International Economic Law Symposium: Emerging Powers and the International Order–A Third World Critique

International Economic Law Symposium: Emerging Powers and the International Order–A Third World Critique

What is power? Which states have it, and which don’t? Are there some processes that accelerate its ascendancy and others that quicken its decay? Most of all, how does public international law (PIL) correspond to this concept and to these processes? In Emerging Powers and the International Order, Andreas Buser touches upon all of these questions. In the following post, I provide a Third World critique of his study.


Emerging Powers is an ambitious book project. First, it is theoretically sweeping. Buser engages liberalism, critical theory, international relations (IR), as well as Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL). Moreover, despite their theoretical tensions, he roams between IR and PIL throughout his text. In some instances, the collaboration proves fruitful; in others, the fusion is cumbersome.

The book is also methodologically rich. We are regaled with discussions that build upon the colonial, neo-colonial, neoliberal, and transnational eras. Buser tackles the European era—mostly—while also reflecting on the Asian one. He utilises data from the period that precedes the Second Great European War as he does from the decolonisation era. It is of no surprise that his richest dataset pertains to the politics and economics of certain emerging powers. His datasets are vast, albeit sometimes surface-level, and bolster his arguments accordingly.  

Most of all, Buser’s book is politically ambitious. He seeks to identify the politics undergirding a conglomeration, possibly confluence of interests allegedly mobilising under the BRICS banner. Of course, he is hardly the first to propose this analytic lens, though the number of scholars who investigate the relationship between BRICS and international law remains sparse.

Buser begins with a familiar premise. The BRICS countries might represent a novel iteration of the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and progressive movement of the decolonisation era. Smaller than the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77, BRICS might resurrect a progressive statist movement and help shape world order in more egalitarian ways. While excluding Russia—for reasons that he explains—he closely examines the relationship of the other members to International Investment Law and International Trade Law, with a little less on military power.

Since Goldman-Sachs first coined the moniker ‘BRIC’, to which South Africa was later added, various scholars from IR, politics, and law, albeit to a lesser degree, have investigated the aspirations of this bloc. Irrespective of discipline, each scholar holds similar aims: to identify the patterns, tendencies, and politics of the group. While their approaches differ, with each analysis denoted by distinct theoretical and methodological commitments, Buser argues that consensus exists around some foundations. All purportedly agree that we are witnessing the diffusion of wealth and political power beyond the transatlantic coalition. While it is premature to suggest that the old order is waning, it is clear that it is at least fraying and that the ensuing order is liable to be less Eurocentric. Buser appears to share the viewpoint, though he remains cautious about the implications for the allocation of justice. There is also consensus around the objective traits of the BRICS coalition: a shared Third World history (excluding Russia), a quick economic rise (again excluding Russia), and a preference for embedded liberalism over neoliberalism (excluding Russia one final time).

It is on this final element that much of the debate—both in scholarship and in Buser’s book—rests. Does the bloc represent a continuation or perhaps a renewal of the decolonisation tradition? Does it seek similar reform (or revolution) as was articulated during the era of the New International Economic Order, Permanent Sovereignty Over Natural Resources, and the Charter of Economic Rights? Or, as many critical scholars argue, are emerging powers less motivated in challenging the economic order than to gain voice and influence within it? While preaching socialism at the pulpit, have these states adorned the attire and ideologies of capitalism? According to Patrick Bond, BRICS talks left and walks right.

Much of this debate, I admit, is old hat and Buser does not break new ground. The characterisation of BRICS as a resurrection of the NIEO was always an odd proposition. Goldman Sachs’ shorthand was intended to designate emerging markets, outlets where transnational investors could shift their capital in the search for the lavish profit margins of the 50s and 60s. Richard Gnodde, CEO of Goldman Sachs at the time, argued that China, with its population, work ethic, and administration, was much more efficient in manufacturing than either Europe and the United States. India, and to a lesser extent Brazil, was the preferred site for the outsourcing of services and the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals. And both Brazil and Russia’s untapped potential in natural resources was colossal. South Africa was later added, at least once it became apparent that the ANC was less enamoured with the constitutionalisation of socio-economic rights than transnational capital feared.

As argued by the late Martin Khor of the Third World Network, these countries emerged as a coalition—and to a limited extent even perceived themselves as a coalition—only because transnational capital and the media treated them as such. Personally, and I elaborate on this below, I always felt this characterisation was reductive and, frankly, Eurocentric. It is understandable that Goldman Sachs wishes to see the world through the superficial lens of profit margins. For academics to accept the classification suggested two things.

