Law Without Links: Re-Locating International Economic Law within the Sphere of Law and Society

37 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2009

Date Written: January 20, 2009


This article argues that, in order to understand international economic law now and in the future, it is necessary to relocate it squarely within international law rather than as a subgroup at best, or an almost separate entity at worst. The reason for this argument is the author's belief that attempts to create or define international economic law as occupying a separate space in relationship to international law ignore the intertwined nature of these areas of law, threatening to undermine their ability to work in tandem - and with other areas of international law - to create an overarching international legal regime. In this article, the term "international economic law" is given an expansive meaning and incorporates trade, commerce, and other matters that indirectly affect these laws in the international context - such as customs and tariffs practices. In this article, the term "international economic law" includes actions, policies and decisions made by organizations involved in international trade and commerce law, as well as its regulation. It also includes the actions, policies and decisions made by regional and inter-regional organizations, as well as regional banks, because of the abilities of these entities to affect and be affected by the international system. While this definition of international economic law is inherently reflective of public law principles, it does embrace private law concerns as well.

In order to explain the legal and societal pillars upon which this argument is founded, Part II examines the historical evolution of international contact for trade and commerce. It establishes a symbiotic relationship between international law - and the social/political views it expressed - and commercial activities that were regulated by formal and informal law between state actors and their citizens. In this Part, the point will be made that, although important to international law and international economic law, the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, and the system that grew out of it, should not be regarded as the birthplace of international economic law, as is so often the case in teaching and writing on international economic law.

After reviewing this evolution, Part III examines the state of economic-related organizations and trade agreements since World War II. The organizations studied are grouped into the categories of international organizations, inter-regional organizations, regional organizations, and regional banks. Although some of these organizations are not truly international, their actions and decisions have an impact on the international system. What emerges from this study is that, with few exceptions, every organization discussed exists for reasons beyond the sole focus of international economic law.

The lessons of Parts II and III combine to form the arguments in Part IV. This Part argues that the relationship between international economic law and international law is of such symbiosis that they must be located in the same sphere in order for each to make sense for state and society alike. Once this relocation occurs, one can then reexamine the idea of "linking" international economic law with other areas of international law, such as international human rights law and international environmental law. A holistic view of the history of international economic law and international law makes it clear that connections between other areas of international law already exist and that, as such, there is no need to "link" them. Part IV goes on to argue that, when freed from the need to link these and other related areas of law, each area of international law - and international law itself - is allowed to serve its full and complete role for law and society.

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Harrington, Alexandra R., Law Without Links: Re-Locating International Economic Law within the Sphere of Law and Society (January 20, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Alexandra R. Harrington (Contact Author)

Albany Law School ( email )

80 New Scotland Avenue
Albany, NY 12208
United States

CISDL ( email )

Montreal, Quebec

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