Governance Histories of International Law
Dubber & Tomlins eds., Oxford Handbook of Historical Legal Research, 2018 Forthcoming
22 Pages Posted: 13 Oct 2017 Last revised: 18 Oct 2017
Date Written: October 13, 2017
During virtually the same period in which international lawyers began to critically explore the history of their discipline, historians turned to the forgotten pasts of international legal institutions such as the League of Nations, the United Nations, the international human rights system, and related systems of global governance as subjects of historical inquiry, while engaging in a vibrant debate over the meaning of their historiographical shift. Historians describe the turn to the international as a challenge to methodological nationalism. At the same time, international lawyers’ turn to history has been criticized for remaining locked within statist constraints, provoking repeated calls for a ‘global history’ of international law.
This paper explores the link between these statist constraints and the centrality of history of ideas in the history of international law. Studying the history of international law from a history of ideas perspective involves decisions on questions of agency that draw from theoretical predispositions on what international law is. International legal histories often share a vision of international legal history as a history of ideas and, in various ways, the history of ideas as they were advocated and developed by international lawyers. Analyzing the history of international law through the study of the work and thought of prominent international lawyers is tuned to telling a history of law through their theoretical, cultural, and sociological perspectives. This approach therefore remains loyal to their understanding of what international law is and the set of ideas, practices, and institutions they deem relevant for its understanding. The questions they are interested in and the concepts they develop become the questions and concepts we are studying. This methodological perspective provides an intriguing critical window onto international lawyers’ imagined legal world at a particular time and place. However, it also carries important pitfalls. The choice to tell the history of international law through the eyes of those who embrace a particular jurisprudential perspective on the international law field (such as a view that recognizes nothing but states as relevant to their oeuvre) could easily conflate between the historical perspective and the jurisprudential assumptions underpinning the historical inquiry. This could lead to an account of the international legal order as irrelevant to the fate of non-state actors such as corporations, NGOs, minorities, or stateless persons or to ‘non-statist’ aspects of social life such as economic relations or the family. Furthermore, it may be oblivious to ideas about law that may not be confined to such mandarin legality and appear in non-traditional sites and texts.
This paper highlights the relevance of two particular facets in the writings on the history of international law. The first relates to the scholar’s underlying assumptions on the theory of the law, and the second is the theory of law of the agents whose work, ideas, and practices the scholar studies. Bearing in mind the relevance of these theoretical perspectives to our understanding of the history of international law, I wish to explore the link between, on the one hand, the agent we choose to study and her/his theory of the law and, on the other, our own. It further inquires into how studies that move beyond the dominant traditional imagery of the international lawyer as the pre-eminent agent in international legal historiography could change our understanding of international legal history and how might such a shift in understanding, in turn, inform our theoretical predispositions on international law.
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