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Northwestern author illustrates complex politics of the international rule of law

A statue of a woman holding the scales of justice

EVANSTON - Curious about the idea that international law is good medicine for bad policies, Ian Hurd examines how and why governments use and manipulate international law in foreign policy. 

In “How to Do Things With International Law” (Princeton University Press), Hurd, associate professor of political science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, draws on a series of timely case studies involving recent legal arguments over war, torture and drones to demonstrate that international law not only domesticates state power, but also serves as a permissive and even empowering source of legitimation for state action -- including violence and torture.

“The book does not aim to answer questions about why states comply with or flout the law. Instead, it asks what they do with the law -- and why, and with what effects,” Hurd said.

“For instance, the U.S. gave legal arguments for why Russia’s annexation of Crimea was unlawful and therefore should not be accepted by other countries. In response, Russia gave legal arguments to sustain its behavior. Legal experts may well conclude that one side had the stronger legal argument; disagreements about interpretation and application are central to legal practices. But my curiosity comes from seeing both sides use legal arguments as political resources in defense of their preferred outcome." 

“How to Do Things With International Law” was reviewed in Harper’s Magazine in February in an article titled “War No More,” and is featured in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

Listen to an interview with the author about his book on WBEZ’s “Worldview.”  

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