Global Governance Centre

In The Name of the Holy Trinity: Examining Credibility Under Anarchy Through 250 Years of Treaty-Making

Krzysztof J. Pelc, Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar, Department of Political Science, McGill University
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Room S3, Petal 2, Maison de la paix, Geneva

Panel Discussion

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. This view holds empirical implications. Signatories facing a high probability of war would be expected to rely more heavily on invocations of divine authority.

Then, the secularization of treaty-making, which I show beginning only in the late 17th century, would have come at the cost of God’s credibility-enhancing function, in a way that should manifest in the rate of conflict. Using automated text analysis of over a thousand peace, commerce, and navigation treaties spanning 250 years, and inter-state conflict data covering the entire period under examination, I show how treaty performance was affected when signatories lost the ability to invoke the divine as a means of binding themselves, and how treaty design evolved to make up for this loss. God appears to be statistically significant.



  • Krzysztof J. Pelc, Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar, Political Science Department, McGill University


  • Davide Rodogno, Professor, International History Department, The Graduate Institute


  • Ezgi Yildiz, Postdoctoral Researcher, The Graduate Institute


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This event is part of the ERC funded research project entitled "The Paths of International Law"".