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God and the global order

07 March 2014

Malcolm Evans looks at a theological study in a neglected area

Theology for International Law
Esther D. Reed
Bloomsbury £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT158 )

WHILE the interplay of theology and law is widely reflected on, international law rarely receives much attention from theologians. This is strange, not only because the origins of international law as we understand it are deeply rooted in the writings of 15th- and 16th-century lawyer-theologians, but also because theologians continue to spend much time reflecting on issues of international justice, in a generic sense, from a theological perspective.

To what extent, however, are such critiques grounded in a clear understanding of the discipline they are addressing? Perhaps more importantly, to what extent are the critiques of contemporary international law offered by inter-national lawyers themselves firmly grounded?

International legal theory is a notoriously opaque subject, whose very existence (or, at least, value) has been contested by some. Many still incline towards "realist" approaches, largely informed by thinking drawn from international relations, which sees international law as little more than a tool of power, either "in the raw" or, in more modified versions, in termsof rational choice. But whichchoices are rational?

Over the past 500 years or so, international law has evolved from being a constraint on the exercise of unbridled power and self-interest into a means of facilitating the pursuit of the self-interest of states. Arguably, more recent trends towards multilateralism have blunted this to a degree, but the overarching principles of state sovereignty continue to put narrow self-interest at the heart of the equation.

Yet it was not always like this. The purpose of this enthrallingbook is to offer an alternative account that offers a means of reconnecting current international legal discourse with its roots, arguing that Thomist natural-law reasoning offers an account that is "better able to cope with the intractable disagreement that characterizes 21st-century global relations with respect to the power and purposes of international law than some realist sceptics allow", and that "a restatement of Thomist natural-law reasoning is potentially more realistic - in that it better relates the good of the one to the many - and hence better able to cope with today's global uncertainties than prominent modes of secularist political realism".

In support of this claim, the author offers a "restatement" of natural-law thinking, blending Barth with Aquinas into a "Protestant Thomist" approach. This is then used as a vehicle for exploring key practical issues facing the contemporary international lawyer, including the questions relating to the normative force of international law (chapter 3); the use of force in international relations (chapter 4); humanitarian intervention and the "responsibility to protect" (chapter 5); the idea of the "state" as an organising construct; and human rights (chapter 7).

In each of these areas, realist perspectives are explored, and their explanatory weaknesses are demonstrated when compared with the insights offered from natural-law approaches, as understood by the author. It is not the purpose of the book to say what international law on any of these issues should be: rather, it seeks to show how theologically informed understandings can inform perceptions of international law and the manner in which it may be developed in the pursuit of justice and of peace through law.

This is not an easy book to read - not an easy subject to explore - but it is a book that repays the reader for having done so.

Dr Malcolm D. Evans is Professor of Public International Law at the University of Bristol.

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