Knots and Tangles of International Obligation

  • Robert Jackson
Part of the Palgrave Macmillan History of International Thought Series book series (PMHIT)


Realists claim that questions of obligation have little or no place in international relations, which they portray as a world of power politics: raison d’état, realpolitik. Diplomatic and commercial rela- tions between sovereign states, not to mention military encounters and acts of war or intervention, are instrumental activities calculated to advance or defend national interests. Issues of obligation—issues that demand or require acts of performance, observance, or compliance as a matter of duty or responsibility—are confined to states and do not extend across international borders. The state is the terminal political community: there is no community beyond the state. Political obligation is the duty to uphold and abide by the constitution, laws, and regulations of the state. It involves the most fundamental demands the state can lay upon its officials and citizens: allegiance to the constitution, obedience to the law, conscription, taxation, and education are among the most important.1 The notion of international obligation is a flight of the imagination. Worse than that, it is a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of international relations. Sovereign states are not in a position to demand or require acts of performance, observance, or compliance from each other as a matter of duty or responsibility. They cannot bind each other in the same obligatory way they can bind their officials and their citizens—when the state is effectively institutionalized.


International Relation Security Council Sovereign State State Sovereignty International Peace 
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© Robert Jackson 2005

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  • Robert Jackson

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