Justice in the International System

“Justice,” Rawls claims in A Theory of Justice,” is the first virtue of social institutions…” The principles of justice of which Rawls speaks, however, except for a brief excursion, “apply only within the borders of a nation-state.” Our purpose is to see whether justice is also the first virtue of the international system, the social institutions of the community of nations. More specifically, is justice the definitive virtue by which to judge international law? This article seeks to answer those questions by examining the concept of justice as developed by various theorists, culminating in the contemporary Rawlsian theory of justice. It then examines whether the international application of the Rawlsian concept of justice can serve as a useful guide to those participating in the building of an international system with the help of laws and law-making institutions. To this end, we test the Rawlsian concept of justice in three existential situations where popular claims of justice appear to be in conflict, to see whether the Rawlsian concept is capable of providing a definitive answer to the problem of indeterminacy. Finally, this article explores the relationship between justice and a related concept, legitimacy, in the international system.