a comfort. The recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, Szymborska hardly needs my endorsement (nor, for that matter, do any of the other authors in this list). Often adopting a casual, even conversational tone shot through with a kind of detached humour, her poetry is unusually accessible. Just consider some of these opening lines:

‘Nothing’s a gift, it’s all on loan.’

‘We’re extremely fortunate
                  not to know precisely
                  the kind of world we live in.’

‘Reality demands
                  that we also mention this:
                  Life goes on.’

‘After every war
                  someone has to tidy up.’

These are wonderful poems, provoking deep reflection and seeming to suggest that we take the long view, that we not take ourselves too seriously, but without closing our eyes to the tragedies of the world or wishing them away. Perhaps a book for international lawyers, then, if not an international law book or a book about international law?

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