The Growing Importance of Geopolitics in LL.M.s

Law schools have responded to messy, global challenges like Brexit and the US-China trade war by giving geopolitics much more prominence on the syllabus

As the world becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), demand for legal advice is high. Some law schools have responded to messy, global challenges like Brexit and the US-China trade war by giving geopolitics much more prominence on the LL.M. syllabus. 

The importance of geopolitical affairs is reflected in the teaching at Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics in Wales, UK. It runs a concentration in international affairs within its LL.M. course that explores a host of contemporary geopolitical challenges affecting the world today, from refugee law and asylum to money laundering and financial crime. 

“Recent geopolitical flashpoints provide us with contemporary case studies from which both the legal and political frameworks can be critically assessed,” says program director Reece Lewis. 

Because law and politics concern human behavior and affect relations between nations and peoples, geopolitical affairs are an essential element of LL.M. teaching, he says. “It enables us to ask whether the present law or the political framework is fit for purpose and how our world could be better.”

However, most law schools still include geopolitics as an optional elective module rather than creating fully fledged degrees in the subject. There are, however, a handful of specialized LL.M.s that might be relevant to students interested in geopolitics, such as the International Criminal Justice and Armed Conflict LL.M. at Nottingham University in the UK. Elsewhere, UCLA Law School runs an International Law LL.M., and the Geneva Academy offers an LL.M. in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. 

A multidisciplinary approach to geopolitics

Some law schools argue that geopolitics is ingrained in nearly every subject they teach rather than being siloed as its own topic. 

Basil Germond is the director of research training for the faculty of arts and social sciences at the UK’s University of Lancaster, which has a law school. He argues that schools should not teach geopolitics itself; rather they should teach students how to critically assess the importance of geopolitics to explain states’ actions on the world stage. 

He argues that developments in international law must be applied to geopolitical realities, from the discovery of exploitable natural resources in contested maritime spaces, to changes in the regional balance of power.

“It is thus crucial for LL.M. students to engage with the political and geographical dimensions of international relations, so as to be in a position to understand and critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of international law,” he says. 

In addition, another factor behind the rise in geopolitics in LL.M.s is the growing emphasis placed on interdisciplinarity in graduate education, Germond says, explaining that geopolitical courses often encompass law and politics faculty. 

On the LL.M. programs at University of Bristol Law School in the UK, students not only explore case studies but can pursue geopolitics through independent research in their dissertations. In addition, geopolitical developments strongly inform the content of modules across the range of LL.M. programs the school offers. These courses include world trade, maritime security, public and global health law. 

There are also new LL.M. concentrations that are designed to address geopolitical issues: international law and international relations; and law and globalization. “Students undertaking these programmes will explore issues at the cutting-edge of law and geopolitics,” says Keith Syrett, LL.M. director. “Bristol has always sought to take an approach to the teaching of law which situates legal norms and principles within a social, economic and political context.” 

Syrett says the increased focus on geopolitics at law schools reflects the growing number of academic staff working on issues at the interface between geopolitics and law. “Those staff are eager to share their knowledge and ideas with a new generation of postgraduates,” he adds.

But the subject can be hard to teach because of its breadth and complexity. And the diversity of students on LL.M. courses usually means that instructors have to be aware of cultural sensitivities to geopolitical issues.   

Also, Lancaster’s Germond says that not all LL.M. students are aware of the importance of geopolitics. “This needs to be communicated by program directors,” he says. 

Post-LL.M. careers in geopolitics

But he notes that the growth in teaching of geopolitics on LL.M. programs is being driven by students’ career outcomes, even if some are not aware of its importance. “Students of international law are likely to work in an environment where their understanding of international politics and geopolitics is as important as their knowledge of the very rules of international law,” he says, like multinational corporations. 

Indeed, geopolitics is not an industry, but graduates with a firm grasp of geopolitics may not only work in law, but in the public sector too, for example in global politics. Others work at NGOs. 

With the world looking like an increasingly uncertain place, all industries may have need of geopolitically savvy lawyers in the near future.  

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