International Law Ten Years Later — On the Ground and In the Academy
You know you’ve reached a certain age when you start saying, “I remember when. . .”
Well, I remember when international law was considered a legal chimera and an academic backwater. Policymakers would take it into account in only a limited set of circumstances, and then usually only where it was consistent with other agendas. In law schools it was ghettoized: schools understood they needed one member of the faculty to cover international law courses, but at many it was only one. Among the international relations theorists, international law was the target of ridicule (“epiphenomenal,” delivered with a heavy dollop of condescension).
Things had begun to change around the time that I joined the blog in 2006. One sign of change was a new wave of entry-level international law faculty, among whom Chris, Peggy, and Julian prominently counted. International law felt like the academic equivalent of a start-up, and Opinio Juris was there, helping to build the community of international law academics (something reflected in our impressive list of alumni guest contributors). There was a time when it was required reading among IL scholars. The blog helped demonstrate international law’s relevance on a day-in, day-out basis.
In those early years, I felt like blogging here was part of that cause – to prove the reality of international law against a stolid cohort of non-believers, both in and outside of the academy. It wasn’t advocacy in the traditional sense; international law doesn’t always point to progressive (or otherwise “correct”) results. (In any case, one of OJ’s virtues is its ideological diversity.) More in the way of advocacy for the discipline, at a point at which its respectability was still contested.
Today, there’s no longer any real need to engage in that kind of promotional activity. I don’t feel like I have to do the sort of cheerleading that I engaged in my early years here. International law has left its Ice Age behind. It is now arguably the center of the action, both on the ground and in the academy, as it comes to touch every area of law. It is in its take-off phase. Foundations are being built that will have consequences for generations to come. There’s still a tremendous level of instability. Some institutions now in their infancy will crash and burn. But others will survive. Things happening today will be studied by future generations, even if they aren’t necessarily very high-profile in the contemporary imagination. Some institution-builders anonymously at work today will be celebrated only long after they are dead.
The accelerated growth isn’t all upside, even leaving aside the inevitable missteps and false starts that are part of any take-off. In the “be careful what you wish for” department, international law has grown to the point where it’s no longer a unified field. It’s a lot of fields that are starting to go their own way. The number of international law generalists is dwindling; it’s impossible to keep up with developments in fields as diverse as those in domestic law. The level of specialization now makes it tough to talk across specialties. It’s like your first cousins — you have a recent common ancestor and probably spent some time together in your youth, but may more recently have drifted apart. The next generation will likely as not be strangers.
That’s presents a challenge for a blog that remains generalist in orientation. There are times when the debates in the weeds aren’t worth following if it’s not your particular area. Appealing to the larger community gets more difficult.
I’m also old enough to remember when blogging was new (not so old!). As Julian points out, it has changed – much more serious now, less of the breezy sort of pointers and back-and-forth chatter, much of which has moved to Twitter (which itself has started to get more serious). The emergence of other international law-oriented blogs (Just Security and Lawfare in particular) is a testament to that seriousness, as well as another data point evidencing the robust state of the field. In any case it’s been fun to be a part of a project that has seen these things through.