Limits of International Law, The

Article Source: Oxford University Press, 2005
Publication Date:
Time to Read: 1 minute read
Written By:

 Jack L. Goldsmith

Jack L. Goldsmith

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This paper asks about the importance of international law.


Policy Relevance:

International law will not be able to solve many problems that are global in scope, because nations comply only when it is in their interest to do so.


Key Takeaways:
  • Different nations and governments act rationally to protect their interests, but what their interests are and how they see them varies widely.

  • How states behave (by respecting each other’s borders, for example) is determined by four factors:
    • Whether their interests coincide, not taking account of other states’ actions.
    • Whether the states gain from coordinating their behavior.
    • Whether the states gain from cooperation.
    • Whether one state can coerce the other.

  • International law takes the form of treaties or customary international law.

  • It can make sense for nations to refer to international law in discussions with other states, even if they do not mean to comply with it themselves.

  • It does not make sense to say that nations comply with international law because they consent to it or for some other moral reason. International law reflects states’ agendas in pursuing their own interests.

  • What international law can achieve is limited and it will not be able to solve many problems that are global in scope.