Introduction -- The Functions and Purposes of International Law

      What a difference a century makes?  The arrival of the year 2000 brought an end to the 20th century, a century indelibly marked by two global wars that wrought death and destruction the world had never seen and hopefully never will again.  For many people today, the new millennium is a symbol of new hope:  hope for a better society, a safer world, and a brighter tomorrow.  Those hopes were surely present at the beginning of the 20th century as well, as many people were placing their faith in the developing role of international law to create that safer world.  Others, however, were skeptical, doubting the idealistic picture international law portrayed.  Even today, many scholars are still skeptical about the potency of international law despite its many progressions since 1900, but these scholars have the experiences of the past hundred years on which to base their skepticism. 

       In Europe, the geo-political center of the world at the time, the year 1900 began with aspirations for self-imposed civility and harmony among nation-states.  But those ideals of peace and amicable inter-state relations were a pacifist reaction to the numerous signs that continental Europe was a short-fused bomb waiting to go off.  The late 1800s and early 1900s were a period of competing nationalistic ambitions between the major European powers, both on the continent and particularly in other hemispheres of colonial imperialism.  Each state was trying to increase its power and potential at the expense of others, and these self-interested drives frequently led to tensions between the powers.  Throughout the previous centuries since the rise of the idea of the nation-state, those tensions led to frequent occurrences of war between the competing states, and this phenomenon was threatening to recur in the early 1900s unless something could be done to defuse the situation.  Furthermore, the presence of an interlocking system of military alliances between states brought the disturbing likelihood that any localized dispute would be broadened into a widespread continental war. 

       As a result, attempts at conciliation and self-restraint were made to reduce the prospects of war, most prominently at the assembly of the great powers in the Hague for a series of negotiations in 1899 and again in 1907.  The numerous resulting agreements evidenced the statesí desire, in their interaction with one another, to bind themselves to certain obligations through the use of international law.  This practice of turning to a multi-lateral treaty to resolve an international crisis was a growing trend at the turn of the century, as humanitarian statesmen were horrified by the tendency of governments to engage in war and to employ barbaric means of destruction in the battle against the enemy.  Since the 1600s, there had been appeals to provide a legal structure to the otherwise anarchical system of inter-state politics, to provide a sense of order and the rule of law despite the absence of a higher power to enforce the law against the sovereign states.  These appeals eventually led to the creation of international law, whose main objectives (which remain true today) were to protect oneself against the unbridled aggression of others, and to protect humanity as a whole from the outrageous acts of war.  To achieve this, states sacrificed some of their sovereignty as a nation-state in consenting to be bound by legal rules, which proscribed certain behavior and imposed obligations on future action.  Thus, each state would benefit from the civility of its neighbor, and the world would be a safer and more humane place for everyone.

       However, despite these efforts, the European continent naively plunged itself into a disastrous war in 1914 that would last more than four years, producing devastating numbers of casualties and staggering examples of human barbarism.  The war left the entire world in a state of shock, and many people thought that international lawís failure to prevent or restrain such a disaster meant that the law was useless and obsolete.  One French scholar, Henri La Fontaine, claimed that the Hague agreements were ìsham legislationî and that ìto prate of laws of war is a disgusting mistake.î[1]   Nonetheless, others (led by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) believed exactly the contrary, that only a strengthened international law could effectively prevent future war and atrocities.  Valiant efforts were made to that end, but only twenty years later, Europe was again mired in a protracted, all-out war, once again shattering faith in the efficacy of international law.  Even today, more than fifty years since the end of the last major war, and having escaped (at least for now) the likelihood of a third world war, many politicians and scholars are still skeptical over the practical role in international law in effectively binding states to legal norms. 

       Therefore, it is useful to take a look back at the successes and failures of international law, as well as its progression over time, to determine what role that law can and should play in the future.  This paper endeavors to present only one aspect of that task, in analyzing compliance and/or breach with respect to two issues of international legal obligations during World War I:  the alliance system and the neutrality of Belgium.  The focus will be to determine the reasons behind the examples of compliance, that is, whether the relevant actors felt legally bound to comply, or whether it was in their national interest to do so.  Though an exhaustive look at all the international legal issues of the war period is not possible within these parameters,[2]  this study of two of the major legal issues from the war will be a start in judging the extent to which scholars like La Fontaine during and after the war were correct to decry the futility of international law as an effective control of international politics.



1.     H. La Fontaine, International Law and War, 3 A.B.A.J. 165 (1917).
2.     For an excellent comprehensive survey of legal issues from World War I, see James Garnerís two-volume International Law and the World War, published in 1920.