Is International Law International?

Connected world

Winner of the 2018 ASIL Certificate of Merit for Preeminent Contribution to Creative Scholarship.

‘I enjoyed reading this book tremendously and have kept coming back to the staggering view of the international law world it offers over again. I am very serious when I say that nothing in the field will be quite the same after this book has been published. It is such an eye-opener.’—Martti Koskenniemi, Professor of International Law (University of Helsinki), and Director, Erik Castrén Institute of International law and Human Rights

‘Roberts has written a masterpiece.’—Samuel Moyn, Professor of Law, Yale Law School

About the book

This broad exploration of the international legal field reveals the patterns of difference, dominance, and disruption that belie international law’s claim to universality. Pulling back the curtain on the ‘divisible college of international lawyers’, Anthea Roberts shows how international lawyers in different states, regions, and geopolitical groupings are often subject to distinct incoming influences and outgoing spheres of influence in ways that reflect and reinforce differences in how they understand and approach international law. These divisions manifest themselves in contemporary controversies, such as debates about Crimea and the South China Sea.

Not all approaches to international law are created equal, however. Using case studies and visual representations, the author demonstrates how actors and materials from some states and groups have come to dominate certain transnational flows and forums in ways that make them disproportionately influential in constructing the ‘international’. This point holds true for Western actors, materials, and approaches in general, and for Anglo-American (and sometimes French) ones in particular.

However, these patterns are set for disruption. As the world moves past an era of Western dominance and toward greater multipolarity, it is imperative for international lawyers to understand the perspectives and approaches of those coming from diverse backgrounds. By taking readers on a comparative tour of different international law academies and textbooks, the author encourages them to see the world through the eyes of others - an essential skill in this fast-changing world of shifting power dynamics and rising nationalism.

More on the book


  • Roberts turns a beguilingly simple question into a globe-trotting, multi-method quest for a map of international laws players and meanings. Simultaneously irreverent and serious-minded, Roberts develops an original research agenda that takes her and the reader through the migratory flows of international lawyers around the world, the divergent methods through which they are educated, and the different professional tracks through which they are socialized. The book does not just dissolve international laws myths of universality; it is a nascent sociology of the field of international law and the beginning of a new field of comparative international law. In an era in which Western dominance over international law no longer looks certain, this book provides the tools for a more nuanced understanding of international laws politics, revealing the deeper meanings and stakes of current debates.’—ASIL 2018 Book Awards Committee

  • Winner of the ASIL 2018 Certificate of Merit for a preeminent contribution to creative scholarship

  • Shortlisted for the 2019 Hart-SLSA Book Prize

  • Longlisted for the CHASS (Council for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) Australia Book Prize

  • Honorable Mention for the International Studies Association’s Best International Law Book Award


Harvard Law School
United Nations Audiovisual Library
London School of Economics
A Brazilian Reaction
American Society of International Law Panel on Legal Education and Professional Training in the Culture(s) of International Law Interview at the Australian Institute of International Affairs

Reviews and endorsements

‘Instantly, it is a classic that anyone who wants to reflect on the field must read. The central virtue of Professor Roberts’s study is that it is brilliantly and rigorously empirical, based on an extraordinary survey of how training, scholarship, and service in international law actually take place across the world Both hard-bitten realists about the endurance of international struggle and idealists who hope for a more unified humanity must now start with Professor Roberts’s book.’—Sam Moyn, Lawfare

‘This provocative and yet very simple question unleashes a disruptive conceptual earthquake: what if that right that we consider universal par excellence was not international at all? Although the answers to these provocations might seem obvious, their implications are far from being predictable - if only we take them seriously into account as Anthea Roberts does.’ —Francesca Iurlaro, Guerra e Diritto Internazionale

‘In her masterful work, Is International Law International?, Anthea Roberts convincingly shatters our illusions about international law’s universality, and makes the case for comparison in international law. Having already won the American Society of International Law’s prestigious Certificate of Merit, the book needs no further praise.’—Katerina Linos, American Journal of International Law

‘Anthea Roberts’s Is International Law International? is definitely groundbreaking and also an instant best-seller. In a world where different understandings of international law would probably always exist, the comparative international law approach is indeed essential for facilitating enhanced communication and cooperation among different States, by which ‘harmony without uniformity’ in international law could be realized.’—Lu Zhu, Chinese Journal of International Law

‘Occasionally a book appears which has a significant impact on the scholarly community. A fine example of this is the work considered here by the Australian international lawyer, Anthea Roberts. Until very recently, comparative studies on international law were rare…. Anthea Roberts’ book is a work of profound significance, which will, hopefully, inspire additional research in the field of Comparative International Law in years to come.’—Dmitry Labin and Tim Potier, Moscow Journal of International Law

‘Roberts’ work is essential reading for any international lawyer and, indeed, for anyone interested in better understanding international law.’—Kevin Crow, Journal of International Economic Law

‘There is so much to be commended about this book. It reads almost like a novel, such is its engaging style and wealth of information and insights into the collective minds of international legal communities.’—Alessandra Asteriti, Italian Yearbook of International Law

