Jose Alvarez on the Internet, Blogging, and the Democratization of the “Invisible College” of International Lawyers

by Peggy McGuinness

ASIL president Jose Alvarez has dedicated his monthly presidential column to the “revolution from below” that is radically transforming the “invisible college” of international lawyers. As Alvarez notes, the term “invisible college” was coined in 1977 by the late Oscar Schachter to describe “the ‘professional community’ of professors, students, government officials and international civil servants was capable, through ‘heterogenenity and representativeness,’ of balancing out ‘the particularistic influences’ of national biases to ‘avoid the misperceptions and omissions that accompany them.'” That world has changed:

Today, there is little question that more people than ever before, all over the world, can credibly claim membership in Schachter’s college. Nor is there doubt that the increasing legalization of societies that have heretofore resisted it has resulted in a more heterogeneous participation in Schachter’s “common intellectual enterprise.” Given the depth and breadth of contemporary “transnational practice,” there are many more lawyers (with far more diverse portfolios of governmental or non-governmental prior experience) who can claim engagement in “dedoublement fonctionnel.” Given the rise of law schools, here and abroad, claiming expertise in the field, there are more (and more diverse) mentoring options for prospective international lawyers. As is suggested by the recent establishment of Asian and European societies of international law and the re-invigoration of others (such as the Russian Society of International Law), international lawyers also now have many more socialization options.

To the distress of some who are nostalgic for the cozy circle of like minded souls who once congregated only around The Hague, even the elitist field of public international law has undergone a revolution from below.

But there is a more significant change from 1977 that is dramatically affecting the sociology of our profession: the technological changes bearing the label “Web 2.0.” Today, most international lawyers with daily web access are at least passive web “lurkers.” Most of us are at least consumers, if not producers, of web-based resources that permit active interaction, such as Opinio Juris, International Law Girls, World Trade Law, or OGEMID. Some of us have fashioned our own blogs or regularly contribute international law insights to web sites generally devoted to national law (e.g., Balkinization. The possibility that any of us, at the click of a button, has ready access to legal developments, even while these are occurring, and to practically instantaneous commentary on their significance, is radically altering the invisible college — at least as much as the rise in the sheer numbers of international lawyers.

Alvarez argues that blogs and listservs may actually sharpen democratic debate and improve the quality of international legal decisions:

A world of instantaneous world wide communications is also one that virtually requires someone in the position of the U.S. State Department Legal Adviser to respond to charges of alleged U.S. legal malfeasance in the same public fora that gave raise to some of the gravest critiques. (See, for example, (guest blogging by U.S. Legal Adviser John Bellinger).) The wider readership assured to virtually any international adjudicator’s decision is likely to improve the responsiveness and accountability of those decision-makers. It is hard to believe that the quality of ICSID investor-state arbitral opinions has not improved now that these opinions are scrutinized by thousands of sophisticated OGEMID readers who are more than happy to address the logical or other flaws in such decisions or to compare them to decisions rendered elsewhere. Bloggers may also force WTO adjudicators (eventually) to write judicial opinions written not only by and for a narrow trade technocracy but in a reader-friendly style that acknowledges their wider expressive impact (as did the U.S. Supreme Court when it wrote its eloquently simple judgment in Brown v. Board of Education).

It is gratifying to see how our work at Opinio Juris, and the work of our mini-college of international law bloggers, has become part of the daily discussion within an ever-expanding international law community. (My own comments are attached to Alvarez’s column and can be found here.)

So, dear readers, welcome the Invisible College 2007!

2 Responses

  1. I think Jose and you are on to something. I believe the process of the ASIL Centennial Resolution in 2006 demonstrated the invisible college at work on reaching consensus on very key topics in a way that would be much more time consuming and subject to top down management in the non-internet setting. I am working on an article to describe that process from the point of view of Online Dispute Resolution practitioners.

    I think we need to think of these spaces as spaces of exchange and as spaces of work: both help to advance and enhance understanding of international law.



  2. I would also say that even with the democratization, there are hiearchies in the digital world too that impact on what is available. For example, the price of internet connections and the speed varied widely from country to country. So some are still hindered significantly from being part of this digital invisible college. I know of persons working on handcranked internet access tools in Nigeria to bring down the cost. Then there are the places with irregular access to electricity, let alone internet access. Mapping the participation from these parts of the invisible college and the relative advantage/disadvantage dynamic would be of some interest. Take the standard categories of doctrinal positions in international law and overlay a digital image of them and see how the power of different points of view is enhanced or reduced. Just a thought.



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