Stay in Your Lane! When Political Scientists Become Bad International Lawyers

by Julian Ku

Next month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, a leading journal of highbrow foreign policy in the U.S., features an important article on the United States as “The Once and Future Superpower” (subscription).  Based on their forthcoming book, professors Steven Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth College argue that China is not going to displace the United States as the world’s leading superpower in the near or even mid-range future.

As an article analyzing global power politics, it seems fairly (although not completely) persuasive.  But I was struck by how the otherwise carefully argued piece descends into complete gibberish when it tries to explain how “international law” can be a tool for the United States to constrain and manage China’s activities in the South China Sea.

And if Beijing tried to extract economic gains from contested regions [in the South China Sea], Washington could facilitate a process along the lines of the proportional punishment strategy it helped make part of the World Trade Organization: let the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, determine the gains of China’s illegal actions, place a temporary tariff on Chinese exports to collect exactly that much revenue while the sovereignty claims are being adjudicated, and then distribute them once the matter is settled before the International Court of Justice.

Whaaaahhht?

In this one sentence, the authors propose that an arbitral tribunal convened under UNCLOS issue an award granting money damages to the Philippines. This is somewhat unlikely, but it is theoretically possible.  But who exactly is going to place a “temporary tariff on Chinese exports”?  The United States? A country that is not party to the dispute between China and the Philippines? And why exactly wouldn’t this cause a trade war with China and why wouldn’t it violate the WTO Agreement? And when exactly did the International Court of Justice get involved given that China has not consented to that court’s compulsory jurisdiction?  

Not only is this not a plausible mechanism for sanctions against China (the world’s second largest economy), but it is not a plausible mechanism for sanctions against almost any country in the world.  It has never been done before outside of the trade context, where every country specifically agreed to the trade sanction system in advance! 

The authors’ casual, offhand explanation of how “international law” is an asset that can be used for pursuing policy goals irrespective of existing legal institutional frameworks and legal principles is something I’ve noticed before in political science literature.  The “law” argument is not a bad one in principle, but it requires a deeper understanding of law as an independent analytical field than political scientists are willing to give it credit for.

As it stands now, this otherwise interesting article loses credibility with policymakers because the authors didn’t bother to try to understand how law and legal institutions are organized.  Maybe they should just skip over the legal stuff, and stay in their own lanes.  Or maybe they could find a reader up there in New Hampshire with a J.D. (I’m always available!).

http://opiniojuris.org/2016/04/18/sometimes-even-political-scientists-prove-they-need-international-lawyers/

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