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A Quantum of Solace: Guzman on the Classical Mechanics of International Law - Book Review: Andrew Guzman, How International Law Works. A Rational Choice Theory (2008)

Matthias Goldmann



Compared to the discipline of international law, scholars of physics are blessed. While the principles of classical mechanics were theorized several centuries ago, quantum theory and the theory of relativity offer supplementary ways for describing how material objects and energy interact where classical mechanics does not provide an explanation. Thus, even in the absence of an all-comprising “world theory”, physicists have a wide array of workable theories at their service. By contrast, the “classical mechanics” of international law, i.e. the explanation of the most basic causal relationships between international legal norms and the behaviour of states as the main subjects of international law, are still subject to deep theoretical controversies. International legal doctrine presupposes that international law does have an impact and does not aim at questioning or further explaining this assumption. Traditional legal theories that see the essence of legal normativity in the possibility to trigger mechanisms of physical constraint often come to the conclusion that international law, in the absence of central enforcement mechanisms, is at best a primitive form of law. More recent enquiries into international legal theory from very different theoretical angles come to even less uplifting conclusions. Some argue that international legal norms are either entirely devoid of content because of their inherent indeterminacy and therefore prone to be captured by special interests. Others consider international law to be merely epiphenomenal because rational states would only consent to legal norms if, and as long as, they describe a behaviour they would choose anyway because it promises higher payoffs. In particular the latter critique put forward so forcefully by Jack Goldsmith and Eric Posner sent considerable shock waves through the invisible college of international lawyers. This is the background that needs to be kept in mind in order to assess the quantum of solace that Andrew Guzman’s new book provides.


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