How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory

How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory

How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory

How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory


How International Law Workspresents a theory of international law, how it operates, and why it works. Though appeals to international law have grown ever more central to international disputes and international relations, there is no well-developed, comprehensive theory of how international law shapes policy outcomes.

Filling a conspicuous gap in the literature on international law, Andrew T. Guzman builds a coherent theory from the ground up and applies it to the foundations of the international legal system. Using tools from across the social sciences Guzman deploys a rational choice methodology to explain how a legal system can succeed in the absence of coercive enforcement. He demonstrates how even rational and selfish states are motivated by concerns about reciprocal non-compliance, retaliation, and reputation to comply with their international legal commitments.

Contradicting the conventional view of the subject among international legal scholars, Guzman argues that the primary sources of international commitment--formal treaties, customary international law, soft law, and even international norms--must be understood as various points on a spectrum of commitment rather than wholly distinct legal structures.

Taking a rigorous and theoretically sound look at international law,How International Law Worksprovides an in-depth, thoroughgoing guide to the complexities of international law, offers guidance to those managing relations among nations, and helps us to understand when we can look to international law to resolve problems, and when we must accept that we live in an anarchic world in which some issues can be resolved only through politics.


When teaching international law, one is confronted with foundational questions from the very start of the course. Does international law affect state behavior, and if so, how does it do so? Why would states pay any attention to international law in the absence of coercive enforcement mechanisms? What do we mean when we say international law is “binding,” given that states can almost always choose to violate it? Every instructor of the subject must find a way to respond to these questions, if only so that the class can get on with the business of learning the rules of international law.

But no matter how these questions are addressed, there is no escaping their importance. Those of us who study international law tend to believe that it affects state conduct and that it can usefully be deployed to address serious problems among nations. But if we venture outside the comfortable community of international legal scholars, that belief is challenged. And rightfully so. Whatever the strengths of international law, it remains almost entirely without coercive enforcement—the primary tool used to generate compliance in domestic systems. Those of us who believe in international law, then, need to offer a persuasive explanation of why and when it works. This book seeks to do just that.

I am certainly not the first to take up this challenge, and many of those who have done so before me have informed my thinking. What this book seeks to contribute is a comprehensive and theoretically sound account of international law from a rational choice perspective. It seeks to explain how international law is able to constrain states, even when those states are selfish and have no intrinsic preference for compliance with the requirements of international law. Building this . . .

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