How International is ‘International’ Law?

The international legal community posits universality as a central characteristic of modern international law. But there has been little work to assess the degree to which international legal norms are widely shared and incorporated into the foreign policy-making of states. Previous work in this area has attempted to describe the distribution of legal values across cultures. This work has proven contradictory and inconclusive. The epistemic communities literature suggests looking at the distribution of practitioners as an alternative approach for assessing the diffusion of norms and practices. In fact, the community of litigators who practice before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) comes from a very small set of Western states. While Western states utilize their own staff lawyers when appearing before the ICJ, non-Western states hire Western lawyers. International lawyers often identify the ICJ as the premier institution of public international law. The failure of non-Western states to produce their own lawyers for use at the ICJ raises significant questions about their resources and motivation to incorporate international law into their foreign policy-making. By these measures, international law is not as ‘international’ as its name implies.