‘In what has already become an instant and award-winning classic of the international legal canon, Anthea Roberts’ Is International Law International? provides a welcome insight into how international law is approached across domestic contexts a process she identifies as “comparative international law”. … Rather than asking that age old question: Is international law, law?, she considers instead: Is international law international? In doing so, she issues a powerful counterclaim to international law’s appeal to both universality and to neutrality.’—Miriam Bak McKenna, Nordic Journal of International Law

‘For a field already concerned with the problem of “fragmentation” in legal regimes and conflicting norms, Roberts helps to bring into view the human dimension of such changes in the form of fragmented, even to some degree mutually oblivious communities of international lawyers in different national settings. The book effectively identifies and establishes the importance of key (and sometimes surprising) differences in educational background, professional activities, linguistic and networking characteristics, as well as the textbooks and scholarly authorities relied upon by these various communities.’—Ryan Mitchell, The Modern Law Review

‘Roberts’s new book, marshals an extensive body of original research to suggest that there are significant cross-national variations in the ideological and doctrinal content of international legal education. The [books] implications are far-reaching, and I truly view the book as required reading for anyone interested in international law. —Ryan Scoville, Lawfare

‘According to a common stereotype, international lawyers are cosmopolitans. In this truly remarkable inquiry, Anthea Roberts shows that their cosmopolitanism remains hostage to a world of nation-states. For Americans in particular, it is disturbing to learn how international law in their country remains parochial. International lawyers across the spectrum in the United States emerge from a particular intellectual sociology, from their professionalization in their practice, even when they speak in a universalist voice in the languages they (do not) learn, to the textbooks they use, and from the foreign affairs and national security law from which they approach the field, to the concrete positions on matters such as humanitarian intervention they take. Roberts has written a masterpiece.’—Samuel Moyn, Professor of Law, Yale Law School

‘This book is a must-read for every international lawyer and negotiator. It thoroughly deconstructs the notion that there is a uniform college of international lawyers who all think alike. It helps us to reflect on our own background and the frame within which we think, and to also recognize and understand the “others.” This is of utmost importance at a time when international legal cooperation is threatened.’—Anne van Aaken, Professor for Law and Economics, Legal Theory, Public International Law, and European Law, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland

‘Roberts has raised a fundamental issue that both international lawyers and decision-makers cannot afford to ignore in this era of shifting power. This issue is whether international law is “international,” as people might have taken for granted for decades or centuries, and how the “international” is likely to evolve with the rise of new great powers, like China. Her perspective is absolutely unique. Textbooks and casebooks, educational backgrounds, academic publications, and connections to practice factors that have a significant influence on how international lawyers construct their understanding of the field but whose importance are often overlooked are painstakingly collected, well-organized and cogently analyzed to support her arguments. What Roberts exhibits, through this book, is not only the strength of her academic insight but her ability to recognize and understand the perspectives of others.’—Cai Congyan, Professor of International Law, Xiamen University School of Law

‘The results of Anthea Roberts’s investigation sound an alarm for all stakeholders in the field of International Law: the author calls on all of us to recognize the necessity of tearing down the mask of “internationality” from the discipline in its current state and paves the way for changes towards a truly international International Law. Thoughtful and inspiring.’—Vera Rusinova, Professor of the Chair for Public and Private International Law, National Research University, The Higher School of Economics, Russia

‘Roberts’s groundbreaking study brings important and new insights into the sociology of the production of international law. It charts the regional and cultural islands that dot this supposedly cosmopolitan sea and provides a deep critique of the field’s universalist aspirations/pretensions. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the international law project, whether working from the inside or as an external observer.’—Paul Stephan, John C. Jeffries, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law, United States

‘For a French international lawyer who by necessity has to work in (at least) two languages and navigate different cultural universes, there is no doubt that international law is indeed international, as a crucible of diverse legal cultures. Yet, as Anthea Roberts’s (both intrepid and convincing) book demonstrates, in fact international law needs to be more international and less imperialist in the ways it is formed, practiced and conceptualized. From that perspective, Roberts’s invigorating analysis of national approaches to international law provides a salutary reappraisal of the law of nations that will no doubt frame the field in the future.’—Mathias Forteau, Professor of Public Law, University of Paris Ouest, Nanterre La Défense, France

‘International law is full of myths. One of these is the global, universal character of the discipline that distances it from narrow national interests and mindsets. Anthea Roberts’s book investigates this myth in depth and shows how, contrary to the self-depiction of much of the discipline, international legal scholarship differs heavily across countries, is shaped by national traditions and institutional structures, and often follows patterns of dominance in the international system. This is a major achievement that should lead us to ask major questions about international law in a different light. Perhaps the most pressing of these - is international law distinct from international politics, and how? - will now have to be tackled in a far more nuanced way. Thinking about international law will never be quite the same again.’—Nico Krisch, Professor of International Law, the Graduate Institute Geneva, Switzerland

