Historical American Perspectives on International Law

UGA Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-005; ILSA Journal of International & Comparative Law (forthcoming)


The United States’ relationship with international law, although oft-discussed, is poorly understood. Depictions of the relationship are often little more than caricatures. Depending on when the caricature is drawn, the United States may be a longstanding “champion” of international law, an “exceptionalist” defender of American values, or a hypocritical opponent of international governance. Many traditional histories do little to complicate these views. Focused primarily on foreign affairs law and constitutional war powers, these histories highlight moments of tension between the United States and international law. Missing from these histories of American diplomacy and warcraft, foreign affairs caselaw and doctrinal development is the rich cultural and intellectual history of American engagement with international law and justice.

This short essay, an expanded version of a panel introduction at International Law Weekend 2008, highlights the work of a number of scholars who are beginning to fill this gap. It argues that a new focus on the cultural and intellectual history of American approaches to international law can, among other things, (1) enrich our historical picture of American relations to international law, (2) complicate the common stereotypes of that relationship that dominate current debates, and (3) facilitate study of various theories of international law, particularly constructivist ones.