Eric A. Posner


On his book The Perils of Global Legalism

Cover Interview of November 01, 2009

In a nutshell

The book criticizes an attitude I call “global legalism,” the faith or hope that international law can solve the word’s problems even though the world is a largely anarchical place, one with weak institutions and an incredibly diverse array of peoples.

This view is hardly new, and criticisms of it are not new, either.  But in the last twenty years, global legalism has taken hold with renewed force, thanks in part to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the acceleration of international cooperation that followed that collapse, and the profound but brief sense that all the nations were converging to liberal democracy.

The book is not entirely negative about international law.  It argues that international structures that assume good will and global consensus are bound to fail, and that nations should concentrate on less ambitious forms of international law that take seriously the national interests of states and the limited forms of cooperation that are possible.

So the book is about both the promise of international law and the limits of international law.  For those who have adopted the book’s perspective, the supposedly “lawless” behavior of the United States under George Bush would not have been a surprise, nor would Barack Obama’s decision to continue with many of Bush’s policies rather than to make a clean break with them.  The United States will act in its interest, and when international law blocks the way, it will violate the law unless the negative consequences are greater than the benefits.  This is the way all nations view international law; it is just that American actions are more noticeable because of that country’s power and importance.