The following is a reaction to a piece I read recently titled “Reading Dissidence/Writing the Discipline: Crisis and the Question of Sovereignty in International Studies,” written by Richard K. Ashley and R.B.J. Walker and published at International Studies Quarterly, 34 (1990) 367-416, in which I discuss the relationship between international law, uncertainty and sovereignty. All parenthetical citations are to that article.
International lawyers are stuck. They are bound between their own aspirations for the future of the international legal project and the historical structure of international legal argument, which hinders an imaginative discourse by placing a premium on order and simplicity. Sovereignty, which occupies a position central to international legal argument, represents a useful heuristic if the goal is to cordon off international law from other disciplines and create within international law something approaching a scientific system, but by presuming that the “question of sovereignty” has already been answered international lawyers undermine the prospects of international law as a method of global governance. If the aspirations of international lawyers are to be realized, then they must eschew presumptions and embrace the uncertainty of sovereignty. Every “historical figuration of sovereign presence” should be regarded as precisely that, “a question, a problem, a contingent political effect whose production, variations, and possible undoing merit the most rigorous analysis.” (See page 368). Nothing should be presumed. Going further, it is only through recognition that uncertainty itself merits its own position in international legal argument, its own sovereignty, that international law can “traverse institutional limitations, expose questions and difficulties and explore political possibilities hitherto forgotten or deferred.” (See page 376).
Ashley and Walker address these and other proscriptions in their searching article Reading Dissidence/Writing the Discipline: Crisis and the Question of Sovereignty in International Studies. Central to their methodology is the notion of “dissident thought,” which “issu[es] from the margins” and “accentuate[s] and make[s] more evident a sense of crisis” in the discipline of international studies. (See page 375). Dissident thought creates this crisis by questioning the discipline’s underlying assumptions, i.e. sovereignty. That a crisis exists in international law, and that sovereignty is the source of such crisis, is a position shared by many international lawyers. To unbind themselves and in so doing emancipate the discipline, Ashley and Walker’s advice to international lawyers is clear: Question everything. It is only through a realization that the discipline has always been “paradoxically open to a proliferation of mutually destabilizing readings” and that the textual history of international law has “never been a territory of unequivocal and continuous meaning” that international lawyers may attain the perspective necessary to imagine alternative futures for themselves and for the discipline. (See page 387).
International lawyers bemoan the limits of international law, but they have no one but themselves to blame. By accepting as presumptively valid the historical “sovereign narrative” of international law they internalize a structure that is itself a limitation on their freedom of action. As a discipline international law has never been settled. Its subjects, objects, aspirations and aims have been in constant flux, and this is not likely to change. Dissident thought challenging inherited structures should be welcomed and, if constructive, embraced. As Ashley and Walker conclude in their article, we must put aside self-limitation and “get on with the difficult and discipline labors of thought in the struggle for freedom.” (See page 414).