Home EJIL Book Discussion Is International Law International? Continuing the Conversation

Is International Law International? Continuing the Conversation

Published on February 9, 2018        Author: 

This post is part of the Joint Symposium that we are co-hosting with Opinio Juris on Anthea Roberts’ new book Is International Law International? (OUP, 2017). 

In the movie Shadowlands, the character C. S. Lewis says, “We read to know that we’re not alone.” For me, perhaps it is also true to say, “I write to know that I am not alone.” Implicit in Is International Law International? is a series of questions: Have you seen what I have seen? Do you analyze it in the same way? If not, what has your experience been and what do you make of that? How and why are your reactions similar to or different from mine? And what does that mean regarding whether international law is, should be and can be international?

I want to thank EJIL: Talk! and Opinio Juris for hosting, and the contributors for engaging in, this sort of dialogue. Two common themes of the contributions are that my book represents the start of a conversation rather than the final word and that it provides a platform for future research. I agree. My book is a big-picture macrosketch based on detailed microobservations that seeks to challenge existing understandings. A lot of details need to completed, analyses tested, additional points noted and implications thought through. In the spirit of continuing this exchange, I offer some reflections below.

Before doing so, I wanted to note that, reading the comments, I was struck once more by how much we approach international law from our particular national perspectives. Whether it is Vera Rusinova reflecting on international law through the iron curtain, Hélène Ruiz Fabri drawing connections with debates in the French literature, Marko Milanovic considering the differences he has experienced in the US and UK academies, or Bing Bing Jia providing insights into Chinese international law textbooks, each of us brings our biography into play when analyzing our field. Of course, this observation is part of the point of my book. But it also means that we won’t be able to access the richness of this variety, in both sources and perspectives, unless we diversify our interactions and networks.

Risks and Discomfort

Ruiz Fabri was very perceptive in noting that writing a book like this was a “risky enterprise” and that it “might be a good way to displease many people.” This book indeed deals with touchy subjects. On the personal level, it suggests that we international lawyers are often not as cosmopolitan as we like to think. On the political level, it raises awkward questions about the implications that might flow from different understandings of and approaches to international law in light of changing geopolitical power.

Although the book deals with controversial issues, I think it needed to be written. I am drawn to academic issues that intrigue me or make me feel intellectually uncomfortable. This book did both. Just as many readers have felt unsettled reading it, so I felt unsettled writing it. I coped with that discomfort by seeking to render as balanced a picture as I could, typically presenting both sides of issues rather than taking a normative stand about which one I thought was preferable. I showed that strengths often contain weakness and vice versa. I subjected myself to the same critique as I asked my readers to undertake.

Given the potentially provocative nature of this book, I want to thank my OUP editors John Louth and Blake Ratcliff for supporting it. The book was unlike anything I had done previously. It did not conform to standard approaches to legal scholarship. It was clear from the outset that the work would involve shaking echo chambers and had real potential to offend. Despite these risks, they immediately and intuitively understood what I was trying to do, from our first coffee chat. I am genuinely grateful that they were unwavering in their support and insightful in their critiques.

To my surprise, instead of encountering a wall of hostility, my book has opened rather than closed dialogues. I have received emails from all around the world and often my interlocutors shared personal stories about their experiences of the divisible college of international lawyers in both academia and practice. For instance, much to my regret, I was unable to include an analysis of a Latin American state in the book. Instead of spurning it, numerous Latin American scholars have reached out to tell me their side of this story (e.g., Francisco-José Quintana about the problems with teaching the Falklands/Malvinas dispute in Argentina using UK textbooks).

The book is an invitation for self-critique and dialogue. I hope that it prompts many conversations, even if some of them are uncomfortable. Academia is meant to challenge the status quo and shake up things up. Taking risks is part of the point.

Methods and Layering

In reading the book, Ruiz Fabri found herself wondering about its nature. Was it “A sociological inquiry? A manifesto? A plea? Against arrogance? Against a new Empire? For comparison? For pluralism? Maybe a bit of all this?” This is an insightful question and one that I have pondered more since writing the book. It is also one that Paul Stephan astutely, if partially, answers.

