Recent Award

Doctoral Dissertation Research: Governing the Uncommons: The Impact of Technological Change on International Law

The idea that law struggles to keep pace with technological change has in recent years become a trope. New technologies convey social benefits but also unexpected potential harm. This is particularly troubling in the context of international law, where military technological breakthroughs can disrupt multilateral consensus about who owes whom what. Puzzlingly, old laws are often robust to disruptive technological change, even when there are strong incentives for powerful parties to push for overhaul. When new technologies emerge, why do only some international legal rules require reinvention? The US must increasingly contend with other countries like China and Russia whose partnership is required to address issues of a global nature but whose vision for and interpretation of international law may differ in important ways. Understanding the factors that dampen technological controversy and make international cooperation more likely will be critical for the maintenance of a peaceful and forward-looking world order in the 21st century.

This research seeks to understand how new technology upsets international legal equilibria, and how legal rules can be adapted or replaced to account for these changes. The project entails two parts. First, it highlights historical cases in which states were able to predict problematic horizon military technologies and measures the conditions under which "anticipatory" agreements are possible to achieve. Second, in cases where technological breakthroughs "surprise" the international community, when can extant law be informally adapted without the need for costly and complete institutional overhaul? In essence, this latter aspect is a study of legal obsolescence. The project leverages novel experimental, quantitative, game theoretic, and archival methods to provide empirical traction on these questions. Findings could serve as a roadmap for policymakers in designing durable international agreements, arms control frameworks, and other institutions in environments of increasing technological uncertainty. They can help inform ongoing debate over emerging technologies in domains of military interest, cyber, outer space, artificial intelligence, and others, where international "rules of the road" are still in question.

Principal Investigator: 

Jack Snyder

Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations

Justin Canfil

Student, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Home Department: 


Wednesday, July 1, 2020 to Thursday, June 30, 2022

Research Category: 




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