The Need for a 'Micro' Approach to International Economic Law

6 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2023 Last revised: 16 May 2024

See all articles by Katrin Kuhlmann

Katrin Kuhlmann

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: October 31, 2023


How could trade agreements become a better tool for inclusive and sustainable trade and development? The answer lies in the details and the approach. Trade agreements tend to happen at a more macro level, designing top-down rules that may or may not have an impact on the ground. Impact assessments could help bridge this gap, but they can only go so far absent a process for redesigning law to fully take vulnerable stakeholders into account. Further, the relationship between trade agreements and domestic law must also be better understood. Although regional rules sometimes lead to domestic legal action, domestic law also influences the content of Regional Trade Agreements. Ideally, law at the international, regional, and domestic levels (as well as the sub-national level) would be studied in relation to each other and viewed through the prism of the needs and interests of affected stakeholders. While a number of RTAs have some mechanism for consultation, it is often not conducted on a comprehensive level, and those impacted often learn of how trade law may impact them long after the ink on a trade deal has dried.

The need for deeper study of individual and community priorities, national legal innovation, and comparative areas of common ground and conflict all point to the importance of new methodological tools in international economic law. In addition to the principle of sustainable development, a micro approach draws from the principle of “subsidiarity” in international law, which suggests that international legal standards, such as human rights standards, should be applied at the lowest level of governance to be effective, thus calling for “bottom-up” assessment and design of RTAs. In the context of international trade and development, applying the principle of subsidiarity would necessitate understanding how the economic rules that make up international trade law are designed and implemented at the domestic and even local level, as well as how individuals and communities impact and are impacted by these rules.

I propose that a field of “Micro International Economic Law” is needed that combines these principles with a broader understanding of more micro-level trade and development challenges and their possible impact on domestic and regional law. A micro approach would blend empirical research and alternative models for shaping future international law, perhaps holding the potential to reshape power dynamics locally and internationally in the process. By understanding the interests of individual stakeholders, communities, and domestic governments in advancing trade and development, all of which ultimately can and should work from the ground up to influence international approaches, perhaps the benefits of international trade law really could be shared more broadly in practice. This approach will be developed further in future scholarship and draws upon interdisciplinary micro approaches and “micro-interventions” in economics, political science and international relations, and human rights, as well as innovative approaches in international economic law.

Suggested Citation

Kuhlmann, Katrin, The Need for a 'Micro' Approach to International Economic Law (October 31, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

Katrin Kuhlmann (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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Washington, DC 20001
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