As he searches for differences in how democratic and authoritarian governments use international law, Tom Ginsburg highlights—perhaps inadvertently—the fact that both kinds of regime use law as a tool to advance their goals. Governments’ goals may differ, both within and across regime types, but the instrumental use of law in the service of political ends does not. Ginsburg’s article permits three distinct readings: it is an effort to show a correlation between regime-type and uses of international law; it is also an argument that the historical-normative core of international law included the promotion of “liberal” goals such as human rights and democracy; and third, it is a defense of the meta-claim that law follows the political purposes of society’s powerful actors. This third contribution is the quietest in the article but is arguably the most important. Because the methodological difficulties in correlating regime type with attitude toward international law are insuperable, Ginsburg’s contribution is that he directs attention to the substantive goals that governments pursue through law and to the tradeoffs that follow as one goal wins over others. The normative valence of international law depends on how one feels about these practical tradeoffs; those whose interests are harmed by international law have good reason to feel disadvantaged.
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