Harold Hongju Koh Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Transnational Legal Process and World Order: Conversation with Harold Hongju Koh, Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale, October 3, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 6 of 6


As you talk, it strikes me that one of the dilemmas that you must have as an academic with a theoretical, long-term perspective, moving to government, is the short-term perspective that seems to be present often when one is in government. I wonder if you would talk a little about that frustration. You've just laid out a beautiful, long-term vision, but in the short term, things don't go the way one would have wished if one were moving toward the long term. Talk a little about that dilemma of the academic in government.

The academic tends to have theories and tends to have visions, and the practitioner has to get things done. The practitioner's focus is almost always short term, and the academic's focus is always long term. I've tried to adopt a mentality of what I call pragmatic idealism. I believe that civilization makes progress. Look at where we are now, fifty years after the Holocaust, the things that are possible now that weren't possible before.

In the end, I think that academic theories have to not be based on a theory of collapse or failure, but on a theory of the possibilities of human cooperation. The story that says it the best was when I was in Belgrade in Christmas of 1998. There was a radio station called B-92, which had been very critical of Milosevic, and Milosevic shut them down. In the last days before they shut them down, they asked me to come in for an interview. I was talking to an interviewer, like you, in a studio, and the guy was almost in tears. At the very end, he said "We're about to go off the air." And he said, "What can you say to our listeners that will give them hope?"

I said, "Madeline Albright was born in Nazi Germany. She fled from the Communists, and now she's Secretary of State of the most powerful country in the world. My father was exiled from a dictatorial government in South Korea, and now his son is the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights of the United States. And guess what? Both of our countries are free. The Czech Republic is free. South Korea is a burgeoning democracy." I said, "And Yugoslavia will be, too." And, you know, it's true. Belgrade is in a post-Milosevic era. So I can be discouraged about 9/11, but I can't look at my own life and not feel as if, as an academic or as a practitioner, pragmatic idealism should not be my focus, and fundamental optimism about the possibilities of civilization.

The bottom line in this positive direction that you're talking about is what we started with, your interest in the effect of transnational processes on both individuals and states, and also, the internal processes of those states.

I've come to the idea that transnational process is like medicine. When I first put the idea out, a lot of political scientists said to me, "What's your theory? What's your prediction?" as if this was a scientific process that's going to play out. As I worked on it I started to think, "It's not so much a scientific theory as it is a blueprint for action. We need able practitioners who are going to push this process along." I don't think human history just plays out inevitably. I think it is contingent on human action. So when people say to me, "What does your theory now predict?" I say, "Will the patient die or will the patient live?" You know, it depends. It depends on how good the doctor is, and how quickly they identify what's wrong, and how far they push for the right results.

So it's a craft, an art?

It's a craft. My view is there was a choice after 9/11. I think we made a lot of the wrong choices. We're now starting to recognize that we made the wrong choices. So even when we make mistakes, there's a self-correcting nature of the system, but it's a job of people who care about the system, and of making progress to push it in the right direction. That's why I'm very inspired by the quote from Robert Kennedy at Cape Town in the 1960s. He said, "Every time a person stands up against injustice, it sends forth a tiny ripple of hope which is crossing one another from a million centers of energy, and daring to create a tide that can bring down the mightiest walls of injustice." He's talking about what one person can do in transnational legal process to change the world. When he said it, he was in Cape Town, and now South Africa is a constitutional democracy. There are people who are living proof -- Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi -- that this pragmatic idealism, connecting intellect to action, a theory to practice, has the possibility to change the world for the better.

Professor Koh, on that very hopeful and positive note, thank you very much for joining us and sharing this fascinating intellectual odyssey with us.

Thank you very much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California

To the Conversations page