Friday, February 7, 2014

Karen J. Alter's "The New Terrain of International Law"

Karen J. Alter is Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University, and a permanent visiting professor at the iCourts Center of Excellence at the University of Copenhagen.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The New Terrain of International Law: Courts, Politics, Rights, and reported the following:
The New Terrain of International Law seeks to make sense of the growing role of international courts in international politics today. There are now over 24 operational international courts that have collectively issued over 37,000 binding rulings. How do we begin to understand which ICs matter, why they matter, and when ICs end up affecting domestic and international politics?

Page 99 does not tell the reader anything about the quality of the book, but it does encapsulate the challenge this book embraces.  Page 99 [inset, below left; click to enlarge] is a complex Venn diagram of Africa’s ten regional courts and the states that have committed to their compulsory jurisdiction. The image is bewildering. A number of the listed courts are little more than virtual entities that exist mostly on paper.  Although the Venn shapes are different, this shapes are designed to catch groupings of states committing to the IC’s jurisdiction. The irrelevance of the shape works as a metaphor. The differences in shape really does not tell us much about the IC as it works in practice, just like the formal similarities of ICs also does not tell us much.

To some extent p. 99 is a Rorschach test. Untrained eyes may see p. 99 as an incomprehensible mess. For me, p. 99 helps us visualize what is often hard to see: the overlap of IC membership and the fact that half of African states are yet to consent to the compulsory jurisdiction of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights. Without maps like these, we are left with an alphabet soup of international judicial bodies and no guide to make sense of them. Meanwhile Americans and Europeans may not care at all about African ICs, although I argue that they should care.

The quality of the book lies in its other 364 pages. According to Thomas Risse, The New Terrain of International Law "gives a definitive account of the growing significance of international courts in global affairs." Erik Voeten of Georgetown University says "Anyone even thinking about studying international courts in law, political science or sociology will have to start here-- this book sets the standard for years to come." Joseph Weiler of New York University Law School and the European University Institute says "there is no lawyer who will not become wiser from reading it, while many a political scientist will marvel at their failure to note a seismic change in the international order." And Robert Keohane advises that "If you can read only one book on how international courts affect the politics of international law, this is the one to read."
Learn more about the book and author at Karen J. Alter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue