Why do countries comply with international law? In the context of the WTO, why do countries follow the rules of multilateral trade embodied in its various Agreements? Is the fear of retaliation and reputational risk the primary reasons for compliance? Is the consequence of non-compliance so strong that a country would prefer to comply with trade rules even though it has an impact on domestic interests? Is a "country" a single entity when it comes to compliance with international law or is there an amalgam of complex, divergent interests that guide a country's actions? Do domestic interests have a role to play in compliance with international rules?
Joel Trachtman has offered complex mathematical models to understand the underlying rationale for compliance to international rules in his article "International Law and Domestic Political Coalitions: A Grand Theory of Compliance with International Law". He has essentially argued that compliance with international law is essentially a result of varying domestic compulsions and the competing strengths of these compulsions determine compliance.
" Compliance by any individual state with an international legal rule is, in the final analysis, dependent on a political decision to comply made within that state‘s domestic political process. This domestic decision is both necessary and sufficient to result in compliance. While this decision is purely a domestic political decision, it is importantly influenced by international dynamics. These international dynamics will include the likely response by other states to a decision by the target state whether to comply. But importantly, these international dynamics are neither necessary nor sufficient to cause compliance. Their causal effects are always mediated through domestic politics."Explaining the advantage of following this rationalist theory of compliance wherein a State's international obligations are primarily dependent on domestic compulsions, the author explains:
" A theory of formation and compliance with international law that focuses on the role of domestic political coalitions achieves important theoretical advances. First, as suggested above, it allows for the possibility of greater explanatory and predictive power than ―unitary state‖ theories of compliance. Second, it encompasses the role of individuals in domestic politics, and therefore moves toward a more liberal and cosmopolitan understanding of the role and dynamics of international law. A domestic coalition-based theory of international law transcends the state and examines individual preferences, but takes the state as the partial mediator of individual preferences.
On the other hand, it is clear that domestic politics about the formation of and compliance with international law is fundamentally different from most other domestic politics. This is because domestic politics about formation of and compliance with international law must concern itself with the responsive actions of other states. International law that involves commitments by other states by definition involves the contribution of value, or the taking of value, by other states. This difference contributes to a different political equilibrium from that which would be possible if the only exchanges of political value took place within the state."
It would be interesting to study particular cases of compliance to international trade rules in terms of the domestic interests having a role. For example, what domestic interests will have a role in influencing US compliance in the Cloves Cigarettes case or Tuna case? An amalgam of interests of public health activists, domestic sovereignty advocates and international law lobbyists would ultimately determine the decision to comply or not. In a way, this churning of domestic political interests is a positive development. It brings about internal political debate and transparency. However, domestic interests are unclear in certain cases. For example, what would the apparent "domestic interest" be in Honduras or Ukraine be to challenge Australia's Tobacco plain packaging law? Interests of multinational corporations operating in a country too can be construed as constituting an influential "domestic interest".
I have often argued on this blog that there is no "unitary" national interest in international trade law. It is an amalgam of interests of exporting producers, importing manufacturers, traders, domestic consumers and the government. Whose interest prevails when a country takes a decision of compliance or non-compliance depends on a variety of factors concerning impact, influence and interest. A country's international compliance record is influenced by domestic compulsions. However, is there an overriding national interest? Can governments play a role in arriving at a national interest template keeping in view divergent and often clashing domestic, political interests? Can the government play the role of a neutral mediator? Is the government above the influences of such interests?