Optimal Protection of International Law: Navigating European Absolutism and American Voluntarism

112 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2007 Last revised: 23 Nov 2007

See all articles by Joost Pauwelyn

Joost Pauwelyn

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID); Georgetown University Law Centre


Imagine a world where international law can be flawlessly enforced. In that world, how strongly should international law be protected? With ever more international law and more international tribunals this world is no longer a fantasy. This article addresses the question of optimal protection of international law in a three-step model of allocation, protection and back-up enforcement of international law entitlements. The article does not ask the tired question of whether international law is law or legally binding. Rather, with the use of law and economics tools, the article assesses how strongly states are, or should be, bound to international law. The article concludes, somewhat counter-intuitively, that by default international law ought to be protected by a property rule. This prediction is confirmed in the current state of international law and debunks both what I call European absolutism and American voluntarism. Relatively weak formal instruments of back-up enforcement (compensation and 1:1 retaliation) do not undermine this property protection thanks to what I call the kicker of community costs. At the same time, the article proposes a matrix of considerations that, in specific circumstances, should shift optimal protection to either stronger inalienability protection or weaker protection under a liability rule. If international law is to further develop and refine it must adopt a model of variable protection.

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Pauwelyn, Joost, Optimal Protection of International Law: Navigating European Absolutism and American Voluntarism. U. of St. Gallen Law & Economics Working Paper No. 27, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1019415 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1019415

Joost Pauwelyn (Contact Author)

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) ( email )

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Geneva, Geneva CH-1211

HOME PAGE: http://graduateinstitute.ch

Georgetown University Law Centre ( email )

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