First, they preferred to avoid the heavy lifting of investigating the different political and ideological forces at play in these otherwise wholly diverse societies. Far easier to use slapdash criteria—(i) economic growth (ii) that is happening outside of Euro-America—to unite them. Second, these academics actually believed that a cute label could capture the complexities at play within each of the states, let alone across them. While some critical Third World scholars bear responsibility—including Vijay Prashad, a scholar I admire deeply—their approach was driven by a desire to instigate greater cooperation, hoping that the protests in Caracas and Cancun would yield a broader state-based coalition similar to the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas. This was idealistic, even misguided, but hardly nefarious.

For other academics, however, I suggest that the BRICS label enjoyed attention more because of the Eurocentrism that continues to grip both IR and PIL scholarship rather than its actual analytic value. It is to this topic that I devote the remainder of my essay.


I wish to begin by commending Buser. He demonstrates a commitment to excavating Third World legal scholarship to a degree that is exceptional among non-TWAIL scholars. While some of his analysis is surface-level, as a movement, TWAIL wishes to achieve greater influence over the direction of legal scholarship. As such, we should commend those courageous enough to venture into unfamiliar waters.

Moreover, Buser’s intervention is both theoretically and methodologically valuable for TWAIL. In his book, he applies the theory to IR and to IL in novel ways. In Buser’s response to my comment—forthcoming at the end of this symposium on his book—I hope to hear some reflections on his use of TWAIL and how it helped advance his own scholarship. Where Buser falls short is at the same location that many critical scholars stumble at: the Eurocentric aetiology of world order.

Buser engages with some of the stock TWAIL counter-narratives (Anghie in particular). While he hedges his language, he accepts what most other publicists have come to terms with: the foundations of contemporary international law are Eurocentric, colonial, and imperial. I know few publicists who resist this. Even positivist-formalists such as Malcolm Shaw acknowledge its nefarious past: “International law became Eurocentric, the preserve of the civilised Christian states, into which overseas and foreign nations could enter only with the consent and on the conditions laid down by Western powers.” Yet, for Shaw, and to a lesser extent for Buser, it seems that awareness of the past suffices, absolving them of the need to go any further in their respective critiques of Eurocentrism. I illustrate this point with Buser’s references.

I note that, on Third World matters, we observe a solid representation of Third World scholars. While he does often revert to Jouannet and Salomon, reliance on Anghie, Chimni, Anand, Bennouna, Bedjaoui, and Rajagopal is frequent. On other topics, however, Third World representation is less prominent, sometimes absent altogether. In much the same way as many female scholars are relegated to writing about feminist implications in their fields, the same is true for Third World scholars: we write about Third World matters but not global ones. For global issues, scholars revert to the usual suspects, intimating that, irrespective of their European origins, they are capable of speaking for the universal.

To his credit, this tendency is less evident in Buser’s references, but remains omnipresent in his approach toward both IR and PIL, most notably in his discussions of power, justice, and human rights where the near totality of his analysis is informed by Euro-American scholars and talking points. For example, throughout his discussion of economic power and justice, exploitation barely merits mention. Yet, exploitation and plunder are foundational to the relationship of Euro-America toward the Third World, with both practices critical to maintaining standards of living in the Global North. Allow me to explain this point.

If political debates taking place across Europe are indicative, Europeans remain in denial of the extent to which colonialism, slavery, plunder, and genocide made Europe’s prosperity possible. As Walter Rodney demonstrated two generations ago, without the lives and lands of others, European civilisation could not have flourished. Buser is aware of racial capitalism theory. In Chapter 2, for example, he writes about the criticism levelled against international economic law “for its distributional outcomes.” He cites Salomon at length, so I expect he is familiar with her co-authored book: the Misery of International Law.

Yet, there is flippancy in his articulation of the critique that left me wondering where he stands. “Simply put, the Global North has been described as the home of evil capitalist elites, which singly or in cooperation with their Southern counterparts exploit the working force and natural resources of the Global South for its own benefit.” He does not end there. “International economic law has been depicted to have secured and legitimised that practice and sometimes is even accused of directly harming the Global South’s poor.” Again, I am extrapolating from Buser’s tone, but the language implies reservations, even scepticism. Do any scholars of international law or of political economy still doubt that Europe’s pre-eminence was achieved on the backs of others?

