Agents or trustees? International courts in their political context

Karen J. Alter*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

179 Scopus citations


In International Relations applications, theorists employing Principal- Agent (P-A) theory have posited that the fact of delegation defines a relationship between states (collective Principals) and international organizations (Agents) where recontracting threats are the predominant way states influence IOs. Developing a category of delegation to international Trustees, I argue that recontracting tools will be both harder to use and less effective at influencing the Trustees. Trustees are (1) selected because of their personal reputation or professional norms, (2) given independent authority to make decisions according to their best judgment or professional criteria, and (3) empowered to act on behalf of a beneficiary. These three factors account for the different politics between Principals and Trustees, a politics aimed at either keeping issues outside of the domain of the Trustee or at rhetorically engaging the Trustee's authority in an effort to persuade the common 'beneficiary' whose loyalty and respect both States and the Trustee seek. In explaining why recontracting threats are not central to Principal-Trustee relations, the analysis bounds the realm in which we might expect P-A theory to apply, and provides a theoretical basis to question the 'rational expectations' claim that ICs are tailoring their decisions to reflect the wishes of powerful states and avoid adverse recontracting.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-63
Number of pages31
JournalEuropean Journal of International Relations
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2008


  • International courts
  • International law
  • International organization
  • Principal-agent theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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