Boris Tsang / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Professors from Cornell and Yale University debate the role of laws in preventing international conflict.

March 4, 2018

Scholars Debate Whether Laws Are Effective in Preventing War

Print More

Yale and Cornell professors examined the effects of laws on the prevention of inter-state wars and the historical roles that wars have played in international relations in an event sponsored by the Einaudi Center on Thursday.

Prof. Matthew Evangelista, government, moderated the event and spoke on the importance of the topic.

“We know that law plays an important role in international life because we see states engaging in negotiations with treaties,” he said. “Treaties can be focal points, can represent aspirations of people and treaties can actually have an impact on behavior.”

The guest speakers, Profs. Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, law, Yale University co-authored the book The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. They argued that the signing of the Kellogg-Briand pact, which denounced the use of warfare, fundamentally shifted the international world order.

“The book really is about people and their ideas,” Hathaway said. “ who had this deep conviction that law could be used to end war, and really did manage to change the world for the better.”

Prof. Isabel V. Hull, history, and Prof. Jens D. Ohlin, law, were invited to debate on the topic. They also questioned the significance of peace treaties in actually preventing war.

Shapiro presented the central arguments of the book, arguing that the national order that exists today originated from a specific time in history, when the Kellogg-Briand pact was signed in 1928.

“Before 1928, war was a legitimate tool. It was the way in which states enforced their rights against each other,” he explained. “After 1928, this flips very quickly in historical terms and war becomes illegitimate and international and economic sanctions are enforced the same way as now,” Shapiro added.

Hathaway pointed out that the signing of the treaty served as “an extraordinary step in international relations as an opportunity to begin to reverse the course after World War I.”

She also emphasized the influence the Kellogg-Briand pact had on the future tools of delegitimizing war such as the United Nations Charter.

“The argument we made in the book is that this foundational principle gets reaffirmed and put into a traditional framework in the UN charter and is the modern international rule of the new world order,” Hathaway said.

Hull responded to the arguments presented by the authors by tracing the timeline of curbing war through law.

“In my view, there’s much longer history which reveals a process of curbing war prior to 1914,” Hull said.

“To make law effective is a long and uneven process driven by state practice, by statesman, diplomats, military men, agreements bilateral and multilateral, public opinion, NGOs and an active civil society,” she added.

Ohlin also proceeded to argue against some of the main points the book, pointing out that it failed to provide sufficient information on what happened after the peace agreement.

He claimed that pacts like the peace agreement do not always curb wars because the states instead claim reasons of “self-defense” in order to go to war despite the law. He also talked about the importance of other factors besides law in lessening the occurrences of inter-state wars.

“War has gone down because of the way the world works, not just because of the law,” he argued. “States have less interest in governing larger territories, instead choosing to project spheres of influence onto other sovereign states without actually claiming territory.”