October 09, 2007
Tie Your Hands
Posted by David Zaring

Using international agreements to bind yourself to the mast is a popular theory among social scientists these days.  Andrew Moravcsik thinks that it helps to explain why European countries signed on to continental human rights regimes after WWII – so they wouldn’t backslide into totalitarianism once the bad guys got re-elected.  Dani Rodrik says he hears the same thing from developing governments that sign on to free trade regimes – they do so so they won’t backslide into public-choicey protectionism.  Or, less happily, into the economic policies of the other party.  And heck, in the US, some people think that Congress’s delegation of trade authority to the president was done so the constant pressure for logrolling (you give me a timber tariff and I’ll give you one on auto imports, etc) would be alleviated. 

But among law professors and some courts, the very legality of binding yourself to the mast through an international agreement is unclear. Can the US lock itself in to an international regime without violating principles of constitutional supremacy or whatever?  Ed Swaine has an interesting view.  But I think the legal debate would mystify social scientists used to seeing over a century’s worth of treaties containing Universal Postal Unions, commissions authorized to resolve disputes, customs agreements, and other ongoing international enterprises in which the US has played a part.  Can the US join the WTO?  Can’t they, given that everyone else can?  Is a court seriously going to kick us out of the organization?

And if a court does so, will we be forced to bob alone on the wine-dark sea, constitutionally incapable of anything but lonely unilateralism? I’m asking all of these questions and quoting Homer again because I haven’t figured out a way to end this post.  But anyway, read Rodrik on international delegations.

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