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Introduction: Global Norms as a Challenge to the Nation-State

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When Hans Morgenthau in 1934 published his work La réalité des normes, en particulier des normes du droit international (“The Reality of Norms, in Particular the Norms of International Law”), he simultaneously laid the foundations for the Realist theory of International Relations as it would emerge fifteen years later in the United States. The issue of international norms in this work thus was placed from the beginning at the centre of Morgenthau's concern, revealing the rupture with the “Idealist” tradition in the field.

Morgenthau argues that legal norms must be distinguished from other types of norms, notably moral ones, because they are not in any way dependent on the will of the individual. Their validity is ensured, instead, by the prospect of the application of sanctions. But as he notes in the further elaboration of his argument, the objective structure of the international community does not allow the sanctions attached to legal norms to be applied as a result of their very existence. The only way in which international law can be enforced, is by finding executors willing to uphold the norms and apply the sanctions and thus maintain the real order inscribed in the material norms of international law. Since only states can be the guarantors of such an order,

The essential problem therefore resides in the nature and hence, the validity, of sanctions …. International law, deprived practically entirely of sanctions of its own, can find no other carriers of its normative reality than its own subjects.

There is no possibility, in this perspective, for any valid norms that can impose themselves, as it were from the outside, on states. Indeed by emphasising the absence of sanctions capable of dealing with the breaking of international norms in the inter-war years, which condemned the League of Nations to impotence, Morgenthau dealt the death-blow to Idealist doctrines still riding high at that juncture.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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