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Political Science Research on International Law: 

The state of the field

- Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, David G. Victor, and Yonatan Lupu

This essay offers a fresh survey of what political science has learned that may be of special interest to international lawyers. 

Rather than surveying the entire field of political science about international relations, we focus on research that is most relevant for what public international lawyers actually do. We concentrate, therefore, on three areas: (1) the design and content of international legal institutions--not only treaties and non-binding agreements but also the many organizations that interpret and apply international legal contents; 

(2) the evolution and interpretation of international legal norms, including customary law and the standards that are written into treaty-based law; and

(3) the effectiveness of legal institutions in affecting the behavior of states, courts, firms, and individuals.

Political scientists see legal institutions and processes through the lens of politics. In part I, we lay three building blocks that are a foundation for most IR research on politics. The first is power. For political scientists, this concept is central to explaining which topics are on the agenda and how political processes interact with legal institutions. Second are the types of problems that stats and other actors create and also try to manage with international legal agreements. Some problems are marked by strong incentives for states to skirt their legal agreements, whereas others have a structure that more readily yields international cooperation. One aspect of problem type that political scientists usually find important is uncertainty; one of the roles of international institutions is to provide information that lowers uncertainty and to help states manage the effects of uncertainty. A third building block is domestic politics--the ways in which the internal political affairs of states and their systems of government, including judicial processes and the behavior of interest groups, shape how international rules are made, interpreted, and applied. These building blocks are at the heart of how most political scientists understand and analyze the design, content, and impact of international legal institutions. As in any mature field, political scientists have diverse research agendas; many of those differences trace back to the relative emphasis that different scholars place on the respective building blocks. 


Two decades have passed since the last large review of IR scholarship was written for legal audiences. Since then, collaborations between international lawyers and political scientists have increased, while the field of political science itself has shifted to focus on new topics.

Debates that used to rage within the field of political science about international law are no longer relevant. Notably, very few political scientists see the law as an unimportant force in world politics. Essentially all IR scholars find that international law, along with other international institutions, plays a substantial role in ordering relations between states. Most research is now focused on specific mechanisms that explain how law influences outcomes. Perhaps the most significant contributions of IR in the last two decades have come in the ways that political scientists have mobilized evidence to test hypotheses. Many new datasets and empirical studies have appeared. 

Here we have suggested a framework for understanding the development of political science research related to public international law. Our approach is to emphasize that political science rests on three main building blocks--with the balance among the blocks differing from one scholar to another. Those blocks help to explain why some studies focus on state power and coercion as a dominant force affecting the content and operation of legal institutions, whereas others look to the spread of global norms or the forces within states. The blocks also help to explain the particular approaches that political scientists have taken when studying the design and operation of legal institutions. This area is one where political science research, in theory, should overlap heavily with the work of public international lawyers, but actual collaborations remain scarce. 

We have suggested three areas where collaboration between political scientists and international lawyers could be especially fruitful. Successful collaboration will require clarity as to where, in particular, the two fields have common interests and goals, and where they do not. On some issues, such as those concerning the flexibility and enforcement of treaties, collaborations are already well underway. On other issues, such as those concerning the customary international law, questions that are of central interest to both fields will be difficult to answer satisfactorily until scholars collaborate more fully. 

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