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The Language of Law and the Practice of Politics: Great Powers and the Rhetoric of Self-Determination in the Cases of Kosovo and South Ossetia


Christopher Borgen


St. John's University - School of Law

September 11, 2009

Chicago Journal of International Law, Vol. 10, p. 1, 2009
St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-0176

Abstract:     
This Article, written for a special issue of the Chicago Journal of International Law concerning great power politics, seeks to elucidate whether and how international law shapes modern diplomatic discourse and, in particular, how “great powers” use international legal arguments as part of their diplomatic strategies. I use one topic area — arguments over self-determination — and two cases — Kosovo and South Ossetia — to explore this relationship between the language of law and the practice of politics. I argue that international law serves as both a vocabulary and a grammar for diplomacy. International law is a vocabulary in that it defines the words that can or cannot be used in diplomatic discourse, the terminology that is or is not acceptable. Similarly, international law provides a grammar for international relations by setting the rules by which words fit together — essentially, how ideas can be expressed. For example, “we will use our right to attack you” does not fit into the grammar of international law or international politics (barring some questionable readings by the Bush Administration). By cabining what can be said in international relations, international law defines norms, shapes expectations, sets the boundaries of what can be legitimized and, ultimately, can make it more or less likely that certain state actions will be successful. Section II of this Article briefly sets out the background of the Kosovar and South Ossetian conflicts. Section III is a quick primer on the evolution of the concept of self-determination and its at-times difficult coexistence with the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Section IV turns to the analysis of how legal argumentation was used by Russia, the US, and the EU in the cases of Kosovo and South Ossetia. Although I note the relative strengths and weaknesses of the arguments, I am less interested in who was right or wrong as opposed to what strategy was used (if any) in deploying the language of international law. I am especially interested in how Russia, in particular, has used the language of international law as a tool of public diplomacy in an attempt to spin the perceptions or “control the narratives” related to both Kosovo and South Ossetia. Finally, Section V considers how the rhetorical use of international legal argumentation goes beyond managing perceptions and can actually affect the evolution of the substance of international law.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 34

Keywords: self-determination, secession, sovereignty, international law, Russia, European Union, Kosovo, Ossetia, Georgia, great powers

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Date posted: September 15, 2009 ; Last revised: October 5, 2009

Suggested Citation

Borgen, Christopher, The Language of Law and the Practice of Politics: Great Powers and the Rhetoric of Self-Determination in the Cases of Kosovo and South Ossetia (September 11, 2009). Chicago Journal of International Law, Vol. 10, p. 1, 2009 ; St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-0176. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1472068

Contact Information

Christopher Borgen (Contact Author)
St. John's University - School of Law ( email )
8000 Utopia Parkway
Jamaica, NY 11439
United States
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