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Paradiplomacy as International Custom: Sub-National Government and the Making of New Global Norms

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At a time when mainstream international theory seems to discover the value of conventional international law as a form of regulation of the global system, it can be interesting to revisit one of the most classic debates in the field of international norms. We are talking about international custom, that is, the unwritten norms which nevertheless are legally binding for states. The particular conditions required for the formation of a new international custom are complex and subject to controversy among international lawyers. However, the corresponding theoretical debates seem more concerned with the structure of legal argument, than with its substantial content. But then, formal disagreement among lawyers about custom, is ultimately a form of political disagreement, since “arguments about law are arguments of political preference”.

According to conventional wisdom, the formation of customary international law depends on the more or less fortunate articulation of two elements: the existence of a generalized and relevant practice carried out by the community of states, and the general acceptance, or belief, that this practice is legally binding, and not merely a common usage or courtesy. Both elements, state practice and legal conviction, are frequently difficult to operationalize, but it seems reasonable to suggest that this formative process assumes different forms depending on historical circumstances.

Thus in the case of diplomacy, the ability to conduct diplomatic relations is usually considered as one of the primary attributes of state sovereignty. Indeed, it may seem that the basic condition for the extension of diplomatic relations throughout the world was the existence of independent states able to develop political relations among themselves. However, it is beyond dispute that the origins of diplomacy were the multiple customary practices of communication among different political entities which have existed since ancient times. Certainly these practices underwent different historical transformations before becoming conventionally redefined as a supposedly exclusive attribute of the sovereign nation-state. Through these changes, the old diplomacy was gradually adapted to the growing functional and legitimizing needs of world capitalism. Yet contemporary students of diplomacy tend to exclude a wide range of practices, such as corporate, nongovernmental, and sub-national governments’ involvement in international affairs, in spite of their increasing relevance. Indeed the widely held view of diplomacy as an exclusive attribute of sovereign state is more a matter of political and legal discourse than empirical reality.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

More about this publication?
  • Global Norms for the Twenty-First Century
    Norms in the contemporary world system are no longer established exclusively through inter-state agreement but increasingly, are becoming truly global. This collection brings together critical studies on this complex process. Written by authors from eleven different countries, the book challenges the often convenient rationalisations of regime theory, the governance approach, and 'post-national' or 'cosmopolitan' democracy, in order to explore the practical, theoretical and ethical implications of the new world of global norms.
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