The Role of International Law in the Contemporary World
Lori Fisler Damrosch and Rein Müllerson
International law has much to contribute to the promotion of world security, mutually advantageous cooperation, and the resolution of many global problems. Yet in order for international law to realize its full potential, its undeniable limitations and obstacles must be frankly confronted and addressed. Some of these limitations derive from the negative climate of the Cold War; others have even deeper origins; still others have become evident only in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In any event, the end of the Cold War provides an opportune moment for reconsidering and possibly overcoming them.
Political and governmental actors have often treated international law as subordinate to political, military, strategic, or economic considerations. International lawyers, on the other hand, have sometimes tended to exaggerate the significance of international law and to ascribe to it possibilities that it does not possess. This tendency does not strengthen the position of international law -- quite the contrary. Not only ignorance of international law, but also unjustified praise and the creation of unwarranted expectations can undermine the real potential of this indispensable but hardly omnipotent instrument.
In the present chapter we take up in Part I the competing pressures on the international legal system in the contemporary world. On the one hand are the factors that place extraordinary demands on international law and bring it to a central place in world affairs; on the other hand are obstacles that prevent international law from achieving the aspirations of its supporters. In Part II we turn to the issue of improving the effectiveness of international law, through external and internal mechanisms for its enforcement.