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Video feature: Prof. Burke-White on power shifts in international law

April 28, 2014

For most of the past 60 years, the United States and Europe have independently and collectively led the international legal system. Yet the rise of the “BRICs”, Brazil, Russia, India, and China, in the past decade is causing a profound transformation of global politics.

In this video feature, Professor William Burke-White discusses his research about shifts in global power and how they translate into the international legal system. 

To read his latest study, please visit



Hi, I’m Bill Burke-White. I’m a professor of law and deputy dean for international programs here at Penn Law.

I’ve just finished a major research project, that I am likely to next turn into a book, on the impact of rising powers, like India, China, Brazil, and Russia, on the international legal system. And the international legal system as we know it has really been constructed by the United States and Europe in the aftermath of World War II, and for the 50 years subsequently. And in the last five-to-10 years we have seen an extraordinary transformation of international politics and economics with the rise of the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). And in this paper, I try to understand and examine how those shifts in global power are going to translate into changes in the international legal system. And fundamentally, I argue that we are seeing tension points emerge in three places in international law.

One is about notions of sovereignty. The United States and Europe have had a relatively permeable vision of sovereignty. In other words, it was okay for one country, say, the United States, to intervene in Iraq or perhaps Syria or elsewhere. Rising powers, like Russia and China, have a much stronger vision of sovereignty and that sovereignty matters much more. And I argue in this paper that sovereignty is likely to ratchet back toward a more absolutist vision of what sovereignty means.

A second one of these tension points is around legitimacy. The United States and Europe, as they constructed the international legal system, have largely defined legitimacy about outcomes. If the institution works, it is legitimate. If the process gets you the objective you need, it is legitimate. Countries like India and Brazil, in part because of their colonial legacies, are much more skeptical about that kind of legitimacy, and define legitimacy much more based on which countries are at the table and who participates.

Finally, I argue that we are going to see tensions around the understanding of economic development. The Washington consensus, or kind of liberal model of development inherent in much of international law, is about keeping the state out of the economy. In international law, in trade and investment, [it] has been about pushing the state out of the economy. China, Russia, Brazil, and even India have much more state-centric visions of economic development, and we are already starting to see changes in the trade and investment law that create more space for the state to be involved in the economy.

And so I contend that international law is changing in ways that the United States may not always like, but that in fact, the United States may actually be able to benefit from a legal system that is somewhat more indeterminate in which there are smaller groupings of states that work together separately sometimes and together in other times, in kinds of coalitions of the willing, as law changes around these three tension points of sovereignty, legitimacy, and economic development.

Transcript edited for length.