The Non-Partisan Teaching of Treaties and International Relations: Interview with Dr. Barbara Koremenos

Conducted by Christine Leung (PZ ‘19) and transcribed by Delaney Hewitt (SC ‘20) in spring of 2018.

Barbara Koremenos, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago with a focus in International Law. Koremenos has published in both political science and law journals, including American Political Science Review, International Organization, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Legal Studies, and Law and Contemporary Problems. Koremenos received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for her research—the first such winner to study international law.

In her new book, The Continent of International Law: Explaining Agreement Design, Koremenos demonstrates theoretically and empirically how international law’s detailed design provisions help nations cooperate despite harsh international political realities. CJLPP got a chance to talk to Professor Koremenos before her talk at the CMC Athenaeum titled, “International Law is More American than Partisan (or it used to be).”

CJLPP: In your recent book The Continent of International Law: Explaining Agreement Design, you discuss that states are able to cooperate in light of difficult relations. From your research and publication process, what were the most rewarding and challenging aspects?

Dr. Barbara Koremenos: To be honest, I felt very frustrated with my field. When I was studying international cooperation in graduate school at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s, everything was very abstract and theoretical. If you have studied some economics you will know there is a theory called the prisoner’s dilemma, and repeated interaction can help you escape the dilemma. But that’s not very useful advice to policy makers. I really had a strong intuition that we could do better than that. My biggest challenge was that I wanted to focus on international law. International relations and international law were quite separate at that time. I was even warned that if I proposed and wrote a dissertation on international law as a political science Ph.D., I probably wouldn’t get an interview, let alone a job offer. I just saw this as a challenge. I am a first-generation college student, so I may be more risk-acceptant in that regard.

I started out with historical case studies. It was very rewarding to look at the negotiation history of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which by all accounts is a very important treaty. If I could prove that the details of that treaty actually had an impact for whether that treaty could even get off the ground or not, then I had done what I needed to do and I could go forward with my dissertation topic. One of the treaty’s final clauses states that the agreement won’t be indefinite, that it will only be twenty-five years, and at that point, countries can decide whether or not to end it, extend it, or make it last forever. I showed that this simple provision was the difference between the non-nuclear weapon states joining or not––that really mattered to them. After that, I started collecting data on the duration and renegotiation of international agreements and published my theory about it and my case study. When that worked out, it just launched me.

Those are the challenges and the rewards. I took baby steps.  After duration and renegotiation, I started looking at dispute resolution provisions, then monitoring provisions, and then withdrawal provisions. Every time that the data corroborated the theory, it was like a present. I came up with a theory about how the withdrawal notice period is meaningful and should be systematic. Most people say that those are just copied from one treaty to another, and nobody really thinks about them––that they should just put them in at the end of the treaty. When my theory was tested and supported, I was so tickled. It’s very rewarding to have established or collected the first scientific data set in international law because it’s a random sample and it’s lots of different issue areas.  Still, the actual supervision of many, many coders was often not easy. So, it was both challenging and rewarding at the same time.

CJLPP: Is there a recent exception where you find that international law’s detailed design provisions do not help states cooperate in harsh international political realities? If so, what is an example in which international law was unsuccessful in reaching state cooperation?

Koremenos: I can think of two examples. One is probably not very meaningful, but it shows to some extent how much the treaty design matters. There is an agreement out there that has entered in force called the Moon Treaty. It is a complete failure because no country that can actually ever hope to reach the moon has ratified it. My theory would predict that it would be a failure because it asks the powerful countries to spend a lot of their resources and research and development by firms themselves to come up with ways to exploit the minerals on the moon. But then the treaty says that everything will be the common heritage of mankind and shared, and some future international organization, which is not yet designed, will control everything. If there is ever any dispute, it will just be the Secretary-General of the UN that will resolve it. This is exactly how not to design an institution. Because it is not in the interest of the countries that can reach the moon to make investments, when everything that they would reap from those investments would never pass any kind of cost-benefit analysis. This helps illustrate how my view of international law is not the way some international lawyers view it as ideal just because it is “law.” It is international law, and you have to take into account the interests and the power of countries or it is not going to work.

