Book Review – Decolonising International Law

By Oskari Mantere.

Reviewed work: Sundhya, P. (2011) Decolonising International Law: Development, Economic Growth and the Politics of Universality. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press

Besides being an actual series of events when formal empires were dissolved, decolonisation today also signifies an aspiration and political program to dismantle and deconstruct old imperial forms of power. Pahuja Sundhya’s Decolonising International Law: Development, Economic Growth and the Politics of Universality is a call to do just that.

British Empire Map in 1886

In addition to the introduction and conclusion, the book has four substantial chapters. The second chapter provides the theoretical and philosophical argument that the rest of the book relies on. Pahuja argues that international law has a dual nature – namely, it is simultaneously imperial and counter-imperial. This paradoxical nature is made possible by the “critical instability” created by two qualities of international law – post-colonial and political. These qualities are not foundational blocks of international law nor do they remain constant through time. Instead, they are analytical tools that help us to understand what enables this “critical instability.” The post-colonial quality of international law refers to a loose set of ideas which regard many of our political concepts as being based on imperial forms of knowledge in disguise. The political quality of international law refers to the “gap” between what the actual positive international law is and the aspirational political and moral horizon which justifies its existence. Chapter three to five focus on three instances – Decolonisation, Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources (PSNR), and the call for the international rule of law at the end of the Cold War – wherein the Third World attempted to use international law to promote their own goals.

Since the end of the Second World War, Pahuja argues that a new “rationality” of control has been inaugurated. The three instances that are studied in Decolonising International Law provide a window to peek into the workings of this rationality. The story goes somewhat similarly in each case. First, Third World countries attempt to weaponise international law. This is followed by the West attempting to cast itself as “universal” – in which it has mostly succeeded. This parochial universalism is by no means a new phenomenon; the West has a long history of casting its particular institutions and belief-systems as universal. What changed after the Second World War is that the separation of the political and the economic spheres was solidified into the structure of international law as separate organs with the United Nations as the forum for politics and the Breton Woods Institutions as the forum for economics. This separation is shown to have stagnating or transformative power over the “critical instability” within international law. In a post-imperial world, development and its twin concept economic growth provide a transcendentalised horizon for politics. Effectively, this means that one can only form political claims within this horizon; transgression is not acceptable.

Decolonising International Law is a study of international institutions and ideas in history, but it is not history in a traditional sense. Usage of primary sources is scarce, and when there is a primary source in use, it is often used as an unattached artefact. In a related criticism, much of the first half of the book over relies on theory and jargon. In particular, the chapter on decolonisation and parts of the chapter on PSNR are historically insensitive. Furthermore, these parts of the book are proliferated with virtually interchangeable terms such as “ruling rationality”, “theology”, and “the techno-metaphysical idea of world economy.”

However, none of this renders Pahuja’s argument as wrong or misguided. Not every study should be a meticulous examination of historical incentives of diplomats or main actors. Broad usage of secondary sources might also be a sign of intellectual honesty; not one of us has come to our ideas simply by ourselves. Nor does every prose or “language” need to be easily understandable or penetrable, especially when the questions we have are on this level of complexity. When one reads Decolonising International Law, it certainly helps to be familiar with post-structural and post-colonial jargon. However, Pahuja explains the meaning of most concepts she uses, thus easing the burden on the reader in addition to making the book more readable.

There are two areas where the book ascends to brilliance. The first area is the structural analysis of the philosophy behind “rationality”. What the study loses from abandoning historical methods it gains from its ability to analyse how ideas work in this intellectual system. For example, when the (proto) Third World countries framed themselves as “backward”, it was clearly a contradiction to the noble self-image positioned by the nationalist projects of the time. To mediate this contradiction, “backwardness” had to be limited to the economic sphere. While giving emancipatory power and helping new states to navigate in the world, it also caused certain socio-political systems to be universalised.

The second area where Pahuja clearly excels is in her philosophical criticism. Especially in chapter five, where she discusses the relationship between law and development, her wit and analysis are supreme. For example, when discussing Francis Fukuyama and “The End of History,” the analysis is piercing. In the 1990s, Fukuyama claimed (and still claims) that history had ended with the end of the Cold War. The real reason why this “thesis” had and has any circulation is that it managed to tap into the hubris of the 1990s and the optimism that momentarily accompanied the world with a single superpower. “The End of History” is, in fact, a bag of incoherent, contradictory, and bad ideas. As Pahuja points out, it parrots the parochial universal claim for unitary history in which the West has reached the evolutionary highpoint that every other society must strive for. Fukuyama’s argument is thus twofold and goes generally like this: the history ended in the Cold War (pseudo-factual claim) and that this endpoint of history is Western-style institutions (normative claim). This dual claim makes it so that the end of history is something factual, and, simultaneously, it is a normative aspiration that has not (and cannot be) realised. To buy Fukuyama’s conclusion, one must already accept many premises and strange philosophical assertations. And after all that, one needs to accept the conclusion.

Reading Decolonising International Law is highly advisable to everyone working with international law. It highlights many of the inner workings of the philosophical systems accompanying international organisations and international law. Like every book, it is not perfect, and there is no reason to read it from cover to cover. I recommend reading the introduction, chapter two and one of the three substantial chapters. The fifth one is clearest and strongest on its own, but every chapter has its merits and perks.

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