International Law Book Review 129 Harv. L. Rev. 2164

Knowledge and Politics in International Law


What does it mean to say knowledge is power?

Francis Bacon is alleged to have said it first. In that version, the remark is supposed to have captured the signature aspiration of modernity — to deploy knowledge for the sake of the mastery on which human progress depends. The inquiry of experts would unlock the arcana of nature, and provide a mode of beneficial rule that could escape old criticisms of the power of ill-informed and thus to some extent illegitimate monarchs. “[T]he sovereignty of man lieth hid in knowledge,” Bacon wrote,

wherein many things are reserved, which kings with their treasure cannot buy, nor with their force command; their spials and intelligencers can give no news of them, their seamen and discoverers cannot sail where they grow: now we govern nature in opinions, but we are thrall unto her in necessity . . . [but] we should command her by action.

Expertise, that is, would offer liberation from the age-old yoke of nature by taking humanity beyond the realm of mere opinion. Kings had proved themselves powerless to lift this yoke, but experts would do so for the sake of man’s advancement and “sovereignty.” It was an optimistic, untroubled, and even visionary statement.

In the several centuries since, expert governance — rule by elite knowledge claimed to be superior to mere opinion — has fallen under suspicion. But there is a serious debate about how to diagnose its possible failings. Bacon’s own younger colleague, and sometime amanuensis, Thomas Hobbes, could not believe his predecessor’s rather optimistic views of the politics of knowledge. According to Hobbes’s radically nominalist account, there was not a world to know nor master independent of human struggle to decide how to think and even talk about that world. “[S]uch is the nature of men,” Hobbes wrote, “that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves . . . .” Kings were needed not because people could agree who knew most, but for precisely the opposite reason. Before human beings could decide what the world was like, they would have to find a way to settle their differences. Knowledge was not an alternative to the uninformed power of kings; rather, bitter partisanship about how to know the world provided one more reason for their pacifying authority. But after Hobbes, exactly what drove epistemic struggle — and how it was best to be explained — have remained themselves persistently controversial.

For Karl Marx and his heirs, expert rule would have to be regarded as a species of ideology originating in and covering up the class domination that, in turn, followed from the mode of production of an age. The forms and workings of intelligence, for this reason, had to be traced to ultimately material factors. For twentieth-century skeptics, things seemed more complicated. While never freeing expertise from the workings of capital entirely, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu insisted that professional fields had their own internal dynamics of struggle for prestige and status. Yet like Marx, Bourdieu hoped to demystify these workings, for the sake of better insight and political change. Michel Foucault, in his withering portrait of “power/knowledge,” took cynicism to the breaking point. Knowledge did not merely serve power; it was power. It constituted domination in claiming to neutrally describe reality. And there was no apparent, let alone easy, alternative to subordination. Foucault went as far as possible to reverse the Baconian vision of liberation and legitimation through knowledge — studying experts was for Foucault the great device of delegitimation, with unclear consequences.

In his new book on how the world is ruled today through expert knowledge, Professor David Kennedy enters this continuing discussion in brilliant, pathbreaking, and trademark fashion. Slyly presenting himself as a disinterested observer of global governance, Kennedy eclectically draws on twentieth-century perspectives about knowledge, achieving a synthesis all his own. Presented without theoretical encumbrance or jargon, A World of Struggle is a straightforward but sophisticated account that capitalizes on prior insight to achieve a unique and powerful vantage point. The superlative book wins its distinction not only because it constructs a novel theory but also because it applies that theory to how the globe as a whole is ruled — something no one in the canon of social theory has really done.

According to Kennedy, accounts of global governance are themselves typically products of an expertise that does much of the work of immunizing a contestable world from serious critique or change. “Terribly unjust, subject to crisis, environmentally unwise, everywhere politically and economically captured by the few, and yet somehow impossible for anyone to alter or escape” is Kennedy’s description of the contemporary situation (pp. 31–32). His “hypothesis” in response is that “this stability arises from the relative invisibility and imperviousness of the world of technical management to contestation” (p. 32). To understand expertise is to grasp how the terms of debate and decision about solutions end up reinstating problems.

Much in the book is vintage Kennedy. There is a sinuous prose cast with enviable lucidity in spite of its high level of complexity. There is, as I will examine later, the structuralist vocation that, from Kennedy’s beginnings, has delighted in providing inventories of options of discourse (and charts graphically illustrating the argumentative choices). Indeed, one of the hallmarks of A World of Struggle is how heavily it focuses on the language that constitutes, in Kennedy’s account, the familiar realities of global governance, from the interstate system to the global economy. There is also, as I will take up later, the extravagant political hope that Kennedy never imposes on his readers but allows to lurk on the margin as an attractive but vague possibility.

Altogether, Kennedy’s new book reminds his old readers and instructs his new ones why he is, without doubt, the single most important innovator in international legal thought of the past several decades, a fact proved not only by his own arguments but also by his extraordinary influence. Inaugurating a “new stream” of scholarship on international law, Kennedy has brought the field out of its doctrinalism and parochialism into conversation with social thought and humanistic inquiry. With few possible contenders, like his close associate Professor Martti Koskenniemi, Kennedy may have done the most to make the “invisible college” of international lawyers visible, or at least interesting, to those outside it in diverse fields of academic pursuit. And this book takes that remarkable achievement to a new level. As a result, this is the rare text occupied with international law that is likely to be legible by — indeed, exhilarating to — outsiders to the field, elsewhere in the legal academy and beyond.

This Review focuses on what is newest in the book: Kennedy’s development of a theory of expertise to map the terrain of contemporary global governance. The Review proceeds in six parts. Part I begins my reconstruction of Kennedy’s theory of expertise by emphasizing the centrality of struggle to his account. Part II then provides an overview of the core of A World of Struggle, rehearsing Kennedy’s argument that endemic struggle explains the role of expertise in global governance. Part III completes my survey of the work by showing how Kennedy applies his general theory of expertise to international law.

From reconstruction, the Review then turns to contextualization and critique. Part IV puts pressure on Kennedy’s theory by placing it in the setting of argument from Bacon to Foucault concerning the relation of knowledge and power. A theory of global power that is discursive in general and structuralist in particular will have the vices of its virtues. Experts do no more than talk, and it is tempting to believe an analysis of their discourse goes further in explaining their role than it does. In particular, it may scant causation outside the frame of language and focus on the processes of rule at the expense of outcomes. Part V takes up Kennedy’s case study on the law of war as an instantiation of how his theory of expert knowledge works. Part VI concludes by examining whether Kennedy is subject to his own analysis and how he hints at the promise of a form of responsible power beyond expertise. Most worrisome about the book is that Kennedy is driven to a skepticism of expertise so withering that the sole alternative he can recommend — a potentially empty one — is what he calls “unknowing.”

* Professor of Law and History, Harvard University.