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Global Research Seminar investigates rising powers

September 29, 2014

As part of a distinctive course that combines rigorous coursework with international field study, this year students from Penn Law will have the opportunity to travel to Brazil and China to meet with scholars and policymakers to discuss the changing role of rising powers in international law and governance.

The course is Penn Law’s most recent Global Research Seminar, an intensive course that engages with key issues in comparative or international law. In addition to intensive coursework, each seminar includes a weeklong field research trip to a country or region, where students meet with academics, business leaders, and government officials who are experts in their fields. Previous GRS courses have examined internet law and policy in Germany in Belgium, Islamic finance in Malaysia, and international bankruptcy law reform in Japan.

For this year’s GRS, Professors William Burke-White and Jacques deLisle are co-teaching a course titled “Rising Powers: Power Shifts in International Law and Global Governance.” Both professors bring extensive international experience to the seminar: Burke-White is the Richard Perry Professor and Inaugural Director of the Perry World House — as well as Deputy Dean for International Affairs and Professor of Law — and deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science, Director of the Center for East Asian Studies, and Deputy Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

Going beyond previous Global Research Seminars, which have focused on an area of law in a single country or region, this year’s course instead tackles a conceptual topic that cuts across borders: rising powers. The rising powers most commonly referred to are known as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). By comparing law and governance in Brazil and China, GRS students will be able to assess and investigate the similarities and differences in how each nation views the current international legal system.

The two professors originally envisioned teaching separate courses on Brazil and China, but came to realize that a combined class offered opportunities to explore the idea of rising powers from two different international perspectives.

For Burke-White, the concept led him to look closely at how Brazil has handled its increasing presence on the world stage. “What do these power shifts mean for the structure and substance of international law?” he asked. “Brazil has probably been the country that has been loudest in calls for remaking the international order as we know it.”

And deLisle, an expert on China, noted that the country’s growing influence could have a profound influence on the entire structure of international law. “If anybody on the outside of the largely western states that crafted the current system can change the rules, it’s China,” said deLisle. “What we don’t know is how much they’re going to do that or try to do that.”

Through the GRS, some students will travel to Brazil, some will travel to China, and a few will travel to both countries. In Brazil, they’ll meet with scholars at the think tank/university Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), Brazilian government officials, influential business leaders in the energy and banking industries, and officials involved in planning the recent BRICS summit. And in China, they’ll interview academics from leading universities and think tanks (including Penn Law’s partner institution, Tsinghua University), influential public intellectuals, Chinese government officials, and U.S. officials in China.

For students, this year’s GRS is a rigorous course. It’s a full-year commitment (unlike previous seminars, which have been a single semester), and the trips are an immersive experience. While abroad, students will spend a significant amount of time interviewing experts, and their year of work will culminate in a policy paper that will be publicly available to their peers and scholars around the world.

But Burke-White and deLisle note that it’s the immersive nature of the course that is one of its biggest advantages. During their field research, students get to understand the context that informs the day-to-day lives of the experts they speak with. And because the experience is so intense, the connections that the course explores will be made even more explicit.

Finally, the GRS creates a lasting connection between teachers and their students — one that remains even after the seminar has ended.

“When you do one of these trips with a student,” said Burke-White, “you bond with that student in a quite different way than if you just see somebody in class. I still have mentoring relationships with many students I’ve done one of these travel courses with.”