As a self-professed liberal internationalist, Paul B. Stephan ’77 once had high hopes for a permanent world peace based on global prosperity, but prospects for that possibility now look dim, the University of Virginia School of Law professor argues in a new book.
Stephan, a former adviser to multiple presidents and foreign governments, offers insights about the history and shaky future of the international order in “The World Crisis and International Law: The Knowledge Economy and the Battle for the Future,” published by Cambridge University Press in February.
As Stephan surveys the global scene, he sees much to despair of. A bellicose Russian leader supported by the Global South’s Western skeptics. Nuclear proliferation despite treaties. A looming climate catastrophe and the ever-present threat of pandemics. Cyberspace run amok. Anti-immigrant nationalism. Authoritarian states better armed with weaponry and surveillance tools. And a retreat from human rights.
“If current trends continue, we have a lot to worry about,” Stephan said in an interview before the book was released. “Despair is not my mindset. I’m a pretty happy person, but I think people have to be realistic about the challenges that confront us. Whether one agrees with my thoughts about particular strategies we might employ is less important than recognizing the problem.”
The problem, as he sees it, is not that calamitous world events are causing the international legal structure to fracture. Rather, he sees the structure itself — and the knowledge economy it helped create — as having caused the calamities.
Globalization, international law and the knowledge economy have “done wonders, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of dire poverty, giving us the vaccines, medicines, and remote connectivity that allow us to go on with our lives during a terrible pandemic, and creating many shiny new toys that we treasure,” Stephan wrote in a blog post on his publisher’s website. “But it also spawns shocking inequality and devours social trust” as it concentrates opportunity, wealth and perceived political clout within better-educated urban areas.
Stephan submitted the manuscript to his publisher before Russia invaded Ukraine last year. Nonetheless, he saw that conflict looming, along with the threat of China retaking Taiwan by force and Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
“Those are illustrations of the conventional old-school risk of war and the terrors that provides, but I also look at the way societies around the world are finding it harder and harder to find common ground, to have consensual governance,” he said.
The international law and global finance movement reached its zenith in the 1990s, he said, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.
But Stephan pulls a consistent thread — albeit not a straight seam — tying together Russian state corruption, open economies that were not ready to compete without protective tariffs, free trade agreements and open borders, economic hinterlands and rising nationalist sentiment, NATO’s Kosovo campaign, 9/11 and the global war on terror, a neutered United Nations and an impotent International Court of Justice.
Stephan, a preeminent international law scholar with particular expertise in Soviet and post-Soviet legal systems, has been thinking about these connections for years. They also figured into his recent work as coordinating reporter for the American Law Institute’s “Restatement (Fourth) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States” and its follow-on book, “The Restatement and Beyond: The Past, Present, and Future of U.S. Foreign Relations Law,” edited with Sarah H. Cleveland.
But the COVID-19 pause gave him the time and mental space to sort through it all.
“The goal of this book is to have a few insights that I think are distinctive, but more generally to bring together the growing literature on the breakdown of international relations and liberal democracy around the world, on the one hand, and the literature on social and economic inequality in the world on the other, and sew them into a coherent tapestry,” Stephan said. “Rather than them being different stories, seeing them as one story explains a lot.”
He also explores the idea of states as “norm entrepreneurs,” offering historical examples of superpowers using their clout and creativity to encourage rather than require the uptake of global solutions to existential problems.
One case in point is the 1977 U.S. anti-bribery legislation that applies to any firm with access to U.S. capital markets. At the time, no other country had such a rule and many states treated bribes as tax-deductible business expenses. By 1997, most of the world's rich countries embraced the norm, some by treaty.
“We can build on these examples, whether constraining state aggression in cyberspace or working within the Paris Agreement, to build trust and cooperation in the struggle to contain climate change,” Stephan said.
As he concluded in his blog post, “We should be worried by the dark place in which we find ourselves, but not paralyzed by fear.”
Stephan is the John C. Jeffries, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Law and David H. Ibbeken ’71 Research Professor of Law at UVA and a senior fellow at the Miller Center. He has authored or co-authored 28 books or textbooks and contributed 40 chapters to other publications. He has 131 articles to his name and has four new works in progress, including a book about the contributions of Soviet law to the development of international investment law and an article about the path forward for international humanitarian law.
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