Faculty of Law

Keep an eye on what it is that you want in this world/ Interview with Professor Martti Koskenniemi

In late 2016, the legendary international lawyer and legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi held a series of lectures and seminars at the Faculty of Law of HSE. Press-Centre of the Faculty of Law was fortunate to join Prof. Koskenniemi's talks and discuss before the New Year his diplomatic and academic career.

How did your career in international organization shaped you as an academic?

Everything I know as an academic is based on my practical experience. I want to clarify –  my career was not in the sphere of international organizations but in the Foreign Ministry of Finland through which I was representing Finland in international organizations and institutions.  So, I think that international law is, to a great extent, a craft. It's more about competent use of vocabulary, and, as with any other craft, you learn by doing it, by sitting in various institutions, making arguments, defending Finland, making proposals, and drafting conventions. All of that was fundamentally important. And, my first book From Apology to Utopia is an effort to give an articulation to mostly academic audience of international lawyers of what it is to be a practitioner.

The next question is also about your career. What organizations were the most memorable to represent Finland in?

First, it is, of course, the UN Security Council. The other would be the International Court of Justice, where I have pleaded twice. Also, the membership in the International Law Commission was important (though there I did not represent Finland). That is very predictable though.

You've written an article on “Politics of International Law” in the first ever European Journal of International Law and you followed up 20 years later. What would you like to write about in the third installment, somewhat 13 years in the future?

I think, I would no longer continue the same vein of writing as I did then. The 1990 article and 2009 article – they complement each other. They form a whole body of argument together. In 1990, I did not pay enough attention to the structural bias, to the meticulous study of the actual activities of the international institutions, and I did that in 2009. I think I would add little to those two essays. The 1990 article operates just like mathematics while the institutional side was covered in 2009. If I were now to rethink those themes, I would concentrate on the historical side. I have not thought of this yet, but my interest is about history now. So I would try to historicize from when this way of thinking about the world and speaking about the world came from. Who has it favored and who has it disfavored, and it will obviously lead to the colonialism in one way or another.

The influence of critical legal studies seemed to have waned in legal academic discourse. What do you think about the relevance of this method within contemporary International Law?

In my opinion, we are by far the leading academic school of thought in international law today. But to be a leader in the academia doesn't mean much. I am not sure that academic teaching everywhere appreciates the kind of approach we have. For example, with my colleagues I have tried for the past fifteen years to change the legal academy in France. With little success, however. The French scene has not changed. There was a moment, 10 years ago; when it seemed that, the international legal sphere in France could go in another way with the help of young French lawyers. Now those persons are no longer so young and only little change in the formalistic French legal culture is visible. That was a disappointment. Even if nothing comes intellectually even close to the critical approach, it still does not translate to immediate influence on the academia.

Interdisciplinary studies, which you used in your work as well, are the basis of modern legal academia. Which combinations and approaches, in your opinion, have not been used before (in International Law sphere), but have a potential?

I am going to give you a very complicated answer. First, I do not think of myself as of interdisciplinary person at all. Moreover, I have published an article against interdisciplinarity. Not in the sense that people should not know what is going on in other fields. But as I've already said: law is a craft. You learn the law by doing the craftsmanship. It may occasionally help to read some of Wittgenstein or whoever else. But experts in those other fields – international relations, sociology, philosophy, anthropology – they haven't solved lawyers’ problems for lawyers. Legal issues are still up to the lawyers. That's the first part of the response.

The second part is that when I have participated in self-conscious interdisciplinary enterprises I notice the participants immediately become terribly conscious of their disciplinary linkages. It is precisely in the encounter with historians, for example, that we feel ourselves as lawyers. Paradoxically, the interdisciplinary approach strengthens disciplinary self-limitation. One starts making the argument that “I’m just a lawyer, but” or that you are “just a historian, but” et cetera. Interdisciplinary meetings do often lead to misunderstanding. So, my slogan is counterdisciplinarity. I do not think disciplinarity should put any limitations on the way we think.

As I have already said in the class, I think what is important is enlightenment, daring to know the most different things, adopt many perspectives.  That is the third part of my answer. In this business, you just try to use everything from listening to Shostakovich to reading Tolstoy along with the latest case from the International Court of Justice.

Who are the researchers to follow in the field of International Law right now?

That is a hard but important question. It is impossible to read everything that is being published. But it is also pointless. The greatest part is just repetition of what others have already written. But if one wants to learn international law as craftsmanship, then I’m afraid I have just a boring response to give: you should read – and learn to imitate – those who are considered as the most authoritative of the standard writers -  James Crawford, Tom Franck, Alain Pellet – good, standard scholarship in Europe and the United States. But if one wants to read intellectual literature, then immediately 2 names come to mind: Anne Orford and David Kennedy. Then one could add some others to the list, like Hilary Charlesworth, Karen Knop, Antony Anghie, and Luis Eslava – in general the writers often identified as “critical”. You cannot expect me to give another response.

Which theories may be the “next big thing” in the sphere of International Law?

Oh, I think it’s over. To understand my point, I need to elaborate on what is a theory right now. Of course, there will be new academics who will advertise that "I’ve got that new theory", but since the French Revolution there may have been no more than 3 big theories, the same 3 big things, 3 clusters of ideas. And they keep repeating themselves, slightly transforming from one generation to another. In some ways, I’m sure there will be a new theory today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, next week etc., but mostly they will be rehearsing the same ideas about how human society operates. Three biggest questions, related to this idea are, first, "What is the relationship between agency and structure?" – It will be addressed in the future in many ways. Second, "What is the relationship between facts and norms?" – there are, also, a million ways to address it. And the last one is "How to create a just society?" –we already have different approaches to it - economic, theological and others.

What are the 5 most important works to know for every International Law student?

Okay, five books... Important thing for this list would be that these books need to demonstrate how international law as craft works. There are not many such books and, I suppose, I cannot say Max Planck Institute Encyclopedia of Public International Law, because that does not qualify as a book. The first book that I would name will be Alain Pellet's Droit International Public (Public International Law). It shows the general field and provides details in some aspects. Next one is James Crawford’s Brownlie's Principles of Public International Law. I prefer the old Brownlie for reasons I laid out in my review of it in the British Yearbook of International Law, but this book gives you a good introduction to the Anglo-Centric view of the field. Then, one would need something from the German realm... I'd name Hans Kelsen's Das Problem der Souveränität und die Theorie des Völkerrechts (The Problem of Sovereignty and Theory of International Law)from 1922 – it's a shame that it's not translated into English, but it gives a great overview about how a normative structure operates. Fourth one would be Antony Anghie’s Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law.And as the fifth book I name my own From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument. Sorry, but I have to name it.

How did you like the Russian students in your class?

Oh, I was impressed by their questions. And when I was trying to look into the eyes of the students it seemed to me that they were actually following very closely. So, I felt very much at home in the class. I felt that they were sympathetic and listening. What else can one hope for?

What advice could you give to International Law students in HSE?

To learn to think strategically about the choices that life gives you as a professional. By thinking strategically, I mean to keep an eye on what it is that you want in this world and whether what you’re doing actually gets you there.



Interview conducted by:

Press-Centre of Faculty of Law 

Alyona Gerashchenko

Evgeny Puchkov