Neoliberalism, Colonialism and International Governance: Decentering the International Law of Governmental Legitimacy

70 Pages Posted: 28 Jan 2005

See all articles by James Thuo Gathii

James Thuo Gathii

Loyola University Chicago School of Law


In this article, (reviewing Brad Roth, Governmental Illegitimacy in International Law, OUP, 1999), I argue that liberal internationalism and neo-conservative realism are not the only alternatives to understanding and producing knowledge about legitimacy in international law. I offer a third world approach which I argue is intended as a counterweight to the overwhelming dominance of American and European academia in producing knowledge about international law. This third world approach represents a variety of shifting positions within the anti-hegemonic critique of Euro-American approaches represented by liberal internationalism and neo-conservative realism. In so doing, the aim of the paper is to open up the meaning of legitimacy to go beyond examining state legitimacy into examining legitimacy in a wider context that includes race, culture, class and sex. However, this project is not simply aimed at providing a countervailing or even an authentic notion of legitimacy or of the third world, but to overcome the given grounds of opposition between liberal internationalism and neo-conservative realism by opening up a space for a scholarly and political project that is open to change and innovation in addressing the pressing problems raised by concerns relating to legitimacy in international and national governance.

Thus, I contend that if debates about legitimacy were decentered from their statism and Eurocentricity, and contextualized in the rich and complex interactions of neo-liberal economic reformism, the legacy of north–south relations and non-European ways of thinking about legitimacy, a richer discourse on legitimacy would be possible. For example, what does the discourse on legitimacy have to say about the globalization thesis that the pain of economic restructuring is the cost that a society must be willing to pay in order to produce a higher rate of growth, productivity, profit and investment? I argue that the distributional consequences of such a commitment to globalization should feature in discourses on legitimacy. I do so by inquiring how framing arguments in favor of economic reformism this way automatically de-legitimizes governmental initiatives to redress social division and hierarchy as invariably inefficient, wasteful and profit constraining. Ultimately, I argue in favor of spreading the discourse on legitimacy to the private sphere so that how such economic reforms favor capital against labor or vice versa are as central to legitimacy as are reforms in the political sphere of elections and liberal democracy.

Keywords: International Law, Colonialism, Governmental Legitimacy, Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL)

Suggested Citation

Gathii, James Thuo, Neoliberalism, Colonialism and International Governance: Decentering the International Law of Governmental Legitimacy. Michigan Law Review, Vol. 98, No. 6, p. 1996, 2000, Available at SSRN:

James Thuo Gathii (Contact Author)

Loyola University Chicago School of Law ( email )

25 East Pearson
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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