Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: How to Be a Foreign Academic

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: How to Be a Foreign Academic

[Frédéric Mégret is Professor and co-Director, Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, Faculty of Law, McGill University.]

With “How to be a Brit,” George Mikes wrote a much-loved tongue-in-cheek guide to Britishness for an imagined foreign audience. The book included indispensable advice such as “Do not call foreign lawyers (…) ‘Doctor’. Everybody knows that the little word ‘doctor’ only means that they are Central Europeans. This is painful enough in itself, you do not need to remind people of it all the time.” Included in later editions was also “How to be an Alien,” as if one did not go without the other. Being a “Brit” and being an “alien,” it turned out, was all about navigating codes. The pun was of course that the unmistakably British deadpan was the product of an… émigré Hungarian, Mikes György as he was born (and the recipient of a doctorate in law).

In this post, I want to focus attention on the fate of the young international law academic starting their career in a new country and in the process of transitioning from one legal culture to another – not quite a “local” yet but no longer entirely a “foreigner” either. There is a distinguished history of international law scholars making careers abroad. Evidently, many did so in far from easy circumstances, fleeing war and persecution only to encounter diminished circumstances and prospects in the country they ended up in – the professional travails of Kelsen from Vienna to Geneva to California come to mind. Before that, of course, many early international lawyers often seemed to end up writing and teaching far from their base (Alberico Gentili in England, Hugo Grotius in France, or Francis Lieber in the US, etc.).

This sense of alterity has arguably long been part of the very fabric of international law as a discipline that is both weirdly cosmopolitan and national (indeed, sometimes provincial). In the last few decades, the opening-up of some academic markets and an increasingly liberalized international political economy of higher education combined with the ubiquity of English have created renewed opportunities for careers abroad, not just as a late crowning event but often immediately after doctoral studies. Throngs of Greek, Indian, Nigerian, German, Australian and Italian international lawyers (to name but a few particularly well-represented nationalities) have made their way to foreign faculties.

Indeed, in some remote islands, it even seems as if international law is a discipline taught largely by foreigners – perhaps, in fact, a “foreign” discipline. That mobility should not be overstated of course: it is often selective and one-directional and many domestic legal academic systems remain for all intents and purposes closed to foreign recruitment. Still, the phenomenon is qualitatively if not quantitatively significant, perhaps because of the intriguing but higher-than-usual visibility of many “foreign” international law scholars.

To be an early “foreign academic”, both in general and in international law, comes with its own set of opportunities and challenges. First, a word on terminology. Being “foreign” is of course a very relative, fluid and relational notion. One may be more or less foreign depending on previous studies, language competency, taste, identification, not to mention national, racial or religious origin, etc. Foreign-ness is surely in part in the eyes of the beholder (where are you “really” from?) as well as a self-construct. With time one may go fully local or cling stubbornly to one’s alien-ness, but one may also have those identities thrust on oneself. At any rate, to be a “foreign” but “local” academic is to be constantly both from elsewhere and from here. Just as my locally raised Canadian kids will always see through this French émigré’s lame attempts to explain hockey, for example, there are certain areas of “domestic” legal culture that will at times seem tantalizingly close to my grasp yet forever slightly beyond it. But does any of this matter if one is a member in good standing of international law’s own (albeit largely imaginary) république des lettres?

Specializing in international law is certainly particularly conducive to being recruited in academia as a foreigner. The discipline is considered in some parts to be a bit of a rarity, making foreign international lawyers a relatively prized commodity. By contrast, all kinds of domestic law expertise is available locally, creating a particularly stiff competition for new comers. This means that one may be able to specialize in international law courses, perhaps even more so than one might have been able to do at home, allowing for a relatively smooth transfer in otherwise academic terra incognita (but clearly not nullius!). I have also found that, for a time at least, one can invoke ignorance of local legal mores or at least a polite foreign neutrality to avoid being drawn into certain domestic controversies.

This, however, does come with its own pitfalls. International lawyers are already prone to being exoticized in law faculties but may be even more so when they are foreign. In turn, it may be tempting to live one’s academic life as a remote outpost of the empire of international law, in touch with fellow international lawyers much more than local colleagues and living for the next international junket or the odd intellectual resupply by visiting faculty – but this is surely a bit of a trap. The demands bearing on international law academics – for guidance by students, for solidarity by colleagues or for expertise by institutions – are in many ways quite local. One ignores them at the peril of aloofness and irrelevance. To decide to have an academic career abroad must therefore in many ways be a decision to embrace the challenges of another country, including its legal culture.

This means that for the young academic who was not trained locally, a significant effort into developing local expertise and credibility may well prove necessary sooner or later. Going local may involve being asked to teach a compulsory course as I was soon after settling in in Montreal: lecturing in criminal law at McGill was a tall order but I have absolutely no regrets (I cannot vouch that my students would say the same), and even believe it has enriched my understanding of international law. Beyond that, perhaps the most plausible route is that young (and not so young) international law émigrés can serve as intellectual bridges between traditions of international law, particularly sensitive as they will often be to international law’s national (and even nationalist) legacies in an era of “comparative international law.” Not having had to “make it from within,” they may be naturally less susceptible to intellectual cooptation although they will also be expected to “fit in”.

And what of return to the country of one’s intellectual roots? Sometimes that country will have been the reason why one left, making for an awkward pilgrimage. But it may still exert a nostalgic fascination for what might have been, not to mention one may find oneself to be more indebted to it intellectually than one assumed. One should not expect too much from such returns. No one is a prophet in one’s own land – and certainly not, one might expect, those who have drifted away from its core. Still, the quality of being in-between is precious, and just as one’s country of settlement may benefit from one’s foreign outlook, one’s place of origin may benefit from one’s returnee experience. This back-and-forth, at any rate, is also testimony to how international law’s narrative is also being woven through emigration-immigration-return migration. Although that process occurs within an international political economy of higher education that constantly foregrounds certain sites at the expense of others (e.g. moves from the Global South to the Global North), it also increasingly includes South-South and indeed some North-South mobility.

George Mike’s true genius was that he could understand Britishness like no other precisely because of his status as a semi-outsider/semi-insider. In addition to “How to be an Alien”, “How to be a Brit” included two other of George Mikes’ works, “How to be Inimitable” and “How to be Decadent.” It seems that the sky is the limit when it comes to the menu of options available to foreign legal academics.

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