Originally uploaded at SSRN.


This essay reviews Ian Hurd’s International Organizations: Politics, Law, Practice. International law and international relations scholars are increasingly interested in the variation in the structures and powers of international organizations, as well as how that variation affects state decisions to comply with international law. Hurd’s book offers a nuanced overview of the relationship between the legal powers of international organizations and the political contexts in which they operate. The book uses eight case studies, including the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Court of Justice, and the International Labor Organization, to assess how different political environments and institutional powers affect state compliance with legal obligations. The book is thus very valuable for its comparative approach to international organizations and its keen insights into the relationship between law and politics.

This essay raises two additional concerns. First, compliance is a useful metric for measuring the effect of international law and international institutions, but it risks oversimplifying the process of legal contestation in which states engage. Measuring state compliance is at best an imperfect proxy for the effectiveness of international legal rules because it does not tell us anything about how much the law required states to change their status quo behavior. Moreover, legal rules are indeterminate to varying degrees and so international legal process is often as much about an ongoing negotiation of a legal rule’s meaning as it is about assessing compliance with that rule. A binary distinction between compliant and non-compliant actions thus risks obscuring the dynamic process of negotiation and renegotiation that characterizes the international legal system. Second, the institutionalization of international legal relations exhibits much wider variation than the case studies in the book might suggest. While the case studies include some of the most important international organizations, many critically important international issues are negotiated in what are essentially thinly institutonalized IOs, such as the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Although beyond the scope of this book, the affect of subjecting inter-state bargaining to the rules of procedures of such institutions is worthy of greater study.