An introduction: confronting complexity.

AuthorCohen, Harlan

In March 2012, a record number of international lawyers assembled in Washington, DC for the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law.

We had the privilege of co-chairing the Meeting and chose as our theme, "Confronting Complexity." We felt that this theme reflected well the current challenges and opportunities presented by rapidly evolving technologies, increasing global interconnectedness, rising population, and deepening understanding of science and the environment. New international actors; changes in social, economic, and political dynamics; a multipolar power structure; and novel security threats only add to the complexity we face.

Amid this confusion, international law can be a source of order and clarity. It can provide frameworks to resolve disputes peacefully, regulate relations between different actors, and clarify rights and obligations. It can foster technological development and facilitate exchanges of knowledge and goods. It is no surprise that managing global financial crises, protecting global commons, responding to conflicts spilling across borders, and guaranteeing public health and safety have all been added to international law's purview. In our crowded, connected world, civil uprisings, financial collapses, natural and human-caused disasters are no longer domestic crises: they are global crises.

While international law has at times been quite creative in response to these problems, whether it is fully up to the task remains an open question. International law can actually exacerbate complexity with conflicting or unclear rules, uncertain enforcement, and overlapping and competing jurisdiction. International law must demonstrate the flexibility to embrace new issues, to look beyond the state, and to integrate new players (who may not follow its rules). Transparency, accountability, and participation must be guaranteed in new private regulatory regimes, shorn from state control. The instruments and processes of international law must provide means for scientific evidence to be sifted, understood, and translated into law. And yet, even as it adapts, international law must also remain a force for stability and predictability.

As we looked at various issues that seemed to be defining the moment in international law, whether the Arab Spring, the global financial crisis, disasters, or drone warfare, we kept coming back to this theme of complexity. These issues seemed staggeringly complex, not just for...

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