02 April 2024

The consolidation of public international law and the marginalisation of sovereign debt issues, 1870–1939

How do practices of global governance affect the construction and delimitation of the discipline of public international law? In his PhD thesis, Francesco Corradini looks at the practical and theoretical engagements of public international law with sovereign debt issues from the last quarter of the 19th century through to the interwar period. As he explains in this interview, the consolidation of the discipline was accompanied by a marginalisation of these issues over time.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

The construction and choice of my research topic was very much influenced by the intellectual environment in which I conducted my research. First, as a doctoral student and researcher in International Law at the Geneva Graduate Institute, I was exposed to academic disciplines and interdisciplinary fields that deeply informed my trajectory. The opportunity to discuss my research ideas with and receive feedback from my PhD supervisors influenced my perspective and the questions that structured my inquiry. Two contexts proved particularly influential. First, my experience in the research project on Interface Law (2017–2020), directed by Professor Nico Krisch, gave me unique insights into the academic discussions in the research field that interested me, which helped me construct a research object that might be of interest to scholars in that field as well. Second, my participation in Professor Grégoire Mallard’s seminar on Marcel Mauss and International Relations sparked my interest in intellectual and political debates around the governance of international finance in interwar Europe and its implications for the discipline of public international law at that time. 

At the beginning of my research, I was interested in academic and policy debates that highlighted, often seeking to resolve, the paucity of international legal rules in the area of global finance, which some observers juxtaposed with other areas of global economic governance, such as trade and investment, where international treaties, international arbitration and adjudication seemed to attract the international legal profession. I wanted to better understand the drivers behind attempts to “expand” the scope of the international legal order to supposedly lawless areas. However, the more I read about it, the more I became persuaded that legal relations were part of the picture from the start. Instead, the questions that ought to be tackled were: what kind of law is relevant in the area of sovereign debt and how were the boundaries of the international legal order drawn in the first place? 
Can you describe your research questions?

My main research question was: How do practices of global governance affect the construction and delimitation of the discipline of public international law? I approached this question through an inquiry into practical and theoretical engagements with sovereign debt questions from the last quarter of the 19th century through to the interwar period – a period of time seen by many observers as marking the rise of modern of international law but also an important chapter in the historiography on sovereign debt. To bring into focus the construction and delimitation of the discipline of international law, I chose to focus on sovereign debt because the international legal order has come to be portrayed as remaining underdeveloped in that area. 

What is your methodology?

Methodologically, my analysis combines recent developments in law and global governance scholarship – in particular the “entanglement” frame – and historical sociological approaches to the relationship between academic and political fields. In practice, I inquired into the orientation of the discipline of public international law by focusing on how a group of international lawyers approached the treatment of sovereign debt issues of their time. These issues spanned from the nineteenth-century cases of the Egyptian and Greek debt to the cases of financial reconstruction schemes under the auspices of the League of Nations after World War I. I paid particular attention to the way the writings of these international lawyers were received in the discipline. To situate these jurists’ reflections in a broader context, I also inquired into how creditor states and other powerful actors navigated and construed their relations between legalities around sovereign debt issues. This included an analysis of the extent to which international lawyers were involved in the early activities of the League of Nations and the space that was left to international bureaucrats around contemporary sovereign debt issues. Both my research questions and methodology evolved according to preliminary findings throughout my research. At the beginning, I searched a lot of published and archival materials in and around Geneva. My purpose was to get exposed to the “inner” institutional world(s) of the League of Nations because I wanted to get closer to the way of speaking of the people who lived at the time and populated the worlds I wanted to study. In practice, I conducted most of my research in the UN Geneva Library and the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Library.  

What are your major findings?

My research highlights a correlation between the consolidation of the discipline of international law and the marginalisation of sovereign debt issues over time. On the one hand, reports on these issues circulated in fields closer to colonial law, private international law and private (contract) law, and often involved countries deemed by European writers to be at the margins of the international legal order. On the other hand, the few public international jurists who manifested interest in those issues later changed path to align themselves with the orientation of the discipline.

As an exception to the observed pattern, marginal concerns around intervention to enforce repayment of sovereign debt were taken up by international lawyers, as the discursive construction of the famous “Drago doctrine” (i.e., failing to repay national debt is not a valid reason for foreign intervention) illustrates. However, much of the rest – the broader governance of sovereign debt – was largely ignored by the field, though with important variations across contexts. 

My thesis also shows that supposedly novel developments brought about by globalisation and the rise of global governance – the turn to informality and privatisation – have significant antecedents in earlier periods. 

Finally, my research provides a different answer to the question: What is the right context to study the international legal order? Many interpreters debating this question have rarely paid attention to the construction of the boundaries of the international legal profession and what is seen to lie outside them. By contrast, I sought to approach that question by focusing on its margins during a period in which the very boundaries of what we today call international law were less consolidated than they later came to be. 

Building on these findings, in my future research I hope to clarify the question whether the observed distinction between what belonged to public international law topics and what belonged to global administrative science became more pronounced or remained relatively stable over time. I aim to do this by inquiring into whether, at some earlier point in time, international lawyers were actually more interested in phenomena such as sovereign debt. This would warrant an investigation into whether the boundaries that were drawn prior to 1870 changed or remained relatively stable. 

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Francesco Corradini defended his PhD thesis in International Law on 22 September 2023. Associate Professor Fuad Zarbiyev presided over the committee, which included Professor Nico Krisch and Professor Grégoire Mallard, Thesis Co-Supervisors, and Professor Jérôme Sgard, Political Economy, SciencesPo, Paris, France.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Corradini, Francesco. “Sovereign Debt Ordering from the Late 19th Century through the Interwar Period: How Experiments in International Financial Administration Affected Transatlantic Fields of International Law.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.
An abstract of the PhD thesis is available on this page of the Geneva Graduate Institute’s repository. As the thesis itself is embargoed until December 2026, interested readers can contact Dr Corradini for access.

Banner image by Craig Walton/
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.