The Post Office as International Law Bellwether?

by Harlan Cohen

News of the U.S. Postal Service’s struggles has been circulating for months, if not years. Today, the news is of distribution center closings, layoffs, and the end of next-day mail. The end of Saturday delivery may not be far behind. Obviously, a large part of the story is increased competition from independent parcel carriers – UPS, FedEx, DHL – and from email.

This shift from USPS to its competitors underlines the radical changes that have taken place in cross-boundary activity and its regulation. Negotiating cross-border postal service has often served as a model of modern international law’s role and effectiveness. Postal agreements were among the first treaties negotiated by the Washington administration in the U.S. (and among the first examples of executive agreements), and the 1874 Treaty of Bern setting up the General Postal Union was one of the first major multilateral treaties, setting up one of the first international organizations – and often heralded as such. The Universal Postal Union, as the General Postal Union became known, now has 192 member states and serves as U.N. Specialized Agency. And “Mailing a letter reliably and easily to anyone in the world,” was number 2 on the American Society of International Law’s “International Law: 100 Ways it Shapes our Lives.” Here, in many ways, was the model of modern international law: States at the center, negotiating the reciprocal regulation of cross-border activity, and international law allowing coordination for mutual benefit.

But the end of the Post Office’s dominance highlights how this picture has changed. I’m not an expert on this area (and I invite thoughts from anyone who is), but the private parcel carriers seem to stand outside this state-centric international law model. (It’s not that the state has disappeared, just that it’s chosen to regulate, or not, in different ways.) The private carriers gain access to foreign markets, not through state-to-state agreements, but by establishing local footprints in different countries and/or negotiating directly with governments. Rather than being regulated by a central state-controlled IO, they operate amongst a complex web of state laws, private regulatory regimes like the International Organization for Standardization (see DHL’s website touting its ISO certifications), and private Codes of Conduct (see UPS’s here, referencing the U.N. Global Compact’s Human Rights Principles). The Internet presents governance models all its own.

It seems that just as the Post Office’s monopoly has been broken, so too has traditional international law’s. What comes next? We have our work cut out for us.

4 Responses

  1. Harlan, Extremely interesting post.  Just as the rise of the state tracked, and was facilitated by, the rise of state mails (see this fascinating book by David Henkin), one can also correlate the decline of both.

  2. I also am not an expert on postal matters, but I can think of at least one context where private international law has treated courier services such as Fedex like government-run postal services. The Hague Service Convention permits states to object to service of process in their territories through “postal channels.” Are the private services part of the “postal channel?” Both the Permanent Bureau of the Hague Conference and several US cases have said yes (though the cases are not uniform).

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