I am cautiously optimistic about the ability of international law to help countries cooperate, realize joint gains, and solve problems that they can’t solve alone. But I am not an idealist that thinks that if you write a treaty like the Moon Treaty somehow everything will be rosy. A more serious example, which is part of the reason we are in trouble today, is that, about twenty-five years ago, the U.S. negotiated a framework agreement with North Korea. The substance of it was fine. We were basically rewarding them to rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or more precisely, to not withdraw. It has been agreed by every single administration, Republican and Democrat, that military force is not an option. It is way too costly. The only way to get North Korea to do what we want is to reward or bribe them. In this case, the reward consisted of tangibles like light water reactors and heavy fuel oil. But, the design of the secondary agreement negotiated among Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. was really vague about who would give what to North Korea. And, if anybody reneged, there was never anything about any recourse that you could take.

I used to think that North Korea was the only bad guy, that they just cheated on the agreement. In fact, if you look at the history of it, the other countries did not come through on their commitments. North Korea had some good reasons to believe that it wasn’t going to get what was promised to it. With respect to the United States, the agreements negotiated under Clinton and then President Bush called North Korea one of the “Axis of Evil,” and North Korea completely stopped trusting us. If I was asked what we should do now, given that North Korea is willing to come to the negotiating table, it would be a similar agreement with respect to substance, but it would have all the right design provisions:  it would be very precise about who gives what, as well as what would happen in any particular instance if anybody reneged. In fact, it would look very much like the excellently designed Iran Deal. The Iran Deal is hundreds of pages of long, with details about what is going to happen if somebody doesn’t do what they are supposed to do in addition to the tremendous amount of monitoring incorporated into the agreement.

So the first North Korea agreement was poorly designed. I don’t want to blame the negotiator though, because he is a really brilliant and terrific guy, Robert Gallucci. That he negotiated the substance of it was a remarkable achievement. The problem was that the United States, South Korea, and Japan did not have the consistent political will to keep it on track since North Korea triggers all kinds of negative reactions in all of these countries. But that is even more of a reason why you need to have these formal agreements or institutions come into play when there is a change in leadership in any of these countries — to make sure that we keep our commitments. We are not doing a very good job of that right now, in our country. We are breaking, or threatening to break, commitments just because the current president didn’t negotiate them. That is not a good way to view the law.

CJLPP: What can you share with us about your upcoming book manuscript about American exceptionalism in international law? In other words, what do you hope that readers will look forward to learning?

Koremenos: One of the things that will be fun for me to learn is how exceptional, or not, the United States is when it comes to the kind of international law that we are likely to ratify. I will statistically control for the fact that the United States is a large, rich democracy, geographically isolated, and see if we are exceptional. From my existing work, I know that we delegate to third parties and certainly join numerous treaties. But this is a topic that generates a lot of knee-jerk reactions. As a scientist, I want to uncover the facts.  Are we or are we not exceptional when it comes to international law? My evidence so far shows that we have tended to be one of the leaders in terms of encouraging international agreements since the end of World War II. It seems we are really taking a step back from that part of our identity––a part of which is that we have viewed international law as a great way of helping us realize our interests. Thus, we have invested really heavily in it. My guess is that I will find that we are not exceptional in terms of agreement design, but we may be a leader in initiating international law. But I have to actually do all the research to find out.

CJLPP: What kind of influence does the Trump presidency have upon this upcoming book manuscript?

Koremenos:  It makes me feel like it is more urgent to write. The Trump presidency has started making our NATO allies nervous when he claims the alliance is obsolete. An alliance that isn’t used means it is a successful alliance. It means that we are rarely attacked. And the only time the NATO alliance has had to come to the defense of one of its members was when the United States was attacked. We are the only ones who have triggered that provision of the agreement. This book is a way of turning my frustrations into something positive. One of the highlights of this part of my career is that I was recently commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences to write a White Paper for government officials. I’ve been to one meeting so far in D.C. It was so rewarding to summarize some of my book results for them. They care very much about enacting science-based policy.

