In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Histories
  • Theory
  • Responsibility
  • Dispute Settlement

International Relations International Law
Florian Hoffmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0027


Traditionally, international law denotes the legal relations among sovereign nation-states. As a discourse it emerged in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia and the consolidation of territorially based states defined by national sovereignty, though it only became a distinct academic discipline and professional practice in the late 19th century. It is doctrinally subdivided into what is now considered to be general international law and a number of increasingly autonomous subdisciplines. The former is concerned with the sources of international legality—mainly treaties and customary norms; its (traditional) subjects, notably states and international organizations; the spaces that it regulates, including a state’s territory, the sea, air, and outer space; as well as the polar regions and the core aspects of sovereignty—namely, a state’s jurisdiction and immunities. Moreover, general international law is concerned with state responsibility, that is, the “civil” liability that applies to the conduct of states, and the institutions and procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes—most important, by international tribunals such as the International Court of Justice. As the international rule of law is generally considered to be an antidote to war, the regulation and, thus, limitation of the use of force by states has, historically and doctrinally, been seen as a central element of international law even if the relevant legal regimes have now developed into distinct subdisciplines. With the gradual and differentiated recognition of nonstate subjects, a broader interpretation of sources, and the emergence of specific concerns of international legal regulation, further distinct subdisciplines have come about, including the international protection of human rights, international criminal law, international economic law, international environmental law, and international refugee law. In that the modern literature on international law has been traditionally doctrinal and practitioner-oriented, more overtly theoretical literature has sprung up only relatively recently, largely on the basis of critical methodology and with a particular interest in historical narrative.

General Overviews

As with many legal disciplines, the literature on international law is firmly rooted in the textbook tradition, with most general works seeking to provide a systematic and often comprehensive account of at least the core of the discipline. This has left less room for “general overview” without textbook aspirations, and often such general works are thus either edited collections covering all major topics in international law, such as Byers 2000; Falk, et al. 1985; Dunnoff, et al. 2006; Goldstein, et al. 2001; and Miller and Bratspiess 2008. Alternatively, there are a number of theory-driven general treatises, such as Charlesworth and Chinkin 2000 and Higgins 1995. Armstrong 2009 and Cali 2010 come perhaps closest to a didactic general overview aimed at nonspecialists.

  • Armstrong, David, ed. Routledge Handbook of International Law. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    A collection of topically arranged essays by some of the biggest names in contemporary international law. Broader in outlook than the common textbook or doctrinal treatise and aimed at a multidisciplinary readership.

  • Byers, Michael, ed. The Role of Law in International Politics: Essays in International Relations and International Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Again, a collection bringing together many well-known international lawyers and international relations scholars reflecting broadly on the perennial question of the point and relevance of international law.

  • Cali, Basak, ed. International Law for International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    A systematic and textbook-like overview of the discipline and its essential doctrines and topics, geared to the student of international relations who seeks to understand international law from within.

  • Charlesworth, H., and Christine Chinkin. The Boundaries of International Law: A Feminist Analysis. Melland Schill Studies in International Law. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

    A pathbreaking and much-cited feminist reading of international law that, when it first appeared, stunned the male-dominated international legal academy and has since inspired a generation of feminist writing on the subject.

  • Dunoff, Jeffrey L., Steven R. Ratner, and David Wippman, eds. International Law: Norms, Actors, Process—A Problem-Oriented Approach. New York: Aspen, 2006.

    A problem-oriented approach to international law, written from the perspective of the (self-)reflective practitioner.

  • Falk, Richard A., Friedrich Kratochwil, and Saul H. Mendlovitz, eds. International Law: A Contemporary Perspective. Studies on a Just World Order 2. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1985.

    A contemporary classic compiled by three iconic figures at the borderline of international law and international relations.

  • Goldstein, Judith L., Miles Kahler, Robert O. Keohane, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Legalization and World Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2001.

    A collection of essays by leading scholars about the causes and consequences of judicialization and the development of international law.

  • Higgins, Rosalyn. Problems and Process: International Law and How We Use It. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

    A concise treatise by the former president of the International Court of Justice, who, despite being deeply immersed in the practitioner’s logic, always professed to the influence of the Yale School of International Law and its distinctive way of reframing the discipline.

  • Miller, Russell, and Rebecca Bratspies, eds. Progress in International Law. Developments in International Law 60. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2008.

    A large and diverse anthology with forty essays on nearly all contemporary issues of international law: from the basics, such as the nature of contemporary statehood, to international environmental law. Inspired by interwar American jurist Manley O. Hudson and his 1932 Progress in International Organization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

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