My research focuses on the intersection of international relations and international law. Specifically, I seek to understand the different ways international law constrains the conduct of states. There is a growing tendency in the literature to argue that international law shapes the behavior of states via a logic of appropriateness rather than the logic of consequences stressed by realists and neoliberal institutionalism. By contrast, I understand the core evolution in law to be a more nuanced understanding of reciprocity. Building on Robert Keohane’s distinction between specific and diffuse reciprocity, I distinguish between two types of specific reciprocity: legal and strategic. While legal reciprocity involves the reciprocal commitments that states build into the wording of international law, strategic reciprocity can be used as a policy device regardless of the law. This understanding of reciprocity gives my research an appreciation of domestic debates regarding international obligations that are missed by other logic of consequences approaches.

I explore one aspect of this theme in my Ph.D. dissertation, Expectations of Reciprocity in the Law of Armed Conflict (currently under review at Cambridge University Press). Here, I consider the ability of international humanitarian law to constrain state behavior. This project involved a study of both the history of the law itself and the diplomatic negotiations surrounding the updating of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and the creation of Additional Protocols I and II in 1977. My more nuanced theory of reciprocity demonstrates that, with respect to applying Geneva Convention III obligations, states have always understood these obligations as contingent on the reciprocal compliance of their opponents. I then applied this finding to the Johnson administration’s decision to apply Geneva Convention III to the War in Vietnam and the Bush administration’s decision to deny its application to the War on Terror. Contrary to critics who dismissed the Bush administration’s decision as a rejection of its international legal obligations, my approach demonstrates a continuation of a reciprocity-based understanding of such laws.

I am looking to extend my research on international humanitarian law in the following ways. One topic for exploration is the question of how other states understand their Geneva Convention III obligations. While the United States may be the largest military power to be involved in armed conflict, other states such as the United Kingdom and Canada are participants in the War on Terror. While these countries have publicly supported American military efforts in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, they have not followed the same policy of denying the application of Geneva Convention III protections to detainees. I am applying for a SSHRC Connection grant to support a journal article explaining the difference between US and Canadian policy in terms of my understanding of reciprocity. A second line of inquiry regards the relevance of Geneva Convention III to contemporary armed conflict. International humanitarian law was created at a time when state militaries faced-off against each other and large numbers of prisoners were taken. Contemporary armed conflict is quite different. The rise of intra-state conflict, which states view as insurrection, has led to a situation where few prisoners are taken and detained under the conditions envisioned by the law. I plan to write a second paper exploring whether Geneva Convention III can accomplish its goal of lessening the suffering of those held as prisoners in contemporary armed conflict.

A second line of inquiry I wish to explore is the ability of international humanitarian law to constrain behavior in situations of gross violations of human rights arising from intra-state conflict. On the face of it, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) fits well with the humanitarian sentiment expressed in the Geneva Conventions and with contemporary concerns about human rights. Yet there are tensions that need to be explored between international humanitarian law and international human rights law. For one thing, the non-reciprocal nature of international human rights law fits uneasily with the reciprocity-based international humanitarian law. In addition, the just war underpinnings of R2P may lead to an escalation in conflict. The express purpose of the Westphalian system is to limit armed conflict by insisting that states do not have the right to interfere in the domestic issues of other states. R2P’s talk of “just cause” also militates against restraint in armed conflict as it is extremely hard to find common ground with an opponent you view as “unjust.” I hope to apply my work on reciprocity to this issue and present a paper at the annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science in April 2018.

In the longer term, I am interested in a book project examining the question of whether the liberal international order – of which international humanitarian law is a central part – is under threat. Beginning in the 1990s, a critique emerged arguing that international law and other such institutions were created by global elites attempting to impose their cosmopolitan values and constrain US power. For example, the possibility that the International Criminal Court could have jurisdiction over US military personnel was viewed as such an intolerable violation of sovereignty that the Bush administration renounced its legal obligations under the Rome Statute. Current US President Donald Trump has criticized numerous international institutions including NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations and is likely to repudiate international norms in many issue areas including armed conflict. Applying my theory of reciprocity to this question may lead to a less pessimistic conclusion than has been argued for by others.


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