International Relations Global Constitutionalism
Antje Wiener
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0092


There are two c’s in “global constitutionalism”: constitutionalization and constitutionalism. A third c, constitution, comes to mind; however, it is traditionally established to keep the politics of governments in check. The constitutional norms, principles, and procedures provide a reference frame that operates as a third angle to two conflicting parties. Typically, the notion of global constitutionalism or its precursors emerges in the environment of international organizations and reflects the need to qualify regulatory practices or to put constitutional principles in place. The European Union (EU), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the United Nations (UN) have been among the first organizational contexts in which constitutionalization has become a common feature, with the intention of qualifying world trade, environmental, human rights, and postconflict policies based on constitutional principles. These changes reflect a shift from globalized toward constitutionalized international relations. Politically, this development indicates potential conflict following contested constitutional norms, principles, and procedures. This situation raises the question of whether and to what extent the familiar (modern) constitutional reference frame is suitable for assessing and understanding constitutionalism beyond the state. In the absence of government in the global realm, reference to any of the three c’s in international relations (IR) theory and international law discourse, respectively, presents both a puzzle and a trigger for the emerging debate about global constitutionalism. For the developing interdisciplinary research program on global constitutionalism, it is most important to distinguish between the central concepts of constitutionalism and constitutionalization. “Constitutionalization” is defined as a process by which institutional arrangements in the nonconstitutional global realm have taken on a constitutional quality. This process frequently occurs in a relatively spontaneous, little coordinated, and even elusive manner. Therefore the emergence and the very constitutional quality of this process remain to be established by further empirical research. In contrast, “constitutionalism” is a theoretical approach; it is a framework rather than a phenomenon. As a framework, it allows for studying and understanding the phenomenon being observed—the shift from globalized toward constitutionalized international relations. However, it is important to keep in mind that because theories, such as constitutionalism, always reflect their context of emergence (time, place, agency), it is possible—and important—to distinguish between different types of constitutionalism, for example, ancient, modern, European, Confucian, late modern.

General Overviews

Given that the field of global constitutionalism emerged only in the early 21st century, no general overviews of the topic have been published. Instead, the unfolding academic discussion encompasses selected discursive interventions regarding international relations as well as international and European law. As decisive events that triggered an ever more focused debate and discussions about global constitutionalism as a subdiscipline in the social sciences and law, it is possible to identify three distinct changes in world politics: first, the growing impact of principles of fundamental rights on decision-making processes in international organizations considering, for example, trade policy, environmental policy, or fisheries; second, the influence of constitutionalization in the process of European integration; and third, the contested role of the UN Security Council in decisions about military interventions and the application of smart sanctions that have become almost routine practices following the watershed World Trade Center attacks of 11 September 2001. The latter provided the kickoff of a return to the larger questions in international relations (IR) theory as well as an enhanced interdisciplinary collaboration that raised awareness about law and politics across disciplinary boundaries. The sections in this bibliography serve as a systematic map of the emerging field of global constitutionalism.

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