Some Reflections on the Point of it All

Sorry for the radio silence lately. I taught a short course at the University of New South Wales in Sydney a few weeks ago, and now classes have started back in here at Alabama.  Fortunately, Jean-Pascal has done some excellent posts in the interim.

I suppose I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking lately about my professional life – maybe I’m having a mid-career crisis. I probably am. The “what’s the point of it all?” type of questions.

I wonder at times if the costs and frustrations of doing this blog, and trying to engage with communities outside of the international law scholarly community, are producing enough utility and benefit to justify them.

It’s quite clear that the nonproliferation “expert” crowd in NGO’s and think tanks in the US is not interested in meaningfully engaging with me on issues of nuclear energy and nuclear nonproliferation law. They consistently circle their wagons and reference each other’s superficial and often erroneous legal analyses, in order to reassure themselves and others that my views are marginal and “in the minority,” so they don’t have to engage with them seriously.

That goes hand in hand with another problem – the lack of a robust field of international legal scholars working in arms control law. There are certainly some excellent people working in the field, and a number of them write for this blog. But compared to other specialized areas of international law, there are still very few of us. This means that there is not in this area the kind of healthy, collegial exchange of ideas and analysis, at a deep and rigorous scholarly level, through books and law journal articles, as there is in other areas of international law.  If there were, it would be easier to point to others in the scholarly community writing in this area, to provide support for serious international legal analysis of arms control law sources, which would hopefully help to convince the NGO types of the superficial and erroneous nature of so much of what they assume to be correct about nuclear nonproliferation law.

It’s tempting at times to just give up and go back to only writing books and articles that maybe a few other legal academics and students will read.  I do think that, in fact, writing quality scholarship that can be of use for the education of the next generation of not only international lawyers but also diplomats, is one of the most powerful ways that a legal academic can hope to contribute to the real world. And I think that is a fine meaning upon which to found one’s professional life.

Perhaps I’m just being overly pessimistic and morose. But it is hard to see the point of this endeavor sometimes.

On an only somewhat lighter note, Paul Pillar published a good op-ed in the National Interest yesterday, urging Americans to take a deep breath and view ISIS in perspective. I think he’s absolutely right, and I’ve been doing a lot of eye-rolling at the alarmist hype coming out of DC about how serious a threat ISIS is to the US, and how we definitely have to eradicate them now before they come for us. How many times have we heard that song?


14 Comments on “Some Reflections on the Point of it All”

  1. JP Zanders says:


    I have to say: this is a terrible message. Then again, this self doubt I have too – all the time. It is part of a life in seclusion, where you have thoughts, you may want to share, but you are not entirely certain whether they are that worthwhile.

    If you worry about the nuclear research field, then just think how small the CBW community is. And just as fractured, as you describe for your own area.

    My attitude is to try to draw more people into these types of discussions, rather than try to convince those who have already well-established positions. This is one of the reasons that I develop any posting over several days and why I take the time to explain certain things and insert links to background documents.

    At the same time, optimising some tools – I use Twitter and LinkedIn, but there is other stuff like Facebook, etc. – also ensures that people outside our narrow research communities read and get interested in the issues. I am surprised how broad the response to The Trench can be.

    What I am suggesting is that the impact may be far wider than you can imagine. Were you not the proud one that your’s was among the better legal blogs?

    So, Dan, get out of your dip, and join those who trudge across the tundra mile after mile (to paraphrase Frank Zappa’s ‘Nanook Rubs It In’) in pursuit of disarmament.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      I appreciate your encouragement, Jean-Pascal. I think I’ll be alright. I’ll just sort of have to change my expectations a bit from when I started this blog; i.e. change from thinking that I might actually be able to engage with the policy wonks in this area and make an impact on things in real life, to a focus instead on doing quality analytical work more for the work’s sake, and hopefully communicating with minds that are still open to thinking objectively, as you suggest.

      That will probably mean arguing less with the DC wonk crowd, which never seems to do any good, and focusing rather on relationships and collaborations with people that are reasonably minded, solid analysts and scholars. It’s just sort of a mental change that I’ll have to make, and then I’m sure I’ll go on with blogging, etc.

