International Law and Natural Resource Policies

Natural Resources Journal, Vol. 20, p. 451, 1981

Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper Archival Collection

38 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2010

See all articles by Richard Bilder

Richard Bilder

University of Wisconsin Law School

Date Written: 1981


This article points out the relevance of international law to an understanding of international natural resources issues. It notes that international law shapes the international system for allocating resources by establishing basic rules about the circumstances under which nations can assert property rights in resources. This underlying framework influences how nations see resource problems, the kinds of solutions they consider and the form in which they express and formalize their resource arrangements.

More particularly, the article discusses three ways in which international law is particularly important to thinking about natural resource policies and problems: 1) the ways in which different legal concepts of national property rights affect the structure of international natural resource arrangements; 2) the ways in which disputes about international law reveal underlying differences in views of “equity” or “fairness” in international natural resource arrangements; and 3) the ways in which international law can help nations to reach cooperative arrangements for dealing with natural resource problems.

The article concludes by suggesting a few broad conditions for more effective international cooperation on natural resources issues. First, both developed and developing nations must come to terms with the fact that their interests are inextricably related, that policies of either confrontation or autarky will pose serious risks and costs, and that there is simply no alternative to some degree of cooperation. Second, nations must recognize that any quest for a single standard of equity is likely to prove impossible, that cooperation requires constructive efforts by all nations to reach compromises with others’ points of view, and that agreements can be effective only when both sides see them as fair. Third, nations must move away from unresolvable debates on ideology and “matters of principle” to a reasoned dialogue, workmanlike discussions, and good faith bargaining on the very practical questions of particular pressing resource and other economic problems. Finally, all nations must realize that the peaceful co-existence of nations requires international order, that international order necessarily implies some limits on absolute national sovereignty and discretion, and that international law serves in the broadest sense to implement rather than to obstruct the achievement of long-run national interests.

This article also appears in P. Dorner and M. El-Shafie (Eds), RESOURCES AND DEVELOPMENT: NATURAL RESOURCES POLICES AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN AN INDEPENDENT WORLD (University of Wisconsin Press, 1980), Chpt. 13.

Keywords: national resource policies, national resource law, international natural resources, international resource policies, international natural resource arrangements, international natural resource law, U.S. foreign relations, U.S. foreign policies

JEL Classification: K40, K32, L70, N30, F10, F13

Suggested Citation

Bilder, Richard, International Law and Natural Resource Policies (1981). Natural Resources Journal, Vol. 20, p. 451, 1981, Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper Archival Collection, Available at SSRN:

Richard Bilder (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

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