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38 Harv. Int'l. L. J. 487 (1997)
International Relations and International Law: Two Optics

handle is hein.journals/hilj38 and id is 493 raw text is: VOLUME 38, NUMBER 2, SPRING 1997

International Relations and
International Law: Two Optics*
Robert 0. Keohane**
The surprising thing about international law is that nations ever
obey its strictures or carry out its mandates.1
Public international law appears to be quite a well articulated and
complete legal order even though it is difficult to locate the
authoritative origin or substantive voice of the system in any
particular area. Each doctrine seems to free ride somewhat on this
overall systemic image .... Thus the variety of references among
these discursive areas always shrewdly locate the moment of authority
and the application in practice elsewhere-perhaps behind us in
process or before us in the institutions of dispute resolution.2
These quotations from international lawyers encapsulate some of the
puzzlement that faces a political scientist trying to understand the
political underpinnings of international law. Governments make a very
large number of legal agreements, and, on the whole, their compliance
with these agreements seems quite high.3 Yet what this level of com-
pliance implies about the causal impact of commitments remains a
If states' respect for international law is surprising or puzzling to
eminent professors of the subject, it is probably more so to many
political scientists. Traditionally, political scientists have styled them-
selves as realistic rather than idealistic. They are utilitarians of one
form or another. According to this view, elite states seek to maintain
position, wealth, and power in an uncertain world by acquiring, re-
* Originally given as a Sherrill Lecture at Yale University Law School on February 22, 1996.
**James B. Duke Professor of Political Science, Duke University. President, International
Studies Association, 1988-1989. B.A., Shimer College, 1961; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1966.
This Comment was written while the author was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center,
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; he wishes to express his gratitude to the Center for
intellectual stimulation and financial support.
1. Thomas M. Franck, Legitimacy in the International System, 82 AM. J. INT'L. L. 705, 705
3. Louis HENKsN, How NAnONs BEHAVE: LAw AND FOREIGN PoLIcy (2d ed. 1979).

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