  2. Leonard van Willenswaard says:

    Hello Dan,

    I was educated in civil law so I am far from an expert in your field. However, as a layman I find the exchanges on this site extremely valuable because they are an independent academic sound in a world that by now mainly seems to exist by propaganda. Especially the comments on the whole Iranian situation have for me been an important help in taking a political position that is not contrary to my conscience.
    I am way past midlife crises; the only thing I could say about that is “use that occasion” and don’t be swayed from what is important.

  3. Saira Bano says:

    Dear Dan,
    I am working on nonproliferation issues in my PhD research and believe me your blogs helped me greatly. I could not get international law perspective on nonproliferation issues and non-expert opinion were making things worse. With your blog now i am getting much needed clarity. Your work is contributing not only to enhance the existing research but also directing research in right direction. Your point of view is getting acceptance in policy circle. Thanks for your tremendous contribution and hope you will keep contributing.

  4. Fiorangela says:

    Dan —

    I’m not a lawyer, not conversant in international law nor in nonproliferation matters; my university sent me a diploma by mistake.

    But I am educable, and I can read, and do seek to understand, and do feel a responsibility to influence my fellows and my government to think critically and rationally, not propagandistically and opportunistically. In order for me to carry out my citizen activist role I rely on you and J P Zanders and others to educate and inform me.

    I’m sure I’m not the only person who is not in your specialized field but whose thinking is changed by what you write. You are an educator for a classroom the extent of which you do not know. Please continue to provide us a sound metric against which to evaluate the pronouncements of the “DC wonk crowd.”


  5. Dan Joyner says:

    Thank you Fiorangela. That’s nice of you to say, and insightful about the scope of the audience that can be reached through a blog.

  6. Dan Joyner says:

    Let me just say that I really appreciate the kind thoughts and encouragement of those that have written on the blog or privately to me. I don’t want people to feel that they have to respond in order to “talk me down” from the blogging ledge, or that I’m trolling for compliments. I do sincerely appreciate messages of encouragement, though. Mostly this post was just about me venting a bit. Its cathartic somehow just to get my thoughts out there. Jean Pascal is right that being an academic is a life largely in seclusion, and its difficult to know how much if any impact your work is having on other people’s thoughts, or on the real life of diplomacy, law and society. So one is bound to question sometimes what utility there is in research and writing. This is especially true after an academic has reached a point of seniority at which tenure and promotion are no longer animating considerations. This can happen relatively early in life sometimes, leaving 25-30 years left in a career when there are few professional requirements, or even milestones left, but really just one’s own personal desire and commitment to be an active and quality scholar. This is of course a wonderful thing – to be able to essentially dictate one’s own work agenda and pace. But with that freedom from external impetus or regulation, can come a sense of aimlessness and purposelessness. I’m sure there are many academics out there who have had these same feelings.

    Anyway, as I said before I’m sure I’ll go on blogging, etc., just with perhaps a more realistic set of expectations of what I can hope to achieve. Which is not necessarily cause for despondency; rather simply a realistic understanding of where the value of such work lies. And a number of you have helped me to understand that. Thanks again.

  7. Maya says:

    Hi Dan – I enjoy reading your blog! It covers many issues of interest to my area of work, although my focus is not on non-proliferation and arms control, but on disarmament and weapons regulation driven by humanitarian concerns. In this area of ‘humanitarian disarmament’ I believe you’ll find scholars and activists are eager to engage. FYI, registration is open for the 2014 Humanitarian Disarmament and Arms Control Campaign Forum which will take place on 17-19 Oct 2014 in New York 😉

  8. Cyrus says:

    The way I see it, would you prefer to be one voice amongst many, going along to get along, or remaining silent … or would you rather make a difference? Because making a difference means doing what you’re doing. The fact that you’re the only one doing it, should be viewed as a boon not a liability.

  9. Janaina Isabel Tewaney Mencomo says:

    In my opinion, the problem lies in 2 facts: 1. International law lacks clear and specific conventions prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons in all circumstances. 2. The Non Proliferation Treaty’s language appears to be broad and open and as a consequence there is lack of enforcement, so nations are not taking it seriously.

    Hence we will have an International Court of Justice handing down astonishing advisory opinion such as the one on 8 July 1996. The gap in the law is giving the space to the court to interpret the law in a more philosophic/sociologic approach.

    It is the international community’s responsibility to guide the direction in which the law should go. The small group of academics and specialists focused in this area cannot give up and have the duty to continue educating diplomats and country leaders to engage on a better legislation.

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