The following lecture was first presented by Sir Daniel Bethlehem KC at Inner Temple on Monday 13 November, as part of jointly hosted event by Arnold & Porter and the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law.
Thank you for the kind introduction. It is an honour to have been invited to give this lecture, and not just a little bit daunting. It is a pleasure to see so many friends and colleagues here this evening.
It is more than just a little daunting for two reasons. The first is that the world is in flames at the moment, and has been for some time. But the intensity and ferocity of the blaze just now is overwhelming. We cannot escape it. And we all think that the law has and should have something to say about it, and to be a vehicle for change and for betterment. Law, international law, has a strategic purpose not just a regulatory and operational function. That strategic purpose is to set the structure of the society in which we live, and want to live. It is to embed stability and predictability and to shield us from the Leviathan, from the Livyatan, the mythical, multiheaded sea serpent of the Book of Psalms turned into social contract theory by Thomas Hobbs. But it is also to be an instrument of change, to be a beacon, especially in the darkest days when we struggle to see through the gloom. It is in the darkest days that we must strive hardest to see the light. In words engrained in our collective psyche, it is said that, in the beginning, darkness was over the surface of the deep. But there were lights in the vault of the sky. Not just to give light but also to give direction. But discerning direction, even as we struggle to discern the light, is hard. It is not a skill that comes naturally. It has to be learnt; and it has to be taught. That is the responsibility of leadership. It is born of calm amidst the tumult, from conscious distance, not from the focus on the fray.
The second reason for being daunted is my topic. As everyone who speaks from a podium such as this knows, when one is first invited to speak, and asked for a title, grand notions take hold. I could speak on this; or on that. This is a nice idea. And then, as judgement day approaches, the struggle for content begins. Ideas don’t easily take wings. And what is nice and catchy when said in a sentence or two does not quite so easily become an erudite vision of the state of the world. This, though, is a rod of my own making.
Before I turn to my topic, let me say first what I will not be talking about. I will not be talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the horrors of that ongoing conflict. I will not be talking about the incomprehensible savagery of the 7 October attacks or the ferocity of the response. I will not be talking about the evil that is being visited on innocents in Sudan in a civil war that has been raging for many months. I will not be talking about the displacement of tens of thousands of people in Myanmar in recent days in the face of heavy clashes between the military regime and its opponents. I will not be talking about the many other manmade tragedies, both unfolding and in recent memory, that should rightly engage our conscious attention. They form an element of the backdrop for my remarks, and provide momentum to them, but these urgently present conflicts are not my subject today.
My focus is on the longer term, looking to 2100, the turn of the next century. I will come to the reason for that horizon in just a moment. I grew up at the feet of an economist and learned early of John Maynard Keynes’s much quoted comment that “in the long run we are all dead”. The turn of the next century is a long way off, but it is not that far. I have young children. With good health and good fortune, and steady hands of global leadership, they have every chance of seeing that date. My eyes are on the world of their future.
Lawyers tend not to focus on the long term. Speaking 11 years ago in honour of Eli Lauterpacht I concluded a lecture on “The End of Geography” with a reference to The Little Prince in which the Little Prince has a conversation with a geographer, “an old gentleman who wrote voluminous books”.1 The geographer says to the Little Prince:
“Geographies are the books which, of all books, are most concerned with matters of consequence. They never become old-fashioned. It is very rarely that a mountain changes its position. It is very rarely that an ocean empties itself of its waters. We write of eternal things.”2
In contrast to geography, the law is not about eternal things. It is about the here and now. It is about how we organise and manage our society. We hope that the law is of consequence, and it is our calling to work to this end. But the law can become old-fashioned. Mountains may only rarely change their position, and oceans only very rarely empty themselves of water. The law, though, and its institutions, are both more vulnerable and more adaptable. My thesis is that we need a longer vision for the kind of society we want. The law and its institutions are the tent under which we live, the standard to which we hold ourselves and hold others. Lawyers need to be visionaries as well as craftsmen.
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