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Conclusion:  The Status of International Law
At the End of World War I



       The status of international law at the end of World War I was in critical condition, the most striking example of which was the ìscrap of paperî statement that echoed around the world.  This paper has only presented the legal analysis of two major issues from the war, and a look at all the issues would be necessary before making any sweeping conclusions about the effectiveness of international law to restrain countries from pursuing courses of action in their national interest.  However, examination of the other issues would confirm that Germany violated many of the international legal obligations which bound it, including gross violations of the laws of war, indiscriminate sinking of ships on the high seas through submarine warfare, and the failure to respect the rights of neutral states throughout the war.  But the Germans were not the only ones to violate international law.  The starkest example (among several arguable violations) was the British blockade of the Central powers which clearly exceeded the scope of a blockade permitted under the law at the time, violating both the rights of belligerents and neutrals.  However, as is customary at the end of a war, the world focused on the violations committed by the vanquished, and the victors for the first time in history even resolved to hold some German officials criminally responsible for violations of the laws of war (see Articles 227-230 of the Treaty of Versailles).

       From the analysis of the two issues studied in this paper, the consistent theme is that states followed their national interest during World War I.  The alliance treaties generally were aligned with each statesí national interest (with the exception of Italy and Romania), which made it fairly easy to comply with the obligations flowing from the treaties.  That branch of international law (obligations mutually consented to by treaty) is usually only compromised when a stateís national interest changes, leading the state to renege on its prior obligations.  Furthermore, where the alliance treaties did not mandate any specific course of action, the major powers chose to honor the expectations surrounding the alliances, and in doing so, they brought the two camps into an unavoidable conflict that devastated the continent.  However, in the case of Belgian neutrality, Germanyís legal obligation clashed with its national interest in conducting the war effort, and Germany chose to follow its national interest instead of its legal obligation.  A study of the other legal issues from the war would also show that states often followed their national interest when that interest collided with a legal duty, which is troublesome conclusion for international law.  To be effective, international law must constrain statesí behavior and prohibit them from taking actions that would otherwise be in their best interest but are contrary to legal norms.  Otherwise there is no rule of law, and the effectiveness of legal norms depends on the voluntary cooperation of states.  This is the persistent weakness international law faces, a weakness cited by many commentators even today. 

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