Cover courtesy of Oxford University Press.

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A New Map of (International Law’s) Empire?


In a (very) short story, “On Exactitude in Science”, Jorge Luis Borges tells how, in a certain Empire, “the Art of Cartography” had “attained such Perfection” that eventually “a Map of the Empire” was made “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” (Borges in Hurley (trans.), 1999, p. 704). In later generations, however, the “Study of Cartography” fell out of favour and the great map was abandoned to the elements: “In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography” (ibid., p. 705).

One moral of the story, quite obviously, is that there is no point in producing a map that replicates every detail of the terrain it aims to represent. (Equally obviously, the delightful conceit of this story is that it is possible to construct such a map.) A map’s usefulness depends not only the features of the landscape it aims to depict but, just as importantly – or perhaps even more so – those it deliberately elides. Every cartographer must make choices about what their map includes and excludes; those choices are determined by the purpose to which the map will be put. A globe may be useful for roughly comparing the sizes of different countries of the world and gauging the distances between them, but is less so for finding one’s way in a city. Moreover, some maps can be made by satellite imaging, while others require on-the-ground reconnaissance (Davis & Kent, 2017).

For many years, international lawyers were accustomed to drawing up and using particular kinds of maps of international organizations as they navigated the law surrounding them. These maps highlighted important features of that territory, to be sure: member states and organs, rules on legal personality, decision-making, financing, and so on. The cartographers of the discipline fell into certain routines of map-making, selecting from a specific set of materials (constituent instruments, rules of procedure, resolutions, advisory opinions) and deploying well-worn methods (doctrinal, comparative) to construct their projections. These materials and methods tended to produce maps of a similar scale and with reassuringly familiar tropes. Even the more critical practitioners of the craft tended to retrace similar forms and shapes, if perhaps with darker shadows or more ironic self-awareness of the patterns they were reproducing.

What Does This Map Cover?

In The World Bank’s Lawyers, Dimitri Van Den Meerssche proffers a map of a refreshingly unfamiliar kind, put together in a new and original way. (The mapping analogy appears regularly in the book to describe its aims and methodology – see, e.g., at pp. 5 and 10.) Eschewing the traditional comparative method of international organizations law, Van Den Meerssche considers a single organization; setting aside doctrine (for the most part), he attends closely to “institutional practices, performances, and personalities” (p. 1). The materials he assembles to this end – interviews, participant observations, surveys, archival sources, transcripts of World Bank Board meetings – are mostly alien to studies in international organizations law. The book thus appears in the vanguard of an exciting new wave of scholarship on international organizations which focuses on the routines and material practices that constitute the inner lives of international organizations and of global governance (see inter alia Sinclair on “International Secretariats” in AJIL Unbound 2022 (forthcoming). The large-scale map that Van Den Meerssche unveils shows – with abundant, compelling details of performances, postures, and practices – how the legal cultures imposed by successive General Counsel of the World Bank have undergone significant shifts over the past three decades.

But the book does much else besides this. It tells many fascinating stories that provide insight into the culture and workings of the World Bank at different times. It engages deeply with a variety of scholarly debates in international relations, sociology, law, and other disciplines, often inducing a kind of contrapuntal reading between the narrative in the body of the text and theoretical observations and asides in the footnotes. And it develops a distinctive critical perspective – “a performative model of critique” (p. 243) – which sets it apart from many other approaches to international organizations. In these respects, The World Bank’s Lawyers offers a bold map to a new kind of legal scholarship on international organizations with which other students of the discipline will be compelled to come to terms – whether to take up and extend its approach and insights or to react against them.

What Does This Map Leave Out?

