Should the East Have a Voice? International Legal Life on the Semiperiphery

Should the East Have a Voice? International Legal Life on the Semiperiphery

[Tamás Hoffmann is an Associate Professor at Corvinus University of Budapest and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Legal Studies, Budapest]

Introduction – A Region without Agency

Eastern Europe has a strange place in academic discourse. While the region has traditionally been rife with both internal and international conflicts, making it an ideal object of scientific enquiry, the countries of the region are often regarded as lacking agency. As Patryk Labuda has incisively demonstrated, it is fairly usual that even critical international lawyers inadvertently recreate a Western-centric vision of the world that relegates Eastern Europe to a subaltern position.

John D. Haskell’s recent post is emblematic of this approach. Haskell writes about “the jurisdictional creep of NATO and Western interests into post-Soviet spaces” and how “NATO would incorporate the Western frontiers of Russia, first in 1999 with Central European states, then in 2004 with Baltic states, and most recently, in the overtures to integrate Georgia and Ukraine.” This implies that Eastern European countries are not sovereign entities that might have the capacity to freely determine their political status, and might have even actively lobbied to join NATO to be safe from traditional Russian imperialistic tendencies, but are mere buffer zones whose fate was decided back in 1945 to remain forever in the Soviet/Russian sphere of interest. Ironically, this echoes the position of such notable progressive thinkers as President Putin and John Mearsheimer.

In this post I would like to demonstrate how Eastern Europe’s unacknowledged (semi)peripheral status inevitably results in the marginalization of local international law scholars as well.

Academic Life on the (Semi)Periphery

While the very concept of Eastern Europe is contested, it can generally be applied to European countries in the post-Soviet space. Today, Eastern European countries are situated in the periphery of Europe, with significantly lower GDP per capita, wages or even life expectancy than their Western European counterparts. Consequently, academics in this region not only have to overcome the language barrier, they are supposed to participate in the competitive race of global knowledge production often without access to scientific literature, databases, and funding to attend international conferences. Yet even if they manage to overcome all these obstacles, Eastern European scholars – unless they gain social capital by graduating from Western universities and eventually moving to the West – still seem to be largely excluded from international scholarship, whether publication in leading journals, membership in editorial boards, or even acceptance as speakers at prestigious conferences. (Naturally, there is always the token Eastern European at all major conferences, meeting the Highlander requirement: There can be only one!) It appears that affiliation with an Eastern European academic institution is a telling sign of scholarly incompetence for most academic gate-keepers.

Eastern European scholars also have to struggle with a unique problem – their separate identity means that their relative marginalization is unacknowledged. They are formally regarded as belonging to the Centre so they have to compete for resources under the same conditions as their peers from Western institutions without retaining the same benefits. Eastern Europe has generally been regarded ”too Eastern to just become part of the West, too European to be part of the South or the Rest.” International lawyers who hail from a region that is permanently stuck in a liminal space between the North and the South thus find themselves in the worst of both worlds. As Fowkes and Hailbronner point out, “[c]onsiderations of political correctness or even cultural relativism, rightly or not, may also make Westerners listen more respectfully to distinct identity claims when they come from further South.”

We Eastern European international lawyers like to pretend that we can meaningfully participate in the international legal discourse. We have our academic network: our own journals, organizations and events where sometimes even adventurous Western scholars grace us with their presence. We like these venues – we are bound by our shared lived experiences of repeated rejections and unlikely achievements. These are safe spaces, symbols of our exclusion, our zoo – small, suffocating spaces that give the illusion of influence but without a real audience. Here we can feel that we not only belong to the “invisible college,” we are actually visible. 

It hardly causes consternation anymore that Eastern European academics are regularly excluded even from projects which concern issues intimately connected to the region, such as the history of international law, the Cold War, or European international law traditions. If the editors of an edited volume on the influence of Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros judgment, a case about a construction project that led to the biggest civilian protest against the communist regime in its dying days in Hungary and became one of the symbols of the newly found statehood of Slovakia, choose not to include a single scholar from the region, that is simply accepted as the ordo rerum, the natural order of the international legal universe. After all, who could possibly be better qualified to write about our history and turn our sweat and blood into academic gold than our esteemed Western colleagues?

It might be argued that the quality of Western academic scholarship is simply superior, making the under-representation of Eastern European scholars not only justified but even desirable. After all, global knowledge production is supposedly based on meritocracy, where the best minds will inevitably prevail while the mediocre will fall. And indeed, Eastern scholarship can seem antiquated from the West. This region maintains a 19th-century belief in formalism and textual positivism that is internalized through legal education. Most of us still live in “the heaven of legal concepts,” where Kelsen is the prophet of the religion of Rechtswissenschaft that never experienced the schism of post-foundationalism and that maintains a strict delineation of disciplinary boundaries that treats interdisciplinarity as a heresy. Our articles are sometimes laconic but never Lacanian, so Western international legal scholarship that is “constant craving for fresh brains” cannot possibly find it worthy of attention. 

Yet one might wonder whether the native gaze could provide insight into at least issues concerning our region – the West’s own backyard Orient, a place of excitement and source of inspiration traditionally so rich in sins and sorrows, crimes and delights marked by our blood, sweat and tears. Inclusion would provide an opportunity for Eastern scholars to participate in Western academic networks, adapt to Western expectations, and gain symbolic validation as a member of the epistemic community of international lawyers. It could even reveal that Eastern scholars are not necessarily inferior to their Western colleagues and choosing to remain in their country of origin should not be tantamount to an automatic career suicide.  

The participation of Eastern European scholars in academic projects therefore could be desirable for numerous reasons. First of all, local scholars might have access to knowledge that is simply unavailable for outsiders through their own networks or access to documents often only available in their native language. Secondly, voices different from the Western academic mainstream could further enrich scholarly discussions, bringing new perspectives and insights. Finally, inclusion is the only possible way to slowly start to improve the entrenched inequality between East and the West. Ultimately, the leaders of such projects wield absolute power to decide whether they want to introduce new voices, and if they continue to choose participants from their own academic networks, the marginalisation of Eastern European scholars will persist.  

Discussions in international law scholarship so far about inclusion has largely failed to address the issue of scholars based outside central geographical spaces of scholarly production.  It’s time that the gatekeepers of scholarship such as project convenors, conference organisers, book and journal editors realized that they have a responsibility to contribute to a more inclusive academic world. As Rafał Mańko pithily observed “[p]eripherality, let alone double peripherality, is no reason to pride. It is, with all due respect to the scientific objectivity of the concept, a humiliating condition… Permanently running after the fetish of ‘modernisation’… permanently desiring to escape the curse of ‘backwardness’, permanently behind, permanently learning and permanently emulating. How can a legal community that is burdened by such symbolic oppression (self-oppression?) ascertain its pride, its prestige and its self-esteem? How can a society, and especially its elites, endure such long-term humiliation?”

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