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American Politicians Sign Bad Trade Agreements Because They Don’t Understand International Law

Ministerial Representatives from 12 countries take part in the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in Auckland on February 4, 2016. / AFP / MICHAEL BRADLEY (Photo credit should read MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP/Getty Images)

The debate over signing the awful Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement is hamstrung by the fact that some American politicians don’t seem to understand what international law is.

They talk about signing this agreement like it’s a lease on an storefront in Indianapolis, where what’s written down on paper really determines what happens. A deal is a deal, and once made, courts can be relied upon to enforce whatever was agreed to.

But international law doesn’t work this way, and it’s worth thinking through why.

International law is not like ordinary civil or criminal law because there exists no sovereign to compel the obedience of nations. There are no judges with police to back them up.

Instead, international law is analogous to the rules of a game of stickball being played by children on a vacant lot: its rules only mean anything insofar as they are enforced by the players upon themselves.

Obviously, as in the case of stickball, the players will enforce certain rules, because that is the only way they can have a game.

So international law is not a completely vacuous concept, as cynics suggest.

But the players also won’t enforce any rule grossly to the disadvantage of any particularly powerful player, because there’s no sovereign with the power to do so. The only “power” is that player’s desire for the game to go on with efficient, advantageous, and stable rules. Which has its limits when circumstances make those rules disadvantageous.

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