University of California, San Diego, School of International Relations and Pacific Studies

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Glimpsing the Future: Will the Private Sector Shape Public International Law?

Emilie Hafner-Burton

Emilie Hafner-Burton
Associate Professor and
2012 Recipient of the Karl-Deutsch Award
for scholars under 40 making significant
contributions to international relations research


What are the biggest challenges your students face as they move into positions of leadership?

Public policy training, at its best, recognizes that there isn’t a sharp line between government and the rest of the society and economy. The best public leaders must know a lot about business, and for most firms a smart engagement with the public sector is essential to good business strategy. That’s why we at UCSD teach public policy alongside management. One of the biggest challenges for today’s leaders is to find the right balance.

Another big challenge, especially for the current generation, is hard economic times. When the world economy is expanding, it’s relatively easy to get people and governments to embrace global goals, such as expanding world trade, protecting human rights, or slowing global warming. Hard times cause countries to look inward—at their own problems and own partisan debates. This is a huge challenge for today’s graduates on the job market: How can they steer international policies and business strategies [when the focus has shifted to domestic issues]?

What’s your teaching style?

I co-teach several classes with David Victor, and we are both very practical instructors. Students preparing for careers in public policy and management must learn how to connect theory with real-world experiences. That’s why our style is to expose students to leading theories alongside case studies.
We force students to build skills—as presenters, debaters, and writers—that allow them to find the main strengths and weaknesses of theories while quickly dissecting the essence of each case. There aren’t any theories in the social sciences that work in every setting, and one of the most important skills we can teach is the ability to translate insights from the Ivory Tower to real-world settings that our students will face once they leave school.

What are the newest frontiers in research, and how do students benefit?

David Victor and I run the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation. Like labs in the physical and biological sciences, the lab concept applied to the social sciences pools together lots of researchers working on overlapping topics. The idea is to build much more effective research teams by working together at scale; we employ dozens of students and also fund internships.

We’re working on two big challenges. One is to take the insights from psychology and behavioral economics and apply them to decision-making in international affairs, such as the design of treaties. The other is to better understand how private firms affect international politics. Social scientists today know a lot about nongovernmental organizations, which is great, but we know surprisingly little about how the private sector actually shapes public international law. We at the lab also work at the forefront of two of the biggest challenges ahead: global warming and protecting human rights.

School of International Relations and Pacific Studies
University of California, San Diego
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