Power Shifts in International Law: Structural Realignment and Substantive Pluralism

80 Pages Posted: 14 Jan 2014 Last revised: 4 Nov 2015

See all articles by William W. Burke-White

William W. Burke-White

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Date Written: 2015


For most of the past sixty years, the United States and Europe have led, independently and collectively, the international legal system. Yet, the rise of the BRICs over the past decade has caused a profound transformation of global politics. This paper examines the implications of this redistribution of power for international law. While international lawyers have long debated the ability of law to constrain state behavior, this paper shifts the debate from the power of law to the role of power within international law. It first advances a structural argument that the diffusion, disaggregation, and issue-specific asymmetries in the distribution of power are giving rise to a multi-hub structure for international law, distinct from past structures such as bipolarity and multipolarity. This multi-hub structure increases pluralism within the international legal system. It also creates downward pressure on international legal processes to migrate from the global level toward a number of flexible, issue-specific subsystems. The paper then proceeds to demonstrate that the anticipated pluralism is emerging at three substantive tension points as some rising powers articulate distinct preferences with respect to sovereignty, legitimacy, and the role of the state in economic development. At each of these tension points, rising powers are reasserting the preeminence of the state in international law, leading to a gradual turning away from the individualization of international law championed by the US and Europe back toward the Westphalian origins of the international legal system. Notwithstanding this turn, the United States stands to benefit from the new multi-hub structure of international law.

Keywords: International law and politics, redistribution of power, multi-hub structure of international power, legal pluralism, sovereignty, legitimacy, role of state in international legal system & in economic development, G20, BRICs, downward pressure on processes of international law

Suggested Citation

Burke-White, William W., Power Shifts in International Law: Structural Realignment and Substantive Pluralism (2015). Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 56, P. 1, 2015, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-2, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2378912 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2378912

William W. Burke-White (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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