Questioning the Unquestioned


I love my International Law Workshop Seminar with Professors Alford and Goodman. I know it is passé to claim to love anything, but this is a class that is engaging and intense. Every week, we review a leading international law scholar’s draft work in progress, and we critique and debate it with the scholar herself or himself. The students in the class are a mix of lawyers, diplomats, activists, and neophytes with a range of political and geographical views. Some scholars have sometimes come out dazed from all the questioning after the class (their words, not mine).

A common theme that keeps arising from the class is a critique of scholars’ foundational framework of “liberal democracy”. One scholar even got so riled during class that he called us cynical defenders of non-democracies. In our comments to scholars, we are not questioning liberal democracy, we are questioning scholars’ unabashed assumptions. However, the only reason we don’t question liberal democracy per se in class is because the papers are not about defending liberal democracy. The papers are about a wide-range of topics such as terrorism, violence against women, trade, international institutions and biotechnology. The majority of scholars lazily start with a liberal democratic assumption without definition. If they are going to try and sell liberal democracy through their ideas, they have to be clearer on what they are selling. It is very US-centric to assume people know what they are talking about without even a reference in a footnote (and I am not asking for much more) to what they mean. Even within the US, “liberal democracy” is a nuanced idea with various forms; all I ask is for scholars to make reference to some works which best represent their vision of a “liberal democracy”.

Here’s what a non-US person may hear when these scholars use liberal democracy without definition: “I am a US scholar selling a Western vision of liberal democracy. I am not going to tell you what that is because I will assume you know. I will leave little room for local nuances and ideas. Now, I am going to tell you what the whole world should look like.”

The underlying tone of these papers, which I assume is unintentional, sounds like the paternalistic approach to international law that, in the past, justified mandates and colonies. I am not challenging the merit of the scholars’ arguments. I am challenging the scholars to remove the old Trans-Atlantic blinders that remain. International law scholars must realize that in order to remain relevant, their audience is no longer limited to the traditional academic corridors and thinkers from a common philosophical heritage.

Dear scholar, here is my simple request: you do not have to defend liberal democracy every time you use it as an assumption or starting point; just make note of what you mean or whose ideas you are referencing. Do not fall into the trap of vague unwritten references to “Western liberal democracy”.

What can be done to remedy this academic narrowness? Traditionally, US legal academic institutions have been keen to train foreign lawyers and academics and send them back to their homes. What they should be doing, as is sometimes done in the scientific disciplines, is importing more foreign scholars on a permanent basis into the US. Importing more foreign scholars does not necessarily mean poaching people out of local institutions. Law schools should, instead of getting the leading US-UK legal scholar on women’s rights in Southeast Asia, permanently hire a leading scholar from Southeast Asia. Or if a school is even bolder it should hire a scholar from Southeast Asia who has expertise in US Constitutional law. Imagine the fresh perspective that this would bring. Intelligence and wisdom are not specific to a region, so a US/UK scholar’s insight on Southeast Asia is not less credible than a scholar from that region. However, the non-US scholars will bring a particularly unique experience and perspective to the academy. Recent hires at HLS like Prof. Blum from Israel are a step in the right direction.

If international relations is the cousin of international law, it is notable that a recent survey of scholarship and courses in Foreign Policy found that “(t)he subject may be international relations, but the readings are overwhelmingly American.” (

Michael Fakhri, an LL.M. candidate, calls Toronto and Beirut home.

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