What is international law for? Is the goal to achieve cooperation in providing global public goods, such as managing the environment, providing peace and security, alleviating poverty, controlling the spread of diseases, protecting basic human rights, and supplying best-practices and standards on health and labor? Or is it about managing conflict and competition between states and others by setting expectations and channeling disputes between them into agreed-upon fora for peaceful settlement?

These two types of purpose are often treated as complementary, with international institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) or United Nations often justified on both counts. But they are actually in serious tension, long-papered over but now threatening to tear the global order apart. The difficulty in answering this foundational question may be at the heart of present anxiety over the state and resilience of the global order.