Listen up: “Something very important is going on”.
That’s Justice Stephen G. Breyer introducing his new book,”The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities.” His is the latest — perhaps the strongest — voice telling Americans we must listen to, and respect, the wisdom and experience accumulated the world over.
Yes, he focuses on legal issues. But not entirely: “In a shrinking and increasingly interconnected world,'” he told The New York Times, “understanding what is going on abroad is necessary and helpful, whether the topic is national security, free speech, securities regulation or antitrust law… judges throughout the world …facing similar problems could learn from each other.”
And his counsel in the interview is chillingly timely:
“Methods used in Britain, Israel and Spain to combat terrorism should instruct American judges. ‘How did their system work out? … the answer to that will help us think about our system.’ “
In his related Wall Street Journal op-ed Justice Breyer is even more full-throated in espousing such sharing of intelligence (our double entendre intended):
“Today a considerable number of cases require us to examine the law and practices of other nations. Legal problems — human-rights violations, threats to national security, computer-hacking, environmental degradation, corporate fraud, copyright infringement — surface beyond our borders and may become potential threats to us at home.
“Meanwhile, many Americans engage in international transactions and travel to lands where the customs and laws are different from our own. The legal questions that arise when something goes wrong in a consequential way with an American abroad, or a foreign national here, are among the most challenging that a court must decide.”
Last night on the Charlie Rose PBS program, Justice Breyer extrapolated on his bracing theme by pointing out that U.S. courts are already getting legal briefs from many parts of the world; court decisions must consider such viewpoints if their decisions can be implemented harmoniously by regulators in foreign venues; and there are already dozens of multilateral regulatory bodies.
It is not a great analogous distance from Justice Breyer’s anti-hubris counsel to that of current appreciation of diverse systems abroad on an even broader scale.
One such current debate: whether universal political values — such as a singluar meaning of “democracy” — can be sustained in an ultra-pluralistic global society. William J. Burns, head of the Carnegie Endowment and a former deputy secretary of state, offered these valuable distinctions in a recent Times interview: “Our own preachiness and lecturing tendencies sometimes get in the way, but there is a core to more open, democratic systems that has an enduring appeal … [the core] is the broad notion of human rights, that people have the right to participate in political and economic decisions that matter to them.”
History may well look kindly on the prescience of Justice Breyer’s global perspective and that of similar authoritative commentators.