They believe that when nations enter into an international agreement, they alter their behavior, their relationships, and their expectations of one another over time in accordance with its terms. That is, they will, to some extent, comply with the undertakings they have made.
The authors argue that the general level of compliance with international agreements cannot be empirically verified. That nations generally comply with their international agreements, on the one hand, and that they violate them whenever it is “in their interests to do so” are not statements of fact or even hypotheses to be tested.
They give some reasons why they think the background assumption of a propensity to comply is plausible and useful.
Efficiency: Decisions are not a free good. An advocate of outright violation bears a heavy burden of persuasion.
Interests: The state need not enter into a treaty that does not conform to its interests. The process by which treaties are formulated and concluded is designed to ensure that the final result will represent an accommodation of the interests of the negotiating states. It is a learning process. Modern treaty making, like legislation, can be seen as a creative enterprise through which the parties not only weigh the benefits and burdens of commitment but explore, redefine, and sometimes discover their interests.
Norms: Treaties are to be obeyed. In the absence of ABM treaty, the Soviet Union would have been legally free to build ABM systems. They refrain actors. Arms control treaties with the Soviet Union were important in providing the stability of expectations and predictability the Pentagon needed for sound strategic planning.
They propose a variety of other reasons why states may deviate from treaty obligations and why these reasons are accepted by the parties as justifying. Varieties of noncompliance:
- Ambiguity and indeterminacy of treaty language
- Limitations on the capacity of parties to carry out their undertakings
- Temporal dimension of the social and economic changes contemplated by regulatory treaties. IMF agreement and Montreal Protocol provided transitional arrangements and made allowances for special circumstances.
They consider how the ‘acceptable level’ is determined and adjusted. The fundamental problem for the system is not how to induce all drivers to obey the speed limit but how to contain deviance within acceptable levels.
Acceptable level of compliance would vary with the significance and cost of the reliance that parties place on the others’ performance. On this basis, treaties implicating national security would demand strict compliance because the stakes are so high, and to some extent that prediction is borne out by experience. Yet even in this area, some departures seem to be tolerable; some countries’ nuclear projects are tolerated while in the 1970s some were dealt with severely.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) ordinarily displays some tolerance for noncompliance, but the alarming and widely publicized decline in the elephant population in East African habitats in the 1980s galvanized the treaty regime.