Krzysztof Pelc - (ZOOM ONLY) God, Sovereigns, and Anarchy: Tracking International Cooperation Through 250 Years of Treaties


Where does the binding force of international treaties come from? This article considers three centuries of international peace treaties to chart how signatories have sought to convince one another of the viability of their commitments. I show how one means of doing so was by invoking divine authority: treaty violations were punished by divine sanction in heaven and excommunication on earth. Anarchy, the fundamental assumption of international politics, is commonly defined as “the absence of a supreme power.” Yet an examination of peace treaties from the 1600s onwards suggests that for much of the post-Westphalian era, sovereigns would not have envisioned themselves as operating under anarchy. Rather, they strategically invoked divine authority to add credibility to their commitments. Signatories facing a high probability of war are seen relying more heavily on such invocations. Strikingly, treaties that invoke divine authority then show a greater conflict-abating effect. Using automated text analysis of two thousand peace, commerce, and navigation treaties spanning three centuries, I show how treaty performance was affected when signatories lost the ability to invoke the divine as a means of binding themselves. God appears to be statistically significant.


I am a William Dawson Scholar and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University.

My research examines the international political economy. I'm especially interested by how the design of rules can affect the odds of cooperation between states, and how some rules benefit some countries over others. This has led me to write about participation in international institutions, privacy and publicity, the effects of (il)legitimacy on political outcomes, optimal ambiguity, the impact of hard times on cooperation, precedent in public international law, whether workers can be compensated for losses from globalization, and the circumstances under which governments are allowed to break formal rules.

The unifying theme of this work is the idea of credibility. Being believed is the most valuable asset in both political and commercial markets. So how do market actors and political leaders get others to believe they are reliable types, when unreliable types abound?

My first book, "Making and Bending International Rules" (Cambridge Press), brings together some of the main points of this research agenda. The book asks how international law handles unexpected events: how can we offer governments some wiggle-room in hard times, while ensuring they don’t abuse that flexibility?

I received my PhD from Georgetown University, and spent my postdoc at Princeton' Niehaus Center. I have been a visiting professor at NYU, the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Studies in New Delhi, and the University of Copenhagen. I was awarded the 2017 McGill's Faculty of Arts Award for Distinction in Research. 

I was the winner of the Financial Times 2021 Essay Prize on the occasion of the Political Economy Club's bicentenary.