Theses Doctoral

System Shocks: Technology and Ambiguity in International Law and Arms Control

Canfil, Justin Key

Pundits and policymakers often decry the inability of international law to keep pace with technological change. Political scientists expect technological innovation to grant revisionist states with both the means and motive to evade unfavorable legal commitments. In practice, however, only some militarily disruptive technologies are institutionally disruptive. Status quo powers sometimes decline to contest revisionist breakthroughs, and revisionists sometimes concede (or conceal) their innovations instead of leveraging them to contest or evade undesirable rules. When contestation does arise, it is not always resolved in favor of the materially stronger party. If international law is what powerful states say it is, why are some international legal institutions comparatively resilient to militarily impactful technological innovations?

This dissertation presents evidence that linguistic nuance, negotiated in ignorance about what the future might bring, can handcuff states to materially disadvantageous interpretations about what technologies are "compliant." To advance this argument, I depart from longstanding assumptions about what makes institutions effective. Norm specificity -- conventionally understood to minimize noncompliance -- works well for known forms of deviations, but unanticipated forms are inevitable. As the technology frontier inexorably expands, specificity dampens the credibility of restrictive analogies, making norms hard but brittle. When this happens, states that care about preserving at least the veneer of legal credibility can be deterred from adopting policies that would otherwise improve their material security.

The theory is tested with a mixed-method empirical strategy. Seven case studies, based on thousands of pages of declassified records, are paired with two theoretically-motivated randomized experiments. This evidence shows while that emerging technologies may present states with incentives to evade the rules, the cost of evasive action depends on the perceived credibility of evasive justifications, a function of commitment language. An important finding is that seemingly "ambiguous" language can actually make legal institutions more resilient. In a world where change is understood as the only constant; words are widely viewed as cheap talk; and law is subordinate to politics, these results help explain why technology contestation is not ubiquitous.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2026-10-12.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Nathan, Andrew J.
Snyder, Jack L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 20, 2021