In a quirk of parallel evolution, the annual United Kingdom Materials on International Law (“UKMIL”) is organized according to Marx’s methodology, “rising from the abstract to the concrete.” For twenty years, however, for all the reams of material the government put out, nothing of substance could be found to fill the first section, the broadest philosophical category on the “nature, basis, [and] purpose” of “international law in general.” Then, in 2003, the UKMIL found its jurisprudential voice.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw waxed descriptive and transformative, in a burst of middlebrow messianism:
Events since September 11 . . . raise very large questions about the underlying assumptions of international relations . . . since the Peace of Westphalia . . . that the best guarantor of peace and security was to respect the territorial integrity of sovereign states . . . [W]e have to begin a discussion about how those principles are revisited in the modern environment because of threats posed other than by normally functioning sovereign states, posed by rogue states, posed by international terrorism, posed by others who are acting in an extremely oppressive way.
Almost simultaneously with Straw’s statement, sixteen scholars of international law signed a letter in The Guardian expressing grave reservations about the soon-to-be-launched Iraq War. This then led to the writing of “We Are Teachers of International Law,” an extraordinary piece of critical self-examination by four of the original scholars.
In its ten and a half pages, the authors ask sixty-five questions, none of which they answer; indeed, they conclude by asking whether the most important questions are those that should go unanswered. In its critical precision, and in its very angst, this article is perhaps the key document for the understanding of contemporary British thinking in international law, particularly when considered in conjunction with the government’s enthusiastic if lumpen analysis, as represented by Straw’s speech.
In the United Kingdom, public interest in international law has soared. Paradigmatic of this moment is the tension between the passionate evocation of a “new” international law by perpetrators of a war widely denounced as illegal and the deep anxieties about the law expressed by scholars of the field. In what follows, I attempt to map the recent moves of British international law, into a putatively new paradigm and back out again, and to the center of political debate. Illustrating how we got where we are might suggest which of the current approaches to the field are the most fruitful and, hopefully, where we might go next.