Law, Politics and the International System: Mediating Power beyond the State

School: School of Government
Department: Department of Political Science and International Studies

Final year module

Lecturer: Professor Stefan Wolff

That there are rules governing relations among states and other international actors is, today, almost taken for granted. International law - whether in the form of treaties, trade agreements, human rights norms or UN resolutions - seems pervasive. Yet, its very existence, let alone legitimacy, is not only contestable, but very much contested. This module is concerned with the complex interaction between law, politics and power in the international system. It is animated by the overarching question of whether power politics can ever really be subordinated to law, and, if so, how. 

The module comprises three broad strands. Firstly, students will be introduced to the concept of international law. What exactly is it? How does it differ from other types of law? Where does international law come from? And, critically, how is it enforced? Secondly, we will analyse in more detail a major subfield of international law - human rights. Here too, truths often taken to be self-evident are, on closer inspection, much more ambiguous. Thus, we will look at the origins and evolution of the concept of human rights, examining questions such as who grants rights? On what authority? And are they universal? Finally, we will use the knowledge acquired through the first two strands to analyse key problems in international law and politics. Taking specific cases, such as the NATO intervention in Kosovo, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals, we will examine issues surrounding the legitimacy of war, the possibility for justice beyond the state, and the challenge of balancing the norm of state sovereignty with the notion of self-determination. Upon completion of the module, students will have a deep understanding of both the possibilities and limits of law as a tool for mediating power in the international system.

Learning Outcomes 

By the end of the module students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of key concepts in international law and politics.
  • Describe the development of international law and other tools for mediating relations between states, particularly in the post-1945 period.
  • Analyse the utility of international law and other tools for mediating relations between states.
  • Draw on the knowledge acquired to analyse contemporary issues and controversies in international relations.

Assessment (from 2018-19)

  • 1 x 1,000 book review: (25%)
  • 1 x 3,000 word essay: (75%)