Legal Obligation in International Law and International Finance
45 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2016
Date Written: July 14, 2016
In an era riddled with critiques of the relevance of classic international law, some have loudly given up on the subject, while others have placed their hopes in alternative mechanisms of global governance. One alternative is “soft law,” and nowhere is soft law more successful than in international financial regulation (IFR). Today, almost every bank of any size across the world has to keep similar amounts of money in its emergency reserve, cannot stake its future on complex derivatives or other forbidden trades, and faces oversight that, no matter where the bank is located, will be conducted in roughly similar ways, with roughly similar tools. And yet the promulgators of these rules consistently disavow their status as binding law.
These disavowals are disingenuous, and unpacking the reasons why has useful lessons for how international governance works, whether backed by treaty and custom or not. IFR works like traditional international law in three ways. It, like international law, depends on domestic institutions for implementation, although traditional international law has often sought to ignore the importance of any institution below the level of the state. IFR reminds us that the coordination of international interests comes with winners and losers, and therefore that the “mere coordination exercise” that international governance represents should not be dismissed, though traditional international law occasionally has been critiqued for that reason. And IFR emphasizes the necessarily messy way that fundamental legal principles are arrived at in international governance of any stripe -- something I call the contestation principle. These features of both hard and soft law have been overlooked by both the traditionalists and critics of international law, but process-driven insights like them have much to tell us about both hard and soft law, which may not, in some ways, be so different after all.
Keywords: financial regulation, international law, soft law
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