Liberal Internationalism and the Populist Backlash

By Lael Weinberger

History and Law

Eric Posner (University of Chicago Law School) has posted a timely and thought-provoking paper on SSRN, “Liberal Internationalism and the Populist Backlash.” The abstract is as follows:

A populist backlash around the world has targeted international law and legal institutions. Populists see international law as a device used by global elites to dominate policymaking and benefit themselves at the expense of the common people. This turn of events exposes the hollowness at the core of mainstream international law scholarship, for which the expansion of international law and the erosion of sovereignty have always been a forgone conclusion. But international law is dependent on public trust in technocratic rule-by-elites, which has been called into question by a series of international crises.

And from the paper:

It is too soon to tell whether this populist reaction will demolish the current international order, erode it, or flame out without causing any damage to international institutions. It is also possible that institutions will be strengthened and improved as a result of this trial by fire. The purpose of this paper is not to make predictions but to investigate causes, focusing on the failures of international law. I argue that the international law community has seriously misunderstood the evolution of international law, with the result that it is unprepared to comment on the populist backlash. Specifically, I argue that a common view held by these elites—that further international legal integration of the world is inevitable and beneficial, and that it enjoys the support of most ordinary people—has been refuted by events. Moreover, the populist reaction to international law may be traced to two essential features of international law—that it is technocratic and has been advanced by the establishment. Even if international law recovers, these features will remain a source of vulnerability.

Well worth reading for anyone interested in human rights issues.