Brief Reviews

"Collective Security," by Alexander Orakhelashvili

By Book Review Editor
Friday, June 12, 2015, 3:00 PM

Published by Oxford University Press (2011)

Reviewed by His Serenity, The Book Review Editor

Collective Security is a monograph analyzing the international law of collective security. It is oriented primarily toward organs of the United Nations under the Charter. Its author, Alexander Orakhelashvili, is Lecturer in Law at the University of Birmingham in the UK; he is also the author of several other international law monographs, including The Interpretation of Acts and Rules in Public International Law (Oxford UP 2008) and Peremptory Norms in International Law (Oxford UP 2009).

As an international law monograph, Collective Security is careful, well-organized and systematic and admirably thorough. As a reference book in an academic library, it has considerable value — it is clearly written and does an excellent job of unifying the written sources of international law regarding collective security. His Serenity has already found it quite useful as a guide to what he thinks of as the “standard account” by international organization officials and European international academics, particularly, as to what collective security means within the public international law. It is a solid scholarly study.

It is, however, an entirely “internal” account of collective security law. Meaning, the monograph constructs an understanding of collective security wholly within legal categories, and sets them out by reference to written legal materials and the law’s formal categories — essentially the “sources” of international law as set out in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice. Missing are historical facts of actual state practice and an acknowledgment that such purely formal and abstract legal categories cannot, in real life, be severed from the conditions of international politics and diplomacy that constitute, in any meaningful sense, the enterprise of “international law.” To be clear, historical situations are raised - but they are mediated through such legal materials as ICJ judgments, Security Council resolutions, and other such documents. Though these documents have important value to legal and historical understanding, they are not the same as a historical, factual assessment of what actually happened and what states actually did.

It bears noting that the internal legal perspective, at least as applied to the international law of self defense and collective security, is subject almost inevitably to a normative drift toward international institutions, their views, and their authority. It is true of the overall view of this book, no matter how carefully or cautiously expressed. This normative drift arises in part because, whereas state practice will tend to be sensitive toward pragmatic necessity and the needs of security — and moreover will insist that this be treated as a fully legitimate part of the law and not as mere necessitarian pressure from outside it — the written materials of international organizations, tribunals, and other such institutions will tend to place greater weight on collective and supranational law and institutions — and tending to treat those institutions and their written output as normatively superior to “mere” states and their state practice, and an activity generally to be constrained. Unsurprisingly, the internal logic of public international law, as seen through the materials produced by public international institutions, tends to endorse the authority of both public international law and institutions.

Even so, His Serenity does not disrespect the internal legal scholarly enterprise. It is important to understand how the law of collective security is framed wholly within the purely formal, abstract, but ultimately self-referential and self-enclosed categories of international law and organizations. But it is largely an alternative-universe exercise — a construction of counterfactuals and conditionals in the subjunctive mood. It is important, but only if it is then set within a more capacious understanding of international law that regards the law itself as necessarily fused together with diplomacy, politics, and the facts of state power in the world. This book is not that, but what it is, it does well. There is a reason why His Serenity keeps Collective Security on his shelf of international law reference books.

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