A RECENT COMMENT
suggested that international law was useless or worse, because law is only as good as its enforcement mechanisms, and the only "enforcement" for international law is the power and will of the United States. According to this "realist" line of thought, all that matters is states' military and economic power, and international law is just a bunch of niceties which look great on the outside but ultimately ring hollow, and are more trouble than they're worth.
While I think this view shouldn't be ignored, I think it misses something. For one, it basically takes the model of American criminal law system and generalizes it to all "law." There you have a powerful central state, and if you disobey its rules, it will come and get you, and it has the power to (usually) do it if it wants. No doubt with this model of law in mind, the author of the comment looked for an international analogue to a police force, hovering above
the states, and found none, unless it was the United States. (of course, even the U.S. criminal law system has imperfect enforcement capabilities; most crimes go unprosecuted because of a lack of resources or will on the part of investigators or prosecutors. So maybe U.S. criminal law and international law are different only as a matter of degree...)
However, this is hardly the only concept of "law" available. Historically, there have been plenty of societies without centralized enforcement schemes, which nonetheless had well-developed legal systems filled with rules that actually worked pretty well for maintaining order. For instance, in medieval Iceland, there was no centralized enforcement mechanism; rather, when someone was wronged (within the legal framework), people resorted to self-help through the bloodfeud, calling on their extended kin groups for support. Because bloodfeuds were best avoided, medieval Iceland maintained a successful legal system without any sort of top-down "enforcement mechanism." (For more on this, see William Ian Miller's magisterial Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Medieval Iceland
. For a similar discussion of the way powerful social norms can emerge in the absence of (or in spite of) centralized power, see Robert Ellickson's Order Without Law
The reason these systems work -- and the reason much of our own
legal system works, enforcement or no enforcement -- is because people are by-and-large genuinely interested in settling their disputes as efficiently as possible, and in an environment of repeat, iterated play where today's adversary can be tomorrow's ally, systems of rules can emerge which are meaningful despite the absence of a centralized "enforcer." There's no reason this can't happen in international law as well. For instance, in "small-stakes" disputes, international law -- often a mix of customs and treaties -- will often settle an international dispute whether a decision is rendered by an international tribunal or by a court within one of the states applying international law.
While the threat of force always exists, force wouldn't be appropriate in many disputes. For instance, in the "Cod War" between Iceland and Great Britain, a fairly recent period of dispute over fishing rights between the two countries, Britain's nuclear capabilities were almost totally irrelevant. While the issue was one of economic importance, the realities of international affairs made the likelihood Britain would invade Iceland over this matter virtually nil. In such a case, which is hardly uncommon, international law is quite relevant and useful, and is less about a great power stepping in and flexing muscle then dispute resolution among neighbors who know they will have many disputes over time.
That said, there are certainly many situations where "international law" is invoked to justify or condemn this or that particular aggression by results-oriented statespeople. For instance, in the current national debate over the potential invasion of Iraq, recourse to principles of international law is made by both sides, and it's hard not to feel that it's just politics, and the rhetoric of international law is being used as best as possible by both sides to suggest legitimacy/illegitimacy of the endeavor, depending on the speaker's viewpoint. One could -- and many do -- say that this just goes to show that international law is manipulable and meaningless. Of course, enforcer or not, regular domestic law is hardly unmanipulable. Moreover, the concern of all sides with fitting their goals into the language of international law shows that policy elite are
concerned with international law, or at least the appearance
of conforming to international law, and to the extent they use its vocabulary in justifying their decisions, perhaps the principles of international law start to place some modest boundaries on the range in which raw state power can be exercised. Indeed, one of the best ways to give the appearance of caring about international law is to actually abide by it every once in a while. In an age in which the specter of nuclear annihilation still threatens us all, perhaps this is not a terrible thing.