The Politics of Precedent in International Law: A Social Network Application

35 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2013

See all articles by Krzysztof Pelc

Krzysztof Pelc

McGill University; Oxford University

Date Written: 2013


There is no formal binding precedent in international law. Yet, as this article demonstrates, countries nonetheless expend considerable resources in seeking to shape legal precedent. Looking at the international trade regime, I show that while some disputes are initiated to gain market access in response to domestic interests, others are filed primarily to build favorable precedent for future cases of greater commercial value. I construct an original dataset consisting of the network of all rulings spanning the WTO period, and the cases they cite. I analyze this network to provide systematic evidence for the existence of "test cases" in international law: countries initiate commercially unimportant disputes to shape legal precedent to their advantage. And wealthy countries with high legal capacity are significantly better able to do so. While the existence of binding precedent in international law remains a point of continuous debate, countries observably behave in a manner consistent with its existence.

Keywords: international relations, international law, precedent, WTO, social networks, trade.

Suggested Citation

Pelc, Krzysztof, The Politics of Precedent in International Law: A Social Network Application (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN:

Krzysztof Pelc (Contact Author)

McGill University ( email )

855 Sherbrooke St. W
Montreal, Quebec H3A 2T7

Oxford University ( email )

Department of Politics and International Relations
Manor Road Building
Oxford, OX2 6LE

HOME PAGE: http://

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics