Cheng, Tai-Heng. When International Law Works: Realistic Idealism After 9/11 and the Global Recession. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 341p. Hardcover, $65. ISBN 978-0-19-537017-1. 

One of the ongoing questions about international law is whether or not it is law at all. Rather than offer another response to this question, Tai-Heng Cheng asks his own question: how should those in the international arena make their decisions? Should they be guided by past examples? Their own moral compass? Or by some other mechanism? When International Law Works: Realistic Idealism After 9/11 and the Global Recession is Cheng’s attempt to answer this question. His “[…] goal is not to provide algorithms for elites to decide what to do, or to nullify their discretion in making decisions,” he writes, but rather “it is, more modestly, to provide a framework to guide their analysis of problems and their exercise of their judgment and discretion” (p. 16). This book offers a fresh, practical look at an area of law that can often seem bogged down by theory.

Cheng does not simply drop readers into his new approach. Rather, the book begins with an examination of prior theories about international law, focusing especially on the role politics can play in these ongoing debates amongst jurists and scholars. Next, Cheng begins to lay out his own “justificatory theory of international law” (p. 73). The reader is given a careful analysis of how decisionmakers must balance a general desire for “optimum world order” (p. 119) with the individual needs of their own citizens. Once the framework for this theory is presented, the next several chapters focus on how this theory might play out for judges, arbitrators, regulators, legal advisors, and officials. Each chapter gives specific examples, from the recent economic crisis to waterboarding and the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia. The book then concludes with a reminder of its purpose: not to provide “controlling instructions” (p. 301) but to offer guidance for the future based on a careful analysis of past actions and theory.

When International Law Works is written in an extremely forthright and meticulous way. Cheng is always careful to provide the reader with a roadmap: each chapter begins with a straight-forward description of where it will go and concludes with a straight-forward recap of how it got there. The reader is not left guessing about the author’s stance, but is rather guided with respect and attention – a style much appreciated for an otherwise dense topic.

This attention to detail is also reflected in the careful footnoting and the extensive bibliography and index. Cheng does not just look at cases or articles, but examines parliamentary debates, draft resolutions, senate testimonies, and keynote addresses, among others. The index also provides useful hints to readers, such as by listing when significant voices comment on a given topic (e.g. “George W. Bush on waterboarding”).

With When International Law Works: Realistic Idealism After 9/11 and the Global Recession, Cheng offers a significant new look at international legal theory. It is clearly written, well-researched, and a balanced look at this area of law. Highly recommended for academic law libraries.

Deborah Schander is a Reference/Student Services Librarian at Georgia State University College of Law in Atlanta.