It is not that a matter of the Global North being described as evil, but of European states engaging in a plethora of reprehensible behaviour to advance their economic interests. Consider, among others, the genocide of the Herero and the Nama, Belgian brutality in the Congo, French resistance to Algerian independence, American invasion of Vietnam, and the Opium Wars waged by the British against the Chinese as well as the famines they perpetrated against Indians. Each of these episodes precipitated the deaths of millions of Third Worlders, while also making a killing in the marketplace for European capitalists. Such behaviour is not described as evil: it is evil, irrespective of whether you choose a European, Third World, or ecclesiastical definition of justice. Again, Buser does not deny this. It is the dithering in his language that is perplexing and worrisome.

From a Third World perspective, it is also worth highlighting that exploitation did not end with the fall of formal colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah’s book on neo-colonialism remains one of the greatest investigations into the manipulation of sovereignty and of world order in the post-colonial period to perpetuate Eurocentric privileges. In contrast to colonialism, wherein Europeans claimed absolute authority over the territories of others, neo-colonialism was more insidious. By consolidating economic control, metropoles could influence political policy indirectly, thus eschewing the costly trappings of gunboat diplomacy. With his habitual insight, Nkrumah proclaimed that neo-colonialism was “the worst form of imperialism.” “For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility” Nkrumah argued and “for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.”

For Buser, however, exploitation is only one cause among many. “Causes of poverty include diverse historical and present-day factors, such as colonial exploitation, local corruption and irresponsible elites” he proclaims. These manifest alongside “exploitative business practices on the part of both foreign and local entities, and unjust terms of trade for commodities, to name but a few.” It is telling that, of the first three causes of Third World immiseration, two are ascribed to the victims. It is also telling that, for his exploration of justice, Thomas Pogge and Iris Marion Young suffice. There is more.

Third World scholars have sought to centre the instrumentality of Third World societies to Europe. Colonialism and neo-colonialism, for example, were vital in the strategy of capitalist countries to address internal social conflict. “From the end of the nineteenth century onwards, colonies had been regarded as a source of wealth which could be used to mitigate the class conflicts in the capitalist states.” Nkrumah argues that this viewpoint deepened during the Cold War as capitalist countries sought to prevent domestic rebellions: their publics were no longer willing to accept the inequality they suffered, and colonial earnings were identified as a vital source of funding for the welfare state.

Consistently left out in discussions about the NIEO is the impossibility of Euro-America allowing it to succeed if they were to achieve a sufficient degree of social welfare to placate their own masses. It is for this reason that Prashad’s phrasing is apropos: it is not that the NIEO or the Third World project failed, but that it was assassinated. Without access to the markets and resources of the former colonies, the living standards of Europe and the United States would decline, if not collapse altogether, elevating the appeal of the communist alternative. To prevent this, Euro-America doubled-down on exploitation and with great success. Consider, for example, that relative poverty between the First and Third World is greater than it ever was before, even if Third World states reduced the level of absolute poverty in some of their societies, most notably China.

Myths about meritocracy and self-made states continue to grip both Europe and America, with few questioning the racist implications of these narratives, and even fewer asking how international law can counter exploitation. Instead, scholars dedicate much scholarship to exploring concepts of justice and power, often ignoring their liberal and Eurocentric tendencies. Buser’s book falls somewhere in the middle.


Buser provides a rich study of the BRICS bloc with emphasis on Eurocentric conceptions of power and justice. It is a delightful read and I’ve learned much about the trajectories that these states find themselves on, as well as how their trajectories relate to European analytic categories.

To the extent that I confront Buser, it is on the appropriateness of the theoretical-analytical lens through which he investigates the political and economic developments of the BRICS bloc. From a Third World perspective, I find his approach interesting albeit incongruent with the societies to which he applies it. Just as it makes little sense to direct a colonial or neo-colonial lens when exploring the EU’s relationship to the UK, it feels awkward reading about IR and power in relation to the Third World. Instead of asking whether BRICS states are genuinely pursuing a progressive development model to support the flourishing of their societies, for me as a Third World scholar, I would investigate how this fallacious framing perpetuates the status quo; in this instance, largely by shifting the blame onto the victim once more and reinforcing the exclusivity of European international law and political philosophy as the basis of scholarly critique of international relations.

As Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, and Walter Rodney highlighted generations ago, exploitation is good business and the immiseration of the Third World is the flip side of the prosperity of the First World. Once we factor in issues of resources and sustainability, we conclude that the problem with world order is not Third World poverty but First World profligacy and exploitation, neither of which are prohibited by European International Law. Funny that.

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