International Law, International Relations, and Global Governance

  • Published

International Law, International Relations, and Global Governance by Charlotte Ku. Routledge, 2012, 228 pp.

The title of Charlotte Ku’s latest book leaves little to the imagination. The professor of law and assistant dean for graduate and international legal studies at the University of Illinois College of Law provides a relatively thorough, if not overly pedantic, breakout of how international relations and international law are conducted in today’s global environment and how they shape global governance. She urges the development of a broader understanding of the needs of governance in a global environment.

Ku postulates that the current world order has entered a post-Westphalian stage where the dominant governing body is no longer the sovereign state. Instead, we have entered a stage where international organizations (IO), nongovernment organizations (NGO), and even individuals play roles along with the state in what she describes as global governance. Ku examines global governance from a normative theoretical lens. She sees things as how they ought to be in contrast to the realist who may view the same thing from a factual perspective, leading her entire book to take a generally positive view of how states, IOs, NGOs, and individuals interact to form global governance.

Her introduction sets the stage for the rest of the book by describing the current impetus for this new global governance. Ku suggests the application of technology and the expansion of cross-border interaction have effectively changed how states relate to one another. This change has had the added effect of creating an increased interdependence among countries and a deep intersection that has made it much harder for one entity to rule. Additionally, she believes states face an erosion of their authority combined with a growing sentiment of distrust among their own citizens. This has led to a loss of their competitive advantage over other possible forms of governance.

To support her thesis, Ku meticulously examines how state and international players have developed over the years and considers how international law and international relations contribute to understanding these developments. Her book is full of examples of how IOs, NGOs, and individuals may interact with the state and shape state behavior. Without a doubt, she provides significant evidence to show that states function much differently than they did even 100 years ago. Some examples include how states need to legitimize the application of force by receiving the endorsement of an IO, how they turn to NGOs as sources of information and guidance related to a variety of different subjects, how they may be faced by legal challenges from their own citizens, or how they may incorporate international legal decisions into domestic law.

Despite these many examples, Ku’s argument of a developing global governance is somewhat undermined by the fact that she never fully defines governance or what governance entails. Instead, her book focuses mostly on substantiating that states function differently in relation to other global bodies, but it is not necessarily clear what that means in relation to global governance. While various international parties may have greater interaction with the state, this interaction involves concepts that are more related to how these organizations and legal manifestations induce behavior rather than how they are codified in some type of global governance. She highlights three elements of governance that include power, authority, and legitimacy, focusing mostly on legitimacy. Although Ku provides a number of examples showing that states interact with or adjust behavior in response to a variety of different global actors, this does not necessarily constitute the manifestation of a new global governance. In some respects, much of what Ku outlines can be described more as effective global activism as opposed to global governance. Without a definition of governance, readers are left to question whether the supremacy of the sovereign state is actually being supplanted.

The biggest problem, however, with Ku’s argument relates to her normative lens, which generally sees her conception of global governance developing as things ought to be. Ku rejects the idea that IOs are the agents of their member states and value-free and promotes the idea that they are actually founded on certain assumptions that reflect liberal values. Although they may be independent of any state, she contends that IOs typically bear the heavy imprint, and thus the value systems, of those countries that founded them, to include the United States and the countries of Western Europe and South and Central America, among others. Much of her argument is based in Western democratic ideals and concepts, which ignores that a great number of the players involved in the politics and direction of IOs include states that lack dedication to liberal values. This becomes incredibly important when considering the role that both China and Russia play in the international arena. Both countries cling to the Westphalian concept of noninterference, and their influence over global politics is arguably becoming stronger relative to a weakening West. Any argument postulating the development of a global governance liberally based in IOs, NGOs, and individuals needs to address how these two countries will function, shape, or be shaped by global governance and fall into any such global governance.

Ultimately, Ku’s book was written for a specific audience interested in expanding its knowledge of the interaction between international law and international relations as it relates to the complexities of global governance. The average reader is likely to find the book overly academic and beyond the requirements necessary to provide a basic understanding of international law, international relations, and, in turn, global governance. As for the average Air Force reader, the book may provide some insights into the nature of global politics that would affect the application of airpower, whether in pursuit of objectives specifically central to US national security or as part of an internationally endorsed humanitarian operation. But the academic nature of the book may go beyond what the average reader seeks. Although insightful, Ku’s book is probably best left for students of international law and international relations.

1st Lt Joshua D. Bower, USAF

Travis AFB, California 


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."