Yesterday's Reach: How Legal Institutions Keep Pace with Technological Change

53 Pages Posted: 16 Apr 2021 Last revised: 26 Oct 2021

Date Written: January 2, 2020


The notion that law struggles to keep pace with technological change is all too common a refrain among policymakers and pundits. Conventional wisdom holds that technology offers dissatisfied states both the means and motive to evade their international commitments. This is understood to be especially true when the letter of the law is ambiguous, as is often the case in international relations. In reality, however, many of our most "ambiguous" legal institutions are remarkably resilient to technological breakthroughs that shift the distribution of power. Departing from widely held assumptions about what makes norms effective, I argue that highly specific laws -- long believed to enhance compliance -- perform well for conventional technologies but are uniquely sensitive to unanticipated novelties. Legal agents are commonly tasked with interpreting the law on behalf of policy principals. For those who care about maintaining a veneer of legal-professional credibility, ambiguity about what the law does include elicits more compliance than specificity about what it does not include. To test the theory, a sample of elite law students and graduates is commissioned to write long-form advisory briefs about a legally questionable technology while political motives, technological novelty, and the specificity of a hypothetical law are randomly varied along 2^3 factorial-controlled conditions. Statistical and text analytic results strongly support the theory that specificity dampens international law's staying power, adding weight to the notion that the push for more treaty specificity in recent decades may actually undermine international law’s durability to a changing world.

Keywords: international law, law, arms control, compliance, technology, survey experiments, disarmament, foreign policy, hypernymy, political psychology

Suggested Citation

Canfil, Justin Key, Yesterday's Reach: How Legal Institutions Keep Pace with Technological Change (January 2, 2020). Available at SSRN:

Justin Key Canfil (Contact Author)

Harvard Kennedy School

79 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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