The book is also clear about what kind of map it does not aim to offer. Early on, Van Den Meerssche announces, with characteristic verve, that he does not feel “compelled to narrate this account as a critique of neoliberalism or the rule of economic expertise, as others have already done” (p. 28; see also p. 284). Indeed, almost all other references to neoliberalism – and, for that matter, critique – are banished to the footnotes. Van Den Meerssche is similarly clear that the book is not concerned with international law’s “vacillating oscillations between empire and empowerment” (p. 1); true to this promise, it barely mentions imperial or (neo/post)colonial dynamics at all. One effect of the book’s single-minded focus on the World Bank, however, is that the reader only rarely gets a sense of how cultural changes in the World Bank relate to wider trends in political economy, or indeed in the practices of other international organizations. At times, one almost has the impression that each new technology or set of practices under examination has originated in the creative genius of the General Counsel (or perhaps the President) of the Bank. But again, this is the result of a conscious choice to map a particular span and certain features of the World Bank’s legal topography. The connections between this and other domains must be taken up by other mapmakers, at other times.

Two Notes on Method

Let me then end with two notes on method, not as criticisms but as points for further exploration and dialogue with the author of this outstanding work and any others who may be interested. The first concerns the relative benefits of ethnographic and historiographic approaches, both of which Van Den Meerssche deploys skilfully in analysing the tenures of the three General Counsel under consideration. Yet there is inevitably some inconsistency between the book’s treatment of Dañino and Leroy, both of whom Van Den Meerssche was able to interview, and Shihata, who is no longer alive. Moreover, the chapters on Leroy benefit from direct ethnographic observations and surveys, whereas Shihata’s and Dañino’s tenures as General Counsel cannot be accessed in the same way. Van Den Meerssche overcomes these challenges as far as it is possible to do so, through interviews with others who worked with Shihata and Dañino and through careful reading of archival sources; and again, the narrative that emerges is compelling on its own terms. But this raises a broader question about the pragmatic limits of ethnographic methods in studying change over time within international organizations, not to mention in the relations between them.

The second note concerns the extent to which new technologies and changes in legal culture introduced by high-ranking officials such as General Counsel take effect throughout an international organization. The World Bank’s Lawyers claims to offer an account of “the mundane, prosaic, technical modes of practice animating the life of the law” (p. 205), and there is no doubt that the book does so to a degree unparalleled in previous studies by international lawyers. Yet by centring its attention on the three General Counsel, the book leaves some space for others to investigate how the grand visions and plans of these individuals were put into practice (or not) in a variety of operational settings.

It is useful here to refer to one of the book’s theoretical lodestars, Bruno Latour, on the distinction between the “diffusion model” and the “model of translation”. The former understands the spread of a “token”, such as an “order” or a “claim”, to take place through the energy of an initial force, the inertia which conserves that energy, and the medium which may provide some resistance to it. The “model of translation”, in contrast, posits that “the spread in time and space of anything… is in the hands of people”, each of whom “may act in many different ways, letting the token drop, or modifying it, or deflecting it, or betraying it, or adding to it, or appropriating it” (Latour in Law, 1986, pp. 266-267). What happens when the “token” of a particular institutional technology leaves the hands of the General Counsel? How do lower-level lawyers and others working in the organization or in client governments react? In what ways do they drop, modify, deflect, betray, add to, appropriate, or otherwise use it for their own purposes? Scholars outside the discipline of international law have given us some sense of how this can happen – see, for example, the work of Richard Harper and Gerhard Anders on the IMF (here and here) – but there is much more that can be done to understand how legal cultures are constantly being imposed, contested, and transformed in international organizations.

These are just some of the many questions provoked by reading this excellent and stimulating book. The World Bank’s Lawyers is an exceptional work of deep, detailed scholarship. It draws a map of the World Bank and how the rule of law is made, internationally and institutionally, that will be an indispensable guide for anyone who wishes to navigate their way through these topics. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience.


Disclosure: This reviewer was one of the examiners of the PhD thesis on which the book is based.

Guy Fiti Sinclair

Guy Fiti Sinclair is an Associate Professor at Auckland Law School, University of Auckland.

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