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The Perils of Global Legalism

The first months of the Obama administration have led to expectations, both in the United States and abroad, that in the coming years America will increasingly promote the international rule of law—a position that many believe is both ethically necessary and in the nation’s best interests.

With The Perils of Global Legalism, Eric A. Posner explains that such views demonstrate a dangerously naive tendency toward legalism—an idealistic belief that law can be effective even in the absence of legitimate institutions of governance. After tracing the historical roots of the concept, Posner carefully lays out the many illusions—such as universalism, sovereign equality, and the possibility of disinterested judgment by politically unaccountable officials—on which the legalistic view is founded. Drawing on such examples as NATO’s invasion of Serbia, attempts to ban the use of land mines, and the free-trade provisions of the WTO, Posner demonstrates throughout that the weaknesses of international law confound legalist ambitions—and that whatever their professed commitments, all nations stand ready to dispense with international agreements when it suits their short- or long-term interests.

Provocative and sure to be controversial, The Perils of Global Legalism will serve as a wake-up call for those who view global legalism as a panacea—and a reminder that international relations in a brutal world allow no room for illusions.

Read an excerpt.

296 pages | 2 line drawings, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Law and Legal Studies: International Law

Political Science: Comparative Politics


“This trenchant and rigorous book provides a much-needed antidote to the sanctimony and sermonizing that permeates international law. It lays bare international law’s circularity and demonstrates that much of the edifice is built on illusion. The ‘establishment’ will be forced into contortions to answer its arguments. It’s a bracing, refreshing, and altogether scintillating read.”

Michael J. Glennon, author of Limits of Law, Prerogatives of Power

"This carefully argued book provides a useful corrective to the frequent assumption, held by many American legal academics and European elites, that the world’s problems can be substantially reduced simply by creating more international law and institutions. As the book persuasively explains, only through rigorous thinking about the limits of what law and courts can accomplish in a heterogeneous and fragmented global system can we achieve more effective international cooperation. Rich in theoretical and interdisciplinary insights, the book also illustrates its claims with numerous real-world examples, both contemporary and historic, making it accessible to a wide audience."—Curtis Bradley, Duke Law School

Curtis Bradley, Duke Law School

"[Posner’s output on international law] has ranged from arguments about the moral status of international law to the normative value of democratic politics. The contribution of Global Legalism continues this eclecticism. With it, Posner has provided an intellectual history of a concept, ’legalism,’ as well as what could be considered the sociology of a profession."

Matthew Turk | Journal of International Law and Politics

"A spirited attack on ’excessive faith in the efficiency of international law.’"

Foreign Affairs

Table of Contents





Part I. Global Legalism

One. The Utopian Impulse in International Relations

Two. The Flaws of Global Legalism

Three. Defending Global Legalism

Four. Globalization, Fragmentation, and the Law

Five. Global Legalism and Domestic Law

Part II. Adjudication in Anarchy

Six. International Adjudication: Its Promise and Problems

Seven. The Fragmentation of International Justice

Eight. Human Rights and International Criminal Law

Nine. International Law in Domestic Courts

Conclusion. America versus Europe



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