CJLPP: What do you hope for current students to understand most about American exceptionalism?

Koremenos: Given my preliminary research, I am not sure that U.S. leadership in initiating international law has been very partisan. One of the surprising things that I discovered is that Nixon helped initiate the negotiations for the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Unfortunately, this is an agreement that the United States hasn’t ratified. Still, it’s enlightening to learn that Nixon handpicked a set of accomplished, amazing women to be the negotiators and representatives of the U.S.  And the convention itself ended up getting negotiated under Ford. So, two Republican presidents were mainly responsible for this almost universal human rights agreement that has now seemed to become a partisan issue.

Now certain factions of the Republican party don’t like international law. Free trade, for instance, benefits all Americans. It is not clear that we should be thinking about it in such partisan ways. Another thing interesting discovery with respect to my random sample agreements is that we have ratified just as many treaties (and Congressional-Executive Agreements) under divided governments as under unified governments, where the president is one party and the Senate and/or the Congress is another.

CJLPP: The United States and China have begun a trade war. As of April 4th, 2018, China announced additional retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods. What are ways in which you see informal and formal provisions consequently taking place?

Koremenos: There are formal institutions in place, namely trade agreements and the World Trade Organization (WTO), with which I believe China has filed complaints officially. Historically when we have been taken to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism, lots of times things get resolved before we actually reach the “court-like” body. Sometimes, this is with the help of mediators, sometimes just by talking things through. But when we get taken to the formal dispute resolution body, we tend to abide by the rulings, even when they go against us. This president is not necessarily going to respect that formal institution. What is very interesting is that the tariffs are targeted toward particular groups. Trump supporters want to hurt China, and China wants to hurt the farmer in particular. The supposed justification for putting tariffs on imported steel is national security. Lots of agreements allow countries to do things outside of the rules or break the rules if they are undergoing a national security crisis. But the Department of Defense has made it very clear that, for example, all the steel that they need is American made. We don’t actually import very much steel from China. So that national security argument cannot be justified. In fact, so many jobs in the United States rely on using steel.  So not only is there not a national security justification; we are undermining economic security.

Again, as everyone learns in an introductory economics class, free trade is best. Overall consumers and our country will lose with this trade war. It is sad because, slowly but surely, we have been building this whole system of free trade since World War II. In fact, we were one of the movers and shakers behind the WTO, and we were thrilled when China finally joined the WTO. So this feels like a step backward. China does do some things that aren’t good in terms of intellectual property, but how we are reacting doesn’t make sense, and we are breaking the rules of the WTO. If the WTO decides to issue, it will probably decide that these are not compelling national security issues.

CJLPP: How would the WTO respond in light of this trade war? How would the United States’ international reputation change (or not change)?   

Koremenos: They will probably rule on the national security issue. And, probably rule against us. The danger is that, if they believe that it is not a compelling national security reason, it would be dangerous to say that it is okay. Because then a lot of other countries will just constantly do what they want to do to win an election by favoring a particular interest group and claim “national security.” In fact, we got very upset when Saudi Arabia and most of the other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states did that against Qatar. In a way, that is why we have the WTO so that these kinds of bogus excuses for ratcheting up trade wars will be tamed. Hence the WTO would have an interest in not blessing what the United States does so that this doesn’t become the new norm. It is like when kids are playing tag and every place is a safe zone or something. Are we really playing the game anymore?

CJLPP: What advice do you have for undergraduate students pursuing graduate study in international politics or are considering careers in international relations?

Koremenos: I think policy should be shaped through the use of science and scientific evidence. But you should know your history too. I would say read the actual treaties. Don’t take other people’s word about what the treaties say. For instance, in my class, I have been extremely careful to try to teach introduction to world politics in as non-partisan a way as possible. And, according to student reactions, I think I have succeeded there. Non-partisan doesn’t mean defending the current president’s actions. If you actually read a treaty, like the Paris Agreement or the Iran Deal you see for yourself what is in there.

CJLPP: Thank you so much for your time and your expertise, Professor Koremenos.

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