International Law and International Relations


A new dialogue is beginning between students of international law and international relations scholars concerning compliance with international agreements. This article advances some basic propositions to frame that dialogue. First, it proposes that the level of compliance with international agreements in general is inherently unverifiable by empirical procedures.

That nations generally comply with their international agreements, on the one hand, or that they violate them whenever it is in their interest to do so, on the other, are not statements of fact or even hypotheses to be tested. Instead, they are competing heuristic assumptions. Some reasons why the background assumption of a propensity to comply is plausible and useful are given.

Second, compliance problems very often do not reflect a deliberate decision to violate an international undertaking on the basis of a calculation of advantage. The article proposes a variety of other reasons why states may deviate from treaty obligations and why in many circumstances those reasons are properly accepted by others as justifying apparent departures from treaty norms.

Third, the treaty regime as a whole need not and should not be held to a standard of strict compliance but to a level of overall compliance that is ‘‘acceptable’’ in the light of the interests and concerns the treaty is designed to safeguard. How the acceptable level is determined and adjusted is considered.

Recent research on compliance in international regulatory regimes has argued (1) that compliance is generally quite good; (2) that this high level of compliance has been achieved with little attention to enforcement; (3) that those compliance problems that do exist are best addressed as management rather than enforcement problems; and (4) that the management rather than the enforcement approach holds the key to the evolution of future regulatory cooperation in the international system.

While the descriptive findings are largely correct, the policy inferences are dangerously contaminated by endogeneity and selection problems. A high rate of compliance is often the result of states formulating treaties that require them to do little more than they would do in the absence of a treaty. In those cases where noncompliance does occur and where the effects of selection are attenuated, both self-interest and enforcement play significant roles

institutional forms and to frame the analytic and empirical articles that follow in this volume. International legalization is a form of institutionalization characterized by three dimensions: obligation, precision, and delegation. Obligation means that states are legally bound by rules or commitments and are therefore subject to the general rules and procedures of international law. Precision means that the rules are definite, unambiguously defining the conduct they require, authorize, or proscribe.


Delegation grants authority to third parties for the implementation of rules, including their interpretation and application, dispute settlement, and (possibly) further rule making. These dimensions are conceptually independent, and each is a matter of degree and gradation. Their various combinations produce a remarkable variety of international legalization.

We illustrate a continuum ranging from ‘‘hard’’ legalization (characteristically associated with domestic legal systems) through various forms of ‘‘soft’’ legalization to situations where law is largely absent. Most international legalization lies between the extremes, where actors combine and invoke varying degrees of obligation, precision, and delegation to create subtle blends of politics and law.

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