Is there a distinctively Latin American way of understanding global public order? How have Latin American international lawyers reflected upon alternative global designs and their implications for the region? When posed in relation to contemporary Latin America, these questions become unexpectedly tricky, since the discipline of international law does not offer to international lawyers situated at the periphery adequate analytic tools for understanding the meaning and uses of international law in their own context. Examining peripheral, regional, or national legal traditions, however, not only illuminates similarities and differences between alternative conceptualizations of the international world, but also helps to recognize structural constraints and unequal power relationships operating within the discipline of international law that might hamper efforts to imagine alternative visions of global order through the language of international law.
This Article probes the ways in which Latin American international lawyers have used international law in light of their own particular context and within a constrained set of available legal, doctrinal, and historical materials. At the same time, as part of a counterbalancing and decentering critique of international law, the aim of this Article is to reinterpret these uses and practices as constituting a distinctively regional approach or tradition of international legal thinking.
However, using international law to examine current thinking in Latin America about global public order elicits additional difficulties, for it appears to be a methodological choice headed in the wrong direction. Latin American international lawyers generally have disengaged themselves from discussions about various forms of governance, deferring to other experts, fields of knowledge, or international politics the articulation of a definition of international order and its relationship to Latin America. This approach sharply contrasts with other periods of the discipline’s trajectory in the region. As a heuristic entry point into the study of contemporary uses and practices of international law in Latin America, I examine a past, somehow forgotten disciplinary battle lasting from the 1880s to 1950s, during which legal professionals fought to affirm or negate the existence of a distinct Latin American international law. I also explore how this disciplinary dispute has been represented and treated in current Latin American legal scholarship. I argue that current depictions of this debate, which overemphasize its resolution and the cessation of professional divisions, erect a historical blind spot as to what happened to the discipline between the 1950s and 1970s. The strategic oblivion to this period in which the discipline experienced politicization and fragmentation is intrinsically connected to the nature of dominant contemporary practices.
This Article proposes the following periodization of international law’s trajectory in Latin America: first, international law as an instrument in the process of nation building (1810s–1880s); second, international law as part of the discursive creation of Latin America as well as a language for contesting its definition (1880s–1950s); third, a period of professional radicalization and fragmentation (1950s–1970s); and fourth, a period of professional depoliticization and irrelevance of international law as a discourse for thinking the region (1970s–2000s). I show that international law played an important role from the 1880s to the 1950s in laying down one of the languages through which Latin Americans have discussed and contested their identity, politics, and place in the international world. On the one hand, the periods in which the international legal tradition has been harnessed to support, as well as to contest, divergent ideals about Latin America correspond to the moments of disciplinary relevance and disputation. On the other hand, the appeasement and translation of disciplinary contentions into doctrinal and institutional settlements signaled the shift in significance from international law toward other discourses, making the international legal tradition less appealing for imaging Latin America.