The Contested Authority and Legitimacy of International Law: The State Strikes Back

Forthcoming in: Christopher Daase and Nicole Dietelhoff eds. Beyond Anarchy: Rule and Authority in the International System, 2018

iCourts Working Paper Series, No. 134, 2018

30 Pages Posted: 11 Jul 2018

See all articles by Karen J. Alter

Karen J. Alter

Northwestern University - Department of Political Science; University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law - iCourts Center of Excellence

Date Written: June 28, 2018

Abstract

Written to engage IR theory debates, this chapter argues that the crafting, invocation, interpretation and application of international law are a primary means through which states collectively rule and contest politics in international relations today. Yet since international law (IL) draws its legitimacy and authority from public affirmations of and diffuse support for the rule of law, public support for the rule of law is a permissive condition for IL to be politically constraining. After explaining how national and transnational legal practices constitute international law’s de facto authority, the chapter explores both ordinary and extraordinary contestations of IL authority. Ordinary contestation takes place within a legal field, when lawyers, stakeholders, judges and government officials debate and contest over the meaning of international law. Political tactics are also part of ordinary contestation, but because the curators of IL authority are transnational, a state may be unable to impose its preferred IL interpretation. Where states fail to impose a preferred interpretation, three extra-ordinary contestation strategies can be used to escape IL authority: 1) states can seek to replace international law’s authority with domestic law’s authority; 2) states can pit different international laws against each other by maneuvering within and around international regime complexes; and (3) states can attack the legitimacy and authority of international law altogether. Where authority challenges enhance IL accountability, they are to be welcome. But each strategy can also be used to tear at the fabric of IL authority, potentially undermining the permissive conditions that make IL both constraining and effective.

Keywords: de, facto, authority, international, law, interpretation, application, politics, national, transnational, legal, practices, IL, regime, complexes

Suggested Citation

Alter, Karen J., The Contested Authority and Legitimacy of International Law: The State Strikes Back (June 28, 2018). iCourts Working Paper Series, No. 134, 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3204382 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3204382

Karen J. Alter (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Department of Political Science ( email )

601 University Place
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law - iCourts Center of Excellence ( email )

Karen Blixens Plads 16
Copenhagen, DK-2300
Denmark

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