Foreign Policy Blogs

Language and International Law

Over the weekend, I listened to the recent Radiolab episode on the power of words to shape our thoughts, feelings, and abilities (watch the accompanying video below).

The most interesting part of the episode is when they examine an experiment conducted by Elizabeth Spelke at Harvard.  Spelke’s experiment shows an interesting relationship between language and cognitive ability.  In the experiment, she put subjects in a room with one blue wall.  She allowed the subjects to see her hide an object in one of the corners, say, to the left of the blue wall.  She would then have the subjects close their eyes and spin around to disorient them.  When they opened their eyes, the subjects could use the blue wall as a reference point and easily find the hidden object to the left of the blue wall.  However, strangely, children under the age of six can’t do this very well.  These children can talk.  They can say “blue wall” and “to the left of.”  But they don’t yet have the grammatical abilities to say “to the left of the blue wall.”  Seemingly, the development of that grammatical ability coincides with the ability to understand and employ the concept, “to the left of the blue wall.”  This is supported by the fact that when you put adults in the same situation, but deprive them of language, they can’t do it either.  (You can deprive them of language by having them repeat everything that is said on a tape they are listening to.)  So language seems to make new things possible.

This made me think of Chris Borgen’s article, “The Language of Law and the Practice of Politics,” in which he argues that “international law serves as both a vocabulary and a grammar for diplomacy.”  He compares and contrasts NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008.  He finds that, in both instances, Russia argued its case in legal terms while the U.S. only argued its case in legal terms in the Georgia incident, since, of course, the U.S. had no legal case in the Kosovo incident.  Borgen introduces a concept that is also interesting to ponder in relation to the Spelke experiment: the feedback loop.  He writes:

What drives a change in the vocabulary and grammar of international law is not monocausal but rather a feedback loop: international politics affect international law, which then affects international politics, and so on. So, while great powers may have a privileged position from which they may attempt to define international law, once a certain conception of law propagates through the international system, the erstwhile norm makers can also be held accountable to those norms that they have defined. The rules of self-determination that disfavor secession may be one of those areas where the accepted rules—the common grammar and vocabulary—are constraining the believability of Russian and American claims.

Borgen doesn’t quite succeed in definitively getting us beyond Count Walewski’s maxim that “the business of the diplomat is to cloak the interests of his country in the language of universal justice.”  But he gets us closer.  International law gives diplomatic discourse its vocabulary, and thus, like the Spelke experiment, makes new things possible.