Jide Nzelibe (A93) Brings Johnnie Spirit to Legal Scholarship

July 15, 2021 | By Les Poling

Jide Nzelibe (A93). Photo credit: Northwestern University.

For many, the phrase “international law” carries specific connotations. Someone who practices international law may work in politics, for example, or analyze global trade agreements for transnational corporations.

But for Jide Nzelibe (A93), a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, the study of law cannot and should not be so rigidly segmented. Nzelibe—whose 15 years of teaching and scholarship have touched on everything from war and the World Trade Organization to the legal ramifications of political partisanship—takes an approach to his field that will likely sound familiar to fellow Johnnies.

“There’s a certain spirit about looking at a work that St. John’s plants in you,” he muses. “In that spirit, the kind of subjects I gravitate to are the ones that straddle [disciplines.]”

Nzelibe initially discovered St. John’s after moving from Nigeria to Hyattsville, Maryland, and visiting the Annapolis campus during the spring of his senior year. “I sat in on a class—I recall it being a math tutorial,” he says. “I had never been in classes like that before; I’d never seen a pedagogical experience quite like that.” Soon after, he leafed through an admissions catalog of Program texts and authors, and made up his mind. Thanks to the college’s rolling admissions policy, he started undergrad with the Class of 1992 that fall, “and I haven’t looked back.”

During his time at the college, the seeds of Nzelibe’s future law career began to take root, though initially in the form of public policy. (After all, the heady questions that define that field also make up the foundation of many Program texts: What is a society? How do we create and maintain a polity?) To that end, Nzelibe pursued relevant internships and fellowships, one after sophomore year at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and one before senior year at the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation. The experiences led him to earn a master’s in public administration from Princeton University immediately after graduating from St. John’s; shortly after that, he decided to attend Yale Law School.

Nzelibe didn’t immediately intend to join the academy. He spent 1998–99 clerking in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, then moved onto Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd & Evans, PLLC, where he was an associate until 2002. Throughout the years, though, he wrote and submitted papers on legal topics for publication; “I did enjoy the idea of being immersed in an intellectual environment,” he recalls. He left his position at the firm to become a Bigelow Teaching Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School; since 2004, he’s been at Northwestern, achieving full professor status in 2008.

There’s a lot to enjoy about academia, according to Nzelibe—both as an educator and a scholar. He often teaches first-year courses required for incoming law students, an experience he calls inspiring. “Their desire to learn is really high; they don’t know what the future will bring, but they want to immerse themselves in this new world they’re entering,” he says. “I enjoy that quite a bit.”

Meanwhile, the scholarly side remains as thrilling as the day Nzelibe sat in on a tutorial at St. John’s, perhaps because he never feels obligated to check certain professional boxes.

“I don’t necessarily say to myself, when I start working on a project, ‘I’m going to restrain myself and write only in one specific area,’” he says. “I launch into it without thinking, ‘does this fit into box A or box B?’”

What that means, Nzelibe elaborates, is that he’s free to explore a vast range of interconnected, transdisciplinary subjects that may not seem explicitly linked to his field. In the past, such scholarship has included foreign relations law, the president’s powers with regard to foreign affairs and trade policy, and the intersections of international and constitutional law. Similarly, he’s currently exploring the ways in which identity politics—the concept of making political decisions informed by the cultivation, manipulation, or projection of a certain identity, rather than the Combahee River Collective definition—may be shaping policy around trade, even pushing the parties involved to advocate against their own material interests.

“I’m trying to explore why certain areas of international trade that used to be relatively boring, bulky, and technical have become fairly politicized,” Nzelibe explains.

As an example, he cites the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the trade treaty signed by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that, during the 2016 presidential election, suddenly emerged as a topic of mainstream discourse. NAFTA was once the niche domain of businesspeople, economists, trade scholars, government officials, and others whose livelihoods interacted directly with international trade policy. As a result, those who took a pro- or anti-NAFTA position would likely do so based on how they would materially benefit or suffer from the treaty.

Now that NAFTA is a subject of mainstream cultural conflict, Nzelibe suggests, an average person or politician’s views on NAFTA may say more about that person’s stance on a perceived cultural divide—left versus right, internationalism versus nationalism, rural versus urban—than on actual economic policy.

“What I try to suggest is that ordinary [economic or legal] disputes get transformed into a high-pitch battle over culture and identity,” he says.

The study of separate, intersecting fields—in this case, the effect of culture on international trade law—is somewhat rare. But Nzelibe finds himself drawn to such gray areas, and he attributes some of that intellectual curiosity to St. John’s. Referencing the Program, in which students study math, philosophy, the sciences, literature, and music without disciplinary segmentation, he says: “The Johnnie experience gives you more confidence in saying, ‘look, I can see these things are connected, I can see that there’s a philosophical element and an identity element, and I can see that the stakes are maybe higher than the economic issues that are being debated.’”

As the world continues to evolve, Nzelibe plans to continue applying that nuanced understanding of the world, studying the ever-changing legal mechanisms humanity conjures in response to a rapidly shifting global society. It’s his job, but it’s also the Johnnie way: to never stop questioning and learning.