I have come to see this book as embracing what sociologist of globalization Saskia Sassen describes as a “Before Methods” approach. Complex global phenomena and emerging or underanalyzed issues are helpfully dealt with by first stepping back and seeking to destabilize our existing understandings of the world and the conceptual frameworks we use to describe it. Often particular concepts, framings and metrics obscure as much as they reveal. This approach requires one to sketch and project, and to connect microobservations to macroforces in an iterative observational and analytical process.

As Stephan notes, such work must be done analytically prior to many other projects: my book “strips away preconceptions and mystification” with a view to setting the scene for social justice projects and instrumental and empirical analyses. For instance, although the book engages in some empirical analysis, it doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive or a champion of sophisticated methods. Similarly, the book describes and explains international law and lawyers’ fragmented reality but does not take the next step of providing a normative framework for assessing which approaches are better or worse.

Good scholarship is often completed in layers. As Stephan concludes, this book “expose[s] the forces that bring about systematically different cultures of international law in different parts of the world” but leaves others to explore “the link between disaggregated cultures and the international law that results.” It is the horse before the cart. It seeks to open our eyes to many issues, analyze their origins and effects, and provide a framework and vocabulary for talking about them. The book doesn’t answer every question but makes many new questions possible.

The same sentiment underlies Rusinova’s conclusion that the effect of this book will ultimately depend on what other international lawyers do with it. According to Rusinova, the book should be understood as a challenge to international lawyers to ask themselves, “Do I realize which boundaries surround me in the discipline and am I, at least, trying to act above them?” Thus, she concludes that “it is in our own hands to make [the book] change the ‘world of international law.’” Yet, as Ruiz Fabri notes, much will turn on how those in the privileged inner circle (the “International Bubble,” as she calls it) respond to the critique.

Promise and Perils

Jia’s contribution constitutes a very good example of analyzing the promise and perils of comparison. As Jia notes, and as I found through my study, although textbooks and casebooks from some states contain good information about the practices of those states, that does not hold true for all states. In particular, Chinese international law textbooks often draw heavily on the approach of Oppenheim and Brownlie and feature little Chinese practice or views. If these books weren’t written in Chinese (a bit of a giveaway), I could easily have mistaken them for not being Chinese, except for their treatment of a handful of issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Any metric that one uses to compare international law or international lawyers across states will be limited because metrics that make sense in one context often don’t make sense in another. This problem is one of the perils of comparison and it explains why one needs to adopt many approaches and metrics to build up a more complete picture. But it is also part of comparison’s promise. Thus, rather than accept the status quo, Jia suggests that the time has come for China to adopt a new generation of international law textbooks that, among other things, give the reader more information about China’s approach. I concur.

How such a development plays out remains to be seen. The future for Chinese international textbooks seems caught between two forces. On one side, some academics are developing casebooks that are much closer to US-style casebooks, particularly in international economic law. On the other side, the Chinese government has stepped up its censorship of academics and has now sponsored the creation of a quasi-mandatory textbook on international law that is meant to feature Chinese socialist characteristics (though these attributes are apparently pretty sparse in the first edition). This struggle between nationalized, denationalized and westernized approaches is happening before our eyes and may evolve differently with respect to form and substance.

Censorship and Judgment

The last point on censorship links to an important factor that Milanovic and Julian Ku highlight. Not all states have robust traditions of academic freedom or free speech more generally. If we are going to diversify our networks and sources, how should we assess scholarly opinions coming from authoritarian states like China and Russia where there is evidence of significant external and internal censorship? This issue arises in my book in the discussion of textbooks and in my account of the virtual uniformity of Chinese and Russian academic views – as well as their conformity with the positions of their states – with respect to the South China Sea arbitration and Crimea, respectively.

I agree with Milanovic that this issue arises in my book but deserves more explicit attention in comparative international law work going forward. In fact, I am currently working on a piece with a colleague addressing this very issue. But I disagree with Ku’s conclusion that adopting a comparative international law approach necessitates descending into pure relativism. As I say in the book, recognizing “differences in the way international law is understood, interpreted, applied, and approached can be examined without adopting a relativist stance that all positions are equal” and “[w]hether a given position reflects international law depends on many factors, such as the number of states that support it [and] how widespread and representative they are as a group.”

