From Drivers to Bystanders: The Varying Roles of States in International Legal Change

Processes of change in international law are typically portrayed as centered on states. Other actors (international organizations, civil society organizations, expert groups, or scholars) play a role in these processes as supporting characters. Considering the fragmented or even fractured nature of the world, and the growing polarization among states, how can state-focused models explain the significant changes observed in the past two decades? We propose to explain this under-explored dynamism by shifting the focus away from solely state-centric explanations. We introduce a typology for various other roles states play by building on evidence from different issue areas of international law in which important change processes centrally involve non-state actors, with states occupying more limited or even marginal roles. Our account includes five main roles: central ones as drivers and blockers, marginal ones as bystanders, and intermediate ones as catalysts and spoilers.