The Consent Problem in International Law
International law is built on the foundation of state consent. A state’s legal obligations are overwhelmingly – some would say exclusively – based on its consent to be bound. This focus on consent offers maximal protection to individual states. If a country feels that a proposed change to international law does not serve its interests, it can avoid that change by withholding its agreement. This commitment to consent preserves the power of states, but it also creates a serious problem for the international system. Because any state can object to any proposed rule of international law, only changes that benefit every single affected state can be adopted. This creates a cumbersome status quo bias. Though legal reforms that would lead to a loss of well-being are avoided, so are reforms that would increase well-being for most but not all states. This Article challenges the conventional view of consent. It argues that our existing commitment to consent is excessive and that better outcomes would result from greater use of non-consensual forms of international law. Though consent has an important role to play, we cannot address the world’s greatest problems unless we are prepared to overcome the problem it creates – the consent problem. International law has developed a variety of ways to live with the consent problem. These include the granting of concessions by supporters of change to opponents thereof, customary international law, and to the United Nations Security Council. None of these, however, provide a sufficient counterweight to the consent problem. There are also strategies employed to work around the consent problem, mostly through the use of soft law. In particular, the international system has developed a plethora of international organizations and international tribunals that generate soft law. As currently used and perceived by the international legal system, states, and commentators, these soft law strategies are helpful, but insufficiently so. We could achieve better results within the system by expanding our acceptance of the soft law promulgated by these bodies and raising the expectation of compliance placed on states. This move toward greater support for non-consensual soft law would help to overcome the consent problem, and represent a step in the right direction for the international system.