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Do international treaties alter states’ behavior?

Trump administration’s objection to international treaties, notably the Paris Climate Accord, the TPP, and NAFTA, raised questions on the rule of international treaties and their ability to influence states’ behavior. Poplar discourse does not view international treaties favorably, identifying them as the embodiment of naïve political thinking. In a global landscape that seems to be dictated by violence, terror, and the will of strong authoritarian men, treaties seem not to be working. Infamous failed treaties such as the Munich Agreement, the various treaties signed with Native Americans, the Treaty of Versailles, and the abortive Kellogg-Briand Pact are hallmarked as exemplars for miscalculation and bad leadership.

However, this perception is woefully incorrect. International treaties are not only a great success story but also an essential part of the foundations of contemporary global order. They regulate states’ conduct in the international sphere on environmental issues, trade, security, health, human rights, and many other topics and sub-topics. In fact, the lifestyle of affordable and available food, transportation, communication, and information, are all a result of treaties. Similar to news coverage, where the worse is emphasized over the mundane, we hear about treaties mostly when they fail.

Several studies demonstrate that even on controversial issues, such as environmental protection or torture, states that sign international treaties modify their behavior. There are several reasons for that. In some cases, the international community produces mechanisms that penalize transgressions. Sanctions and penalties are most common when state deal with one another. Yet, international treaties also empower private actors when they need to deal with foreign states. For example, Argentina’s default of its debts brought a few of its private debt investor, NML Capital to seize an Argentine naval vessel as a collateral until their money will be paid. After debates in the Ghanaian courts, where the ship was captured, NML Capital won the injunction.

Sanctions are most effective in trade related issue but are somewhat effective in other areas. In other cases, treaties are a way to motivate actors to pursue a common goal, not that different from joining the gym with a friend. Sociologists like myself will also point out the spread of international norms and standards that facilitate and normalize treaty signing, as local politicians or the public internalize the need of those treaties. For example, if environmental issues becoming more and more popular the likelihood of people and politicians demand or promote them will increase. Moreover, treaties became a political currency used in international politics and in the fight for public opinion. For example, signing a treaty of scientific collaboration between rich countries and a developing county can be presented by local politicians from the later as a success and indication of the scientific progress they brought.

However, it is important to understand that while signing treaties generally improves state behavior, it is not a guarantee to full compliance or the abolition of state’s wrongs. For example, in the field of humanitarian law (the law that regulates human protection during armed conflict among other things and includes the Geneva Convention) often states engaged in armed conflict violate their commitments. Another example from the field of human rights shows that there is a difference between democratic and authoritarian regimes’ levels of compliance.

In conclusion, international treaties are the organizing logic behind the world we experience today. They are far of being perfect, but, they are one of the most effective tools for states and people to solve problems and improve human life in a non-violent way. Simplifying treaties as “good” or “bad” and categorically objecting them robs a state and its people of treaties potential benefits and could not count as a clever policy.

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