‘Anthea Roberts’s book has the potential of re-defining how we think about international law and its realities, both beyond and within the West. It shows us the field of international law in a new light and will open new directions for international legal research in the coming decades.’—Lauri Mälksoo, Professor of International Law at the University of Tartu, Estonia and the author of Russian Approaches to International Law (OUP 2015)

‘Asking the disarming question of whether “international law is international,” Anthea Roberts takes readers on an ingenious tour of the global flow of people and ideas in international law, the role of nationalism and transnational hierarchies in creating unequal and “divisible colleges,” and the implications for foreign policy and for the future of international law. The book is built on painstaking research into the educational background of international law scholars, where they publish and in what languages, how international law casebooks and treatises differ both within the “west” and from the materials in China and Russia. It is a stellar contribution to international law, the study of globalization and legal education, comparative law, international relations, and the sociology of legal knowledge.’—Bryant Garth, University of California, Irvine School of Law

‘Anthea Roberts’s book can be compared to a high-quality aerial picture of national and regional international law academias that live on the same planet as neighbours, but barely acknowledge each other’s existence and language. A product of excellent research and very thoughtful observation, the book speaks of differences, yet one of its aftertastes is a sudden sense of how similar all the nationalized approaches are in their parochiality. Roberts destroys the myth of universality only to open a way to genuine understanding of similarities in each other.’—Maria Issaeva, Managing Partner, Threefold Legal Advisors, Russia

Book reviews

(2020) 23:1 Austrian Review of International and European Law Online 523-526
(2019) 18:4 Chinese Journal of International Law 1009 1012
(2019) 4 Moscow Journal of International Law
(2019) 9:2 Asian Journal of International Law 392
(2019) 32 Leiden Journal of International Law 193-197
(2019) 16 ICONnect 4 (blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law)
(2018) 58 Indian Journal of International Law 517–520
(2018) 81 The Journal of Politics 1
(2018) 112 American Journal of International Law 4
(2018) Revue Critique de Droit International Prive(2018)
(2018) 19 Melbourne Journal of International Law 413-422
(2018) 70/2 Spanish Journal of International Law 285-286 (in Spanish)
(2018) Italian Yearbook of International Law
(2018) 21 Journal of International Economic Law 739-743
(2018) 87 Nordic Journal of International Law 221–227
(2018) 81 The Modern Law Review Limited 547–551
(2018) 7 Cambridge International Law Journal
(2018) Yale Journal of International Law
(2018) 1 Eurasia: Rivista di studi geopolitici
(2018) Australian Yearbook of International Law
(2018) 29 (3) European Journal of International Law 1003-1022
(2018) ‘Is International Law International? Exploring its Normative Underpinnings’ 6 Questions of International Law 54, 5-19
(2017) ‘The Parochialism of American Cosmopolitanism’, Lawfare
(2017) 3 Storia del pensiero politico 3
(2017) ‘The Divisible College of International Lawyers’, Lawfare


Boston University Law Review Online 99 B.U. L. Rev. Online 14, 16 (2019)

Opinio Juris and EJIL: Talk!, 2018

Doctrinal thoughts on a doctrinal approach to the problem of diversity in International Law. Revisiting Anthea Roberts’ Is International Law International? and Comparative International Law, Questions of International Law online, 2018

Image: Anthea Roberts by Kym Smith, The Australian Business Review

Anthea Roberts named leading scholar in international law worldwide

08 October 2019

Professor Anthea Roberts of the School of Regulation and Global Governance (ANU College of Asia and the Pacific) has been named as the leading scholar in the field of Inte

Image: Professor Anthea Roberts (RegNet)

Is International Law International? by Prof Anthea Roberts shortlisted for the Hart-SLSA book prize

21 January 2019

The School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) is pleased to congratulate Professor Anthea Roberts on the continue

Anthea Roberts and her book Is International Law International?

Anthea Roberts makes 2018 CHASS Australia Book Prize longlist

20 September 2018

The acclaim for the latest book by ANU Law alumna and RegNet Associate Professor, Dr Anthea Roberts

2018 CHASS Book Prize Longlist

Book by Dr Anthea Roberts makes 2018 CHASS Australia Book Prize Longlist

06 September 2018

2018 CHASS Australia Book Prize Longlist announced

Anthea Roberts wins top international law award

05 February 2018

Associate Professor Anthea Roberts from the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) has won the American Society of International Law’s most high profile and prestigious book prize for her recent monograph Is International Law International? (Oxford University Press, 2017).


Professor Anthea Roberts

Anthea Roberts, a Professor at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), is an interdisciplinary researcher and legal scholar who focuses on new ways of thinking about complex and...

Trade, investment & IP 440x440

Trade, investment and intellectual property

This cluster looks at the impacts of the trade, investment and intellectual property regimes on the regulatory sovereignty and capacity of states and the consequences that flow from those impacts.

Law, justice and human rights

RegNet is one of world’s leading centres for socio-legal research. This cluster aims to lead the development of transformative ideas in the fields of criminology and restorative justice; human rights and international law; legal pluralism; peacebuilding; the regulatory dimensions of international and domestic law; and rule of law.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet