In the Straus Public Lecture on November 28, Seyla Benhabib, currently a fellow at the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice, considered "Democratic Sovereignty and International Law: The Contemporary Debate."

Benhabib, the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, invoked the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s views on an American “cosmopolitan” elite whose interests increasingly diverge from those of regular people: “Are cosmopolitans dead souls? Is cosmopolitanism the privileged attitude of globetrotting and world-hugging elites, removed from the concerns of ordinary citizens?”

Joseph Weiler and Seyla BenhabibRejecting that characterization, she asserted that cosmopolitanism “has become a placeholder for thinking beyond the confusing present towards a possible and viable future. Legal developments are at the forefront of these transformations.... Morally, the cosmopolitan tradition is committed to viewing each individual as an equal unit of moral respect and concern. Legally, cosmopolitanism views each individual as a legal person and ties them to the protection of their human rights in virtue of their moral personality and not their national membership or other status.”

As a political philosopher, Benhabib said, she was interested in the relationship of international law and treaties with democratic sovereignty: “In the last three decades, the status of international law and of transnational legal agreements with respect to the sovereignty claims of liberal democracies has become a highly contentious theoretical and political issue. Deep divergences have emerged among democracies normally considered allies.” While Europe has gravitated toward a cosmopolitan order, she said, the U.S. Supreme Court follows a strong isolationist path.

In her own work, Benhabib is concentrating on a narrower aspect of this complex web: “My thesis is that, in fact, the supposed conflict between such norms [international legal norms regarding human rights] and democratic sovereignty derives from an inadequate understanding, not only of sovereignty, but also of how international and transnational norms function in democracies. Such norms, I wish to claim, enhance rather than undermine popular sovereignty.”

Benhabib’s lecture offered “a perspective and a normative model for thinking through the relationship of cosmopolitan human rights norms and democratic sovereignty that tries to go beyond some of the indefensible and stale juxtapositions in which much contemporary discourse today seems to be mired.” Following her talk, University Professor Joseph Weiler, director of the Straus Institute, moderated a Q&A in which Benhabib elaborated on many of her points.

Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 27 min):