From the halls of the US Capitol to the classrooms of The Fletcher School, Professor Michael J. Glennon has gone from legal counsel to influential academic in a decades-long career focused on the political realities of international law.
Glennon joined Fletcher’s faculty in fall 2002. But even prior to his arrival, his research has looked primarily at the use of force, under both international and US constitutional law, while considering the effects of related issues such as UN reform, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
“The most potentially catastrophic problem facing the world today is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. There’s no close second,” said Glennon. “The world as we know it could be transformed overnight by the detonation of a biological or nuclear device in a major city. How to keep the lid on these weapons is the biggest unanswered question for international law.”
Glennon stressed that the solutions to yesterday’s problems are not necessarily applicable today.
“Interstate conflict is less common nowadays but more deadly and potentially even more calamitous,” Glennon said. “And in some ways, the risks are greater now for Americans than they were during the Cold War.”
The Cold War era, particularly the Vietnam War, sparked Glennon’s interest in politics, which in turn piqued his intellectual curiosity regarding international law.
For three summers starting in 1968, he interned in the Washington office of Rep. Don Fraser (D-Minn.), a leader of the anti-war movement in the House and a highly respected legal scholar. But sound arguments supporting the legitimacy of the war were not without merit, Glennon said.
“In a perverse way the person most responsible for my interest in international law may have been my constitutional law professor in law school, Carl Auerbach, who was a brilliant defender of the war’s legality,” said Glennon. “We had long arguments in class that I remember to this day.”
Glennon added that he also has drawn inspiration from the likes of Tom Franck, Abe Chayes and Keith Highet.
“Each of them has demonstrated the important link between theory and practice―between teaching and practice―which I think was the key to their success,” he said.
The link between theory and practice became apparent to Glennon during the Carter administration, when he served as legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The experience offered a glimpse beyond the public personas of members in the country’s elite lawmaking body.
“It gave me a sense of how essential it is in international law to distinguish between rules that are real and those that are make-believe,” Glennon said. “Behind closed doors, Senators are no-nonsense and have no time for fairy stories and science fiction. Of course, that’s true in the State Department and Pentagon as well. Students need to have that same hard-headedness.”
Glennon aims to instill that kind of thinking in students, pointing out that understanding the field is a virtual necessity.
“Before 9-11, policy-makers could rely upon international lawyers to tell them most of what they needed to know about international law,” Glennon said. “Now, policy-makers need to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of international law themselves because they may not have a lawyer at their elbow when they need one.”
While Glennon has taught at several law schools, he said he believes Fletcher offers a distinct advantage.
“International law can’t be understood outside of a broader interdisciplinary context, and Fletcher’s curriculum is unique in that regard,” he said. “Also, the faculty is wonderful and students here are about as interesting a group as you would find anywhere.”
By Timothy Homan, MALD '07