Author: Karen J. Alter

[Karen J Alter is Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University and co-direcor at iCourts Center of Excellence at the Copenhagen University Faculty of Law.] Thanks so much to Tonya Putnam, Roger Alford, and Jacob Katz Cogan for their thoughtful commentaries.  I appreciate their kind words, and their comments reflect one of my hopes for this book; that it will be a springboard for researching new and important questions about international courts and international law. I want to respond while echoing some of the questions they raise. My starting point for The New Terrain of International Law was the following question:  If the ‘problem’ of international law is its lack of enforceability, then how does making the law enforceable affect the influence of international law? I cut into this very big question by focusing on a new set of institutions that were designed to address the enforceability gap in international law.  The comments in this symposium push upon a number of choices I made as I then tried to make the project tractable. My first choice was to focus on the universe of permanent international courts, co-opting the definition of an IC created by the Project on International Courts and Tribunals (PICT). Alford’s commentary openly worries that others will follow me in focusing on PICT courts. I share this concern, which is why I discuss the limits of relying on PICT’s definition (p.70-77). For me, the most arbitrary part of the definition is its focus on permanent ICs. I decided to nonetheless catalogue permanent ICs because sticking to a plausible definition ensured that I was examining like institutions. Another related question I sometimes get is why I include ICs that exist but have no cases. This is where the benefits of PICT’s definition arise.  We can see from my universe that permanence is neither necessary nor sufficient for IC effectiveness, and we can start to examine why like institutions have varied impact.  This is a topic that Laurence Helfer and I have pursued through our in depth research on the Andean Court and on Africa’s ICs. I am already moving beyond PICT’s definition, as should we all. The New Terrain of International Law demonstrates the arbitrariness of focusing on permanent ICs by including as case-studies non-permanent bodies. The NAFTA case study, for example, discusses how the “permanent” WTO system proved no more able than the NAFTA system to address complaints about illegal US countervailing duties. The Chapter 5 discussion of the ICJ’s role in the Bahrain-Qatar dispute, and the same court’s ineffectiveness in resolving US-Iranian disputes, shows again that being a permanent IC, with preappointed judges and the jurisdiction to issue binding rulings, still does not necessarily improve IC effectiveness. Another step in moving beyond PICT’s definition is that Chapter 1 of the new Oxford Handbook on International Adjudication, which I co-authored with the author of PICT’s definition, Cesare Romano, excludes permanence from the definition of “adjudicatory bodies.” A second choice was to use structured case studies as the mode of investigating how the existence of an IC contributes (or not) to changes in state behavior in the direction indicated by the law.  Nico Krisch addresses indirectly my case-study choice in his reply on EJIL:Talk!

[Karen J Alter is Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University and co-direcor at iCourts Center of Excellence at the Copenhagen University Faculty of Law.] The New Terrain of International law: Courts, Politics, Rights uses the universe of operational permanent international courts (ICs), those with appointed judges that stand ready to receive cases, as a laboratory to explore the changing reach and influence of international courts in contemporary politics. In 1989 when the Cold War ended, there were six operational ICs. Today there are more than two-dozen that have collectively issued over thirty-seven thousand binding legal rulings. The New Terrain of International Law shows how today’s international courts differ fundamentally from their Cold War predecessors. Most ICs today have ‘new-style’ features, compulsory jurisdiction and access for non-state actors to initiate litigation, which scholars associate with greater independence and political influence. Most ICs today have a mandate that extends beyond inter-state dispute resolution. Chapters in the book chart the uneven jurisdictional landscape of ICs today, and offer an account of the proliferation of new-style ICs. The book is first and foremost a social science treatment of the growing role of ICs in politics today. I argue that the trend of creating and using new-style ICs signals a transformation from international law being a breakable contract between governments towards a rule of law mentality. ICs are not, I argue, the vanguard of this political change.  Rather, the trend towards creating new-style ICs reflects the reality that international law increasingly speaks to how governments regulate national markets, treat their citizens and conduct war, and both citizens and governments want these increasingly intrusive international legal agreements to be respected. For the most part, ICs are doing exactly what governments tasked them to do. International judges are resolving questions about the law, and holding governments and international organizations to international legal obligations. My primary objective is to understand how and when delegating authority to ICs transforms domestic and international relations.

[Karen J. Alter is a Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University. Alter’s most recent book is The New Terrain of International Law: Courts, Politics, Rights (Princeton University Press, 2014).] This post is part of the HILJ Online Symposium: Volumes 54(2) & 55(1). Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below. Suzanne Katzenstein’s article is a very welcome systematic investigation of the Hague era and post-Cold War proposals to generate international courts ("ICs"). Katzenstein puts her finger on a serious problem in the literature on international courts. Scholars are biased towards success, since it is hard to build a career by focusing on what does not exist for most to see. Katzenstein is correct in pointing out the limitations of our scholarly biases. Indeed the only way to understand what leads to IC creation is to give equal weight to both successful and unsuccessful efforts. Researching abandoned initiatives, however, is not so easy to do. One can find references to publicly voiced ideas and formed proposals that fail, but these references tend to be brief and anecdotal. Moreover, many ideas are voiced but then abandoned, leaving not even a paper trail. The dearth of deep secondary literatures regarding failed initiatives makes it is extremely hard to construct a universe of cases, let alone develop and test arguments that might explain why some proposals are abandoned. During what I call the Hague Peace Talk era, however, proponents developed a grand vision for a network of international courts. Katzenstein thus has a period of time in which she can investigate abandoned and successful endeavors, side by side. She then traces what happened to these initiatives over time. Her analysis deftly summarizes this landscape of successful and failed global initiatives across the twentieth century. I especially appreciate this article’s many tables that really help us see patterns as well as what became of various proposals.