International Legal Fields


The Cambridge Companion to International Law
James Crawford and Martti Koskenniemi, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xii + 472 pp.

The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights Law
Conor Gearty and Costas Douzinas, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xvi + 356 pp.

Legality and Legitimacy in Global Affairs
Richard Falk, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Vesselin Popovski, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. viii + 464 pp.


Denunciations of international law are many and varied. That it cannot capture the fluidity of international relations, that it mystifies class power behind a veneer of Victorian liberalism, that it lacks the kind of robust enforcement mechanisms needed to secure “properly legal” credentials, and that it is of no more than instrumental importance, useful for formalizing commitments but ineffective as a means of restricting state power—this and much else has been said or intimated about international law over the centuries. Unsurprisingly, responses to such charges have conventionally taken the form of direct ripostes: the irritated and self-conscious jurist offers examples of international law’s conceptual and contextual malleability, notes the frequency with which it has provided a home for revolutionary programs, questions the assumption that law’s effectiveness follows necessarily from its enforceability, or seeks to demonstrate that international law exercises constitutive in addition to instrumental power, socializing states into an international order from which they derive much of their authority and legitimacy. Nearly all such jurists rehearse arguments to the effect that international law is not as vulnerable to accusations of factual inefficacy and normative feebleness as widely believed. Many are also quick to note that these accusations continue to hold purchase in no small part because of the cynical distortion of international law by powerful states.

Responses of this kind have their merits, at least under certain circumstances. But they often miss the mark, eliding the fact that, standard quandaries and objections aside, what is now known as “international law” has nearly always been central to the projection of sovereign power and the constitution of world order. Indeed, not unlike the jus gentium, droit des gens, “law of nations and nature,” and droit public de l’Europe with which it was preceded, contemporary international law has long been integrated into the workings of states and other international actors, channeling conduct and structuring strategy in accordance with a large class of rules, principles, and standards. Traditional distinctions between domestic and international law may be overdrawn, and claims that international law offers no means of limiting recourse to force neglect the fact that even states accused of “roguish” behavior typically eschew public disavowals of prevailing legal norms. But the truly crucial point lies elsewhere, in the fact that vocabularies of power and resistance alike have for centuries been inscribed with assumptions derived from international law’s disputed canon, and that international law, as an actually existing complex of doctrinal and institutional formations, ought therefore to be approached as an object of social analysis rather than one of philosophical defense. From a methodological standpoint, the real task is not that of mounting yet another philosophical argument on international law’s behalf so that it might finally succeed in entering a properly “post-ontological era,” but that of describing, explaining, and questioning the different projects to which opposing strands of international legal doctrine and practice regularly give rise.1

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