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19.1 Does international law have any real effect on the nature and conduct of international relations?

1. Why would states create so much international law if it doesn't matter?

  • Aligning with realist thinkers, some have argued that so long as states remain the main actors in international relations, these entities must be created and maintained through international norms and institutions. This is perceived as one of the most important roles of international law.
  • On the other hand, many argue that international law is not 'real' law. While law requires a central authority and is enforced by centralized agencies, neither of these properties are elements of international law.

2. Does it matter that international law is not the same as domestic law?

  • Many argue that it does not matter, as there is generally a high compliance with international law. Further, it is argued, that even where international law is not followed, states almost always reference it. In this sense, international law's status as a legitimate standard of international conduct is reaffirmed even when it is formally resisted.
  • Two counter-arguments stress that it does matter that international law is not the same as domestic law. The first, related to bullet point 2 above, claims that international law is subject to abuse, which allows powerful global actors to impose their own interests (for an more extensive discussion on Western dominance in international law see case study 1, this chapter). The second argument highlights that international law is too complex, which means that almost any action can be justified.

3. Would the world be more or less peaceful or cooperative if international law did not exist?

  • Realist thinkers might suggest that international norms premised on sovereignty and non-intervention establishes a framework premised on peace.
  • However, others have increasingly suggested that international law cannot keep pace with the changes that have occurred globally. For example, the regulations for the conduct of war in international law remains premised on a structure of war fought among two or more sovereign states. However, the nature of war has increasingly focused on non-state actors.