Friday, November 21, 2014

Review of Morrow's Order Within Anarchy

Do international institutions promote cooperation? If so, how? These questions are of fundamental importance in the study of international relations. They are also the focus of Jim Morrow's Order within Anarchy: The Laws of War as an International Institution. Offering novel and persuasive answers to these core questions, Order within Anarchy belongs on every field seminar syllabus. It is no easy read—both due to its length and the dense nature of the material, even considering the fact that Morrow wisely relegates most of the technical material to separate chapters—but those who devote the time and effort to digesting it will be amply rewarded.

The argument Morrow develops appears, initially, to be quite complex. But despite the many hypotheses derived from the theoretical models, the large number of information-rich graphs summarizing the statistical results, and the rich discussion of key historical cases, the answers to the core questions identified above are fairly straightforward. The following observation, found on page 316, sets everything up nicely:
"If international law exists to aid states in their efforts to realize cooperation relations, then it must address the issues that make cooperation difficult."
Here, Morrow forces us to consider what exactly does make cooperation difficult, which determines the ultimate conclusion one will reach regarding the effectiveness of international law. If one assumes that cooperation fails to occur if and only if its occurrence would require one or more parties to act contrary to their best interest, as so many realists have, then one almost inevitably arrives at the conclusion that international law has nothing to offer. Sure, one might hope that widely-accepted laws will, over time, cause sates to alter their conception of what is in their best interest, but we all realize that international law is exceedingly difficult to enforce. However, Morrow persuasively argues that international cooperation sometimes fails to occur even when none of the parties involved would benefit from defecting. While international law might not have the power, in the short run, to alter the values states attach to cooperative outcomes (or the alternatives), it sometimes does have the power to help nice states distinguish one another from nasty ones. And that matters, because it is not enough for all parties involved to value mutual cooperation more than all possible alternatives. They must also know that everyone else feels the same way (and that everyone knows that everyone knows this, etc).

When it comes to war, Morrow acknowledges that states sometimes prefer to fight dirty no matter what their opponent is expected to do. And, yes, in such cases, the laws of war will have no effect. (There are also cases where one side prefers restraint no matter what the other side will do. Here too, law has no effect.) But there are also cases where states are willing to fight fair if and only if their opponent does so. In such cases, expectations about the opponent's behavior are everything. If either side chooses not to ratify a thoroughly unenforceable but nearly universal law prohibiting certain actions, they send a strong signal that they intend to fight dirty, and ensure that the other will do so as well. If, on the other hand, both have ratified the treaty, and neither violates it systematically in the early days of the war, then mutual restraint is likely to prevail.

There's a lot more nuance to Morrow's argument, but that captures the essence of it. And while some of the implications of this argument are relatively intuitive, others are fairly surprising. Perhaps the most interesting implication is that universal ratification might be an undesirable goal. If Morrow is right that the value of international law primarily lies in its ability to help states figure out who they're dealing with, then pushing for universal ratification risks eliminating its value. After all, no information about a state's willingness to commit atrocities can be revealed by its support for the laws of war if every state expresses the same level of support.

The book touches on a wide range of other topics—from human rights to wartime decision-making, legal responses to the threat of terrorism, and the evolution of norms—and thus anyone interested international relations is likely to find something of interest here. But if for no other reason than because it offers a persuasive set of answers to the questions of whether and how international institutions promote cooperation, I think anyone interested in international relations should read this book.


  1. nice comment, phil! i would have only one commentary: if the value of the information about the state's willingness to commit atrocities decreases with universalization, the value of the legitimacy to intrude/intervene in domestic policy of the participants would increase and that is why universalization of treaties is a goal pursued. don't you think so?

    1. That's an excellent point, Luiz, and I should have been clearer about that. I don't think Morrow is arguing against universalism so much as pointing out that there are multiple considerations and they don't all push in the same direction. One might well conclude that the long-run norms-strengthening effect trumps the short-run information-revelation effect! But currently, people mostly just take for granted the idea that universalism is desirable, and it's not clear that this goes without saying.

  2. Phil,
    Thanks for the post.
    (I made the same mistake as last time I was here: failing to log in on Google first, hence losing a long comment I had already written. Hm, I guess I'll remember next time.)

    Shorter version:
    1) Universal ratification only decreases information in a world where some states remain nasty. In a hypothetical world of all nice states, universal ratification does not decrease information at all.

    2) Possibly a more interesting point: lack of ratification is not always necessarily easy to interpret. For ex., in the case of the U.S., well-known domestic pol. considerations (i.e., conservative fears about "loss of sovereignty" etc) often make it difficult to ratify treaties or conventions that 'peer' countries have much less trouble ratifying. E.g., took the US decades to ratify the Genocide Convention; still hasn't ratified some other UN conventions, e.g., I think, one on the rights of the disabled, even tho relevant US domestic law (Americans w Disabilities Act) is already more protective than the standards in the convention. I believe, tho not 100 percent sure on this (paging Charli Carpenter), that there's a protocol of the Geneva Convention the US never ratified. Anyway, don't know if or exactly how this affects Morrow's argument.

    1. Hi LFC,

      1. That's true. Morrow and I were both assuming that we are unlikely to reach such a state in the near future. I should have made that assumption explicit.

      2. That's a good point. He abstracts away from domestic politics, so in his models, choosing not to ratify sends a stronger signal than it does in reality. But the basic argument still holds as long as failure to ratify serves as a noisy signal of intent, which I think it does.

    2. I see, thanks. "Noisy" might be a key word here, then, in some cases. :)