Are the Contents of International Treaties Copied and Pasted?

Most accounts of international negotiations suggest that global agreements are individually crafted and distinct, while some emerging scholarship suggests a heavy reliance on models and templates. In this research, we present a comprehensive test of whether new international treaties are heavily copied and pasted from past ones. We specify several reasons to expect widespread copying and pasting, and argue that both the most and least powerful countries should be most likely to do so. Using text analysis to examine several hundred preferential trade agreements (PTAs), we reveal that most PTAs copy a sizable majority of their content word for word from an earlier agreement. At least one hundred PTAs take 80 percent or more of their contents directly from a single, existing treaty—with many copying and pasting 95 percent or more. These numbers climb even higher when we compare important substantive chapters of trade agreements, many of which are copied and pasted verbatim. Such copying and pasting is most prevalent among low-capacity governments that lean heavily on existing templates, and powerful states that desire to spread their preferred rules globally. This widespread replication of existing treaty language reshapes how we think about international cooperation, and it has important implications for literatures on institutional design, policy diffusion, state power, and legal fragmentation.

That is from a new paper by Todd Allee and Manfred Elsig, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.


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