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52.1 Introduction to International Law

J. L. Austin, the legal realist, famously defined law as “the command of a sovereign.” He had in mind the fact that legal enforcement goes beyond negotiation and goodwill, and may ultimately have to be enforced by some agent of the government. For example, if you fail to answer a summons and complaint, a default judgment will be entered against you; if you fail to pay the judgment, the sheriff (or US marshal) will actually seize assets to pay the judgment, and will come armed with force, if necessary.

The force and authority of a government in any given territory is fundamental to sovereignty. Historically, that was understood to mean a nation’s “right” to issue its own currency, make and enforce laws within its borders without interference from other nations (the “right of self-determination” that is noted in the Charter of the United Nations), and to defend its territory with military force, if necessary. In a nation at relative peace, sovereignty can be exercised without great difficulty. But many countries are in civil war, and others experience “breakaway” areas where force must be used to assert continued sovereignty. In some countries, civil war may lead to the formation of new nation-states, such as in Sudan in 2011.

In the United States, there was a Civil War from 1860 to 1864, and even now, there are separatist movements, groups who refuse to recognize the authority of the local, state, or national governments. From time to time, these groups will declare their independence of the sovereign, raise their own flag, refuse to pay taxes, and resist government authority with arms. In the United States, the federal government typically responds to these “mini-secessionist” movements with force.

In Canada, the province of Quebec has considered separating from Canada, and this came close to reality in 1995 on a referendum vote for secession that gained 49.4 percent of the votes. Away from North America, claims to exclusive political and legal authority within some geographic area are often the stuff of civil and regional wars. Consider Kosovo’s violent secession from Yugoslavia, or Chechnya’s attempted secession from Russia. At stake in all these struggles is the uncontested right to make and enforce laws within a certain territory. In some nation-states, government control has failed to achieve effective control over substantial areas, leaving factions, tribal groups, or armed groups in control. For such nations, the phrase “failed states” or “failing states” has sometimes been used. A failing stateA nation-state where substantial parts of the geographic territory in that nation are no longer effectively controlled by the central government. usually has some combination of lack of control over much of its territory, failure to provide public services, widespread corruption and criminality, and sharp economic decline. Somalia, Chad, and Afghanistan, among others, head the list as of 2011.

In a functioning state, the right to make and enforce law is not contested or in doubt. But in the international arena, there is no sovereign lawgiver and law enforcer. If a criminal burglarizes your house and is caught, the legal authorities in your state have little difficulty bringing him to justice. But suppose a dictator or military-run government oppresses some of the citizenry, depriving these citizens of the chance to speak freely, to carry on a trade or profession, to own property, to be educated, or to have access to water and a livable environment, or routinely commits various atrocities against ethnic groups (forced labor, rape, pillage, murder, torture). Who will bring the dictator or government to justice, and before what tribunal?

There is still no forum (court or tribunal) that is universally accepted as a place to try to punish such people. The International Criminal Court has wide support and has prosecuted several individuals for crimes, but the United States has still not agreed to its jurisdiction.

During the 1990s, the United States selectively “policed” certain conflicts (Kosovo, Haiti, Somalia), but it cannot consistently serve over a long period of time as the world’s policeman. The United States has often allowed human rights to be violated in many nations without much protest, particularly during the Cold War with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), where alliances with dictatorships and nondemocratic regimes were routinely made for strategic reasons.

Still, international law is no myth. As we shall see, there are enforceable treaties and laws that most nations abide by, even as they are free to defect from these treaties. Yet the recent retreat by the United States from pending international agreements (the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and others) may be a sign that multilateralism is on the wane or that other nations and regional groupings (the European Union, China) will take a more prominent role in developing binding multilateral agreements among nations.

Key Takeaway

International law is based on the idea of the nation-state that has sovereignty over a population of citizens within a given geographical territory. In theory, at least, this sovereignty means that nation-states should not interfere with legal and political matters within the borders of other nation-states.


  1. Using news sources, find at least one nation in the world where other nations are officially commenting on or objecting to what goes on within that nation’s borders. Are such objections or comments amounting to an infringement of the other nation’s sovereignty?
  2. Using news sources, find at least one nation in the world that is engaged in trying to change the political and legal landscape of another nation. What is it doing, and why? Is this an infringement of the other nation’s sovereignty?
  3. What is a failed state? What is a failing state? What is the difference? Is either one a candidate for diplomatic recognition of its sovereignty? Discuss.