Although I deliberately refrained from making legal judgments in the book as my purpose was to identify, explain and analyze the divisible college, I am not averse to people reaching such conclusions. Much of this is a question of sequencing. My suggested approach is: (1) seek to engage, listen and understand, (2) seek to test your assumptions and argue your position, (3) identify and justify your framework for assessing different positions, and (4) engage in judgment. I emphasize steps one and two in my book because too often I see international lawyers go straight to step four, missing steps one and two and simply assuming step three. Steps one and two are crucial for building knowledge, self-awareness and networks. For international law to move forward, however, one of the central challenges will be deciding when to recognize divergent interpretations as valid and when to conclude that some venture beyond the pale (step three). And this may end up being contested.

In developing such frameworks, we all need to be attentive to our blind spots and biases, but we should also pay attention to those of other national communities. I agree with Milanovic’s conclusion that the international reputation of a group of national scholars will depend significantly on their ability to take positions that are independent from those adopted by their state. Discerning the dividing line is most difficult in academies, like the Chinese and Russian ones, that have what Milanovic describes as “some non-negligible level of academic freedom.” Levels of freedom are also likely to vary across fields and issues. Scholars might have more freedom with respect to international economic law and less concerning core national interests, for instance. Although this will always be difficult to judge, it is much harder to do so if you don’t have networks in and knowledge of these academies.

In terms of the South China Sea case, I agree with Ku that the uniformity of the Chinese scholars’ views on the South China Sea worked in the end to damage their credibility and that their “going out” approach worked hand-in-hand with the government’s media campaign. However, at least based on my networks and knowledge – which are necessarily partial and subjective – I think that Western international lawyers often dismiss the objection of Chinese scholars to the SCS tribunal’s jurisdiction as being purely politically motivated when my sense was that it was usually genuinely held. By contrast, I believe that politics were at play behind the lack of criticism by some mainland Chinese scholars of China’s refusal to participate in the arbitration and abide by the award.

In addition to considering academic freedom, we also need to be aware of other socializing and incentivizing factors that might influence academics to align with their states, such as the media they watch, unusually close connections between academia and government (as in the United States) and the strategic use of research funding (as in China). Indeed, Milanovic notes that the United States has a strong tradition of freedom of speech, but non-US international lawyers often find strong synergies between the positions of US international lawyers and the US government and frequently credit that, in part, to the socializing and incentivizing factors that come with the US government/academic revolving door.

We also need to be mindful about how a failure to engage can be interpreted as an unwillingness to listen and how the Western dominance of so many international institutions creates concerns about exclusion and bias. In my book, I document systematic patterns of non-engagement across communities and lack of diversity in international institutions that have nothing to do with concerns about censorship. US academics do not generally ignore French scholars because of concerns about academic freedom. The frequent invisibility of Latin American scholarship and cases within Western international law circles has nothing to do with a concern about propaganda. There is a lot more we could do to diversify our knowledge and networks. And if we are more inclusive on steps one and two, and more reflective and explicit in how we ground our evaluative frameworks in step three, then our ultimate judgments in step four will deserve greater weight.


The obvious question to ask at the end of this back-and-forth is, What’s next? Many of the contributors identify where one could take a scholarly agenda from here, for example, from developing and testing instrumental theories about the link between cultural differences and approaches to international law (Stephan) to encouraging greater internationalization of self-contained academies (Rusinova). One can imagine greater in-depth studies of specific national approaches and larger empirical cross-national comparisons.

My book also works as a springboard to larger normative questions, such as what the existing diversity means for finding and justifying “international law,” especially in an age of shifting geopolitical power (Ku). These questions are currently being addressed by projects such as International Rule of Law: Rise or Decline? As I say in the book’s conclusion, I began the project by seeking to change the question from whether international law is law to whether it is international, but perhaps the challenge of our generation is in recognizing that these questions are inextricably linked.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

3 Responses


    Iam in Argentina. Please tell me how to get my copy of the important book:
    Anthea Roberts’ new book Is International Law International? (OUP, 2017).
    Iam interested in reading it, and appreciate the full proposal of ANTHEA ROBERT´S


    Is a very interesting point of view, to progress in adquiring a new society, based in full joint work of every body who have something to think, and making


    thankyou very much

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *