How to think outside the box: researching at NYU School of Law

Dr. Paulina Starski about her research within the NYU Global Scholar Program

Since 2014, I have been working as a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg. My habilitation project is, however, supervised by Prof. Dr. Axel Kämmerer, which is one of the many reasons why I have remained closely affiliated to Bucerius Law School, where I also studied and completed my Ph.D.

"The Unwilling or Unable State as a Challenge to International Law"

Among my various research interests and areas of expertise are (comparative) constitutional law, (transnational) administrative law, and European law. Since my habilitation phase, I have directed my scholarly attention mainly at international law and its history, as well as international legal theory. My particular focus here is on the principle of sovereignty, normative dynamics, state (in)capacity, problems of attribution, the prohibition on the use of force, principles of state responsibility, as well as international human rights law. My externally funded habilitation thesis on “The Unwilling or Unable State as a Challenge to International Law” takes as its starting point the notion of the “unwilling or unable state” that permeates the contemporary international legal discourse on the right to self-defence as enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter.

My research project - funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation as well as the Daimler and Benz Foundation - started off as a normative contextualization, evaluation and critical deconstruction of this controversial concept and the debates surrounding it. However, it took a more fundamental turn in the course of my research.

Some of the research questions guiding my analysis are:

  • What is a state’s (un)willingness?
  • What constitutes its (in)capacity?
  • What are the peculiarities of the notion of “unwilling or unable”, and to what extent does this concept fit into the scheme of the current system of international rules?
  • What legal implications flow from the non-fulfilment of international legal obligations for the “unwilling” state, which for the merely “incapable” state, and which duties and rights of other international law legal actors correlate with the non-fulfilment of international obligations?
  • To what extent is the capacity to act normatively interrelated with an obligation to act?
  • To what extent do international legal rules – irrespective of the sovereign equality of states that stands at the root of the international legal order – address and incorporate discrepancies in state capacities, on the primary level of the normative command itself, and on the secondary level of state responsibility?
  • Do inconsistencies surface?
  • To what extent are the answers international law in its present state has to offer with regard to “unwilling” or “unable” states inadequate and/or insufficient?

Invitation by the New York University School of Law

I have been very lucky that my postdoctoral thesis project attracted the attention of the New York University School of Law, which has invited me to conduct research as a Hauser Global Fellow and DAAD Visiting Scholar. My research stay at NYU was to a large extent made possible by Bucerius Law School’s Joachim Herz Fellowship. Looking back at the first weeks of my “NYU experience”, I am positive that my research stay here has already been and will continue to be extremely beneficial for the advancement of my project. More importantly, it will beyond doubt have a major influence on my self-understanding as a scholar.

The Hauser Global Fellowship has given me the opportunity to become an active part of the NYU School of Law’s faculty. The atmosphere here is remarkable: its main characteristic is a unique culture of discourse which knows no hierarchies. On a daily basis, some of international law’s greatest minds like Joseph Weiler or Benedict Kingsbury present on their research and put it to debate, explicitly encouraging critical comments by fellow faculty members and other peers. In these debates they are by no means given special treatment. Frequently such discursive encounters end up with the decision to discard the presented manuscript altogether and start again “from scratch”. The faculty understands itself as a kind of “agora” inviting and fostering continuous academic exchange and debate, be it in special seminars, during faculty lunches and receptions (which are very delightful also in the “culinary” respect), organized talks, or just in the hallways.

Contesting "legal truths"

Scholars working here are driven by a compulsion towards a constant contestation of “legal truths” which are taken for granted, as well as a search for the “unconventional” but argumentatively well-elaborated idea which in the end allows us to see the legal world as we know it differently. Occasionally, this can be more than challenging for legal scholars who have been shaped by and trained within the continental European legal academic culture. Yet exactly this confrontation with different approaches to law and styles of legal research helps one to become more aware of one’s own scholarly identity.

I have already had the opportunity to present my habilitation project in a variety of forums to many faculty members and peers. This has been an incredibly stimulating intellectual exercise. The numerous constructive comments I received have – while assuring me I am on the right path – helped me to see more clearly which parts of my research I still need to reflect on further. They have already had an impact on the design of some of my thesis chapters. It is fair to say that I have very quickly “internalized” the three “NYU mantras” of legal research: “think outside the box”, “let your research matter”, and “do not write law books, but books about law”. All in all, a research stay at NYU is a highly recommended experience – and not only for scholars at the beginning of their academic careers.

Further links to publications and projects: