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International Agreements and Law

In order to make the global system less chaotic and unpredictable, states often make agreements with one another to modify their behavior. International agreements are treaties signed by a number of states that establish global rules of conduct. Some agreements focus on single issues, whereas others cover many areas. Theoretically, international agreements benefit the states that sign them. States that break these rules—sometimes called rogue states—are usually treated with wariness by the rest of the world.

Example: The United States has identified North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Cuba as rogue states because they have continually threatened international security by harboring terrorists and fostering the development of weapons of mass destruction. Afghanistan and Iraq were considered rogue states before the American invasions in the early twenty-first century. As soon as a state begins cooperating and participating in the international community, it loses its status as a rogue state. In 2002, the U.S. Department of State removed Libya from its list of rogue states after the Libyan government voluntarily agreed to renounce terrorism and violence.

International law is the collection of rules and regulations that have evolved over the past few centuries. These rules define the rights and obligations of states. Sometimes treaties codify and formalize international law, but just as often, international law arises from custom and habit. The International Court of Justice, in the Netherlands, is the judicial body of the United Nations and is responsible for resolving disputes among states.

Example: In 2006, the International Court of Justice heard testimony relating to a boundary dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia. Another case on its docket concerned charges of genocide brought by Bosnia against Serbia; in early 2007, the court ruled in favor of Bosnia, deciding that Serbia had failed to prevent genocide in Bosnia.

The Effectiveness of International Law

A key dispute among political scientists concerns the effectiveness of international law. Realists argue that because there is no international police force to enforce international law, the law has no real power. States only obey international law when it is in their interest to do so. Liberalists, however, dispute this idea, contending that there are real consequences to breaking international law—such as sanctions and even military occupation—and that international organizations have a measurable impact on global relations.

International Treaties

International treaties serve as an important part of international law. States sign treaties to end wars, protect their interests, and make international law. The treaties listed in the chart below have significantly contributed to the structure of the international systems.

significant international treaties


Date Signed


Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916 Set boundaries that still exist today for nations in the Middle East
Treaty of Versailles 1919 Ended World War I; its punitive treatment of Germany set the stage for World War II
Munich Agreement 1938 Gave the Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia) to Germany in exchange for a promise of no more expansion; its violation led to World War II
United Nations Charter 1945 Created the United Nations


Date Signed


General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1947 Greatly reduced tariffs and boosted trade
North Atlantic Treaty 1949 Created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance of Western powers dedicated to preventing communist expansion
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1951 Made genocide a crime punishable by the international community
Warsaw Pact 1955 The communist response to NATO; created an alliance of Eastern European communist states
International Atomic Energy Treaty 1957 Regulates the use of atomic energy
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1968 Made it illegal for states without atomic weapons to acquire them
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty 1972 Prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from developing antiballistic missiles
Camp David Accords 1978 A peace treaty between Egypt and Israel
Kyoto Protocol 2005 Regulates greenhouse emissions to reduce global warming