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Public Law & Legal Theory


The Limits of International Law sets forth a general theory of international law. The book rejects the traditional explanations of international law based on legality, morality, opinio juris, and related non-instrumental concepts. Using simple rational choice tools, the book seeks instead to provide an instrumental account of when and why nations use international law, when and why they comply with it, and when and why international law changes. The basic descriptive story is that international law emerges from and is sustained by nations acting rationally to maximize their interests (i.e., their preferences over international relations outcomes), given their perception of the interests of other states, and the distribution of state power. Limits also makes two normative arguments: nations have no moral obligation to comply with international law, and liberal democratic nations have no duty to engage in the strong cosmopolitan actions so often demanded of them. We are grateful for the thoughtful criticisms of Limits in this symposium. Below we identify points of agreement, clarify some of our positions, and respond to major criticisms. We also outline what appears to be an emerging consensus about the appropriate path of international law scholarship.



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