Law without Nations?: Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States

Princeton University Press
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What authority does international law really have for the United States? When and to what extent should the United States participate in the international legal system? This forcefully argued book by legal scholar Jeremy Rabkin provides an insightful new look at this important and much-debated question.

Americans have long asked whether the United States should join forces with institutions such as the International Criminal Court and sign on to agreements like the Kyoto Protocol. Rabkin argues that the value of international agreements in such circumstances must be weighed against the threat they pose to liberties protected by strong national authority and institutions. He maintains that the protection of these liberties could be fatally weakened if we go too far in ceding authority to international institutions that might not be zealous in protecting the rights Americans deem important. Similarly, any cessation of authority might leave Americans far less attached to the resulting hybrid legal system than they now are to laws they can regard as their own.

Law without Nations? traces the traditional American wariness of international law to the basic principles of American thought and the broader traditions of liberal political thought on which the American Founders drew: only a sovereign state can make and enforce law in a reliable way, so only a sovereign state can reliably protect the rights of its citizens. It then contrasts the American experience with that of the European Union, showing the difficulties that can arise from efforts to merge national legal systems with supranational schemes. In practice, international human rights law generates a cloud of rhetoric that does little to secure human rights, and in fact, is at odds with American principles, Rabkin concludes.

A challenging and important contribution to the current debates about the meaning of multilateralism and international law, Law without Nations? will appeal to a broad cross-section of scholars in both the legal and political science arenas.

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About the author

Jeremy A. Rabkin is Professor of Government at Cornell University, where he teaches courses on international law and American constitutional history.
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Additional Information

Princeton University Press
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Published on
Feb 9, 2009
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Best For
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Law / International
Political Science / History & Theory
Political Science / International Relations / General
Political Science / World / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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This clearly written and engrossing book presents a global narrative of the origins of the modern world from 1400 to the present. Unlike most studies, which assume that the “rise of the West” is the story of the coming of the modern world, this history, drawing upon new scholarship on Asia, Africa, and the New World and upon the maturing field of environmental history, constructs a story in which those parts of the world play major roles, including their impacts on the environment. Robert B. Marks defines the modern world as one marked by industry, the nation state, interstate warfare, a large and growing gap between the wealthiest and poorest parts of the world, increasing inequality within the wealthiest industrialized countries, and an escape from the environmental constraints of the “biological old regime.” He explains its origins by emphasizing contingencies (such as the conquest of the New World); the broad comparability of the most advanced regions in China, India, and Europe; the reasons why England was able to escape from common ecological constraints facing all of those regions by the eighteenth century; a conjuncture of human and natural forces that solidified a gap between the industrialized and non-industrialized parts of the world; and the mounting environmental crisis that defines the modern world.

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Plato argued that to philosophize is to learn to die. If that’s true, says Scranton, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age--for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The trouble now is that we must learn to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.

Roy Scranton has published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Boston Review, and Theory and Event, and has been interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air, among other media.

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