The field of international law has grown dramatically in recent decades as international relations have become more and more intertwined. Although countries have always had diplomatic relations and been engaged in trade, the advent or modern communication and transportation systems has inaugurated a globalized society.
The end of the Cold War and the emergence of the Third World have contributed to the changing international picture. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that some problems, such as environmental pollution, cannot be solved by single countries alone.
The field of international law can be divided into two broad areas: public international law and private or commercial international law. Although there can be considerable overlap between these two areas, as when governments become involved in trade policies such as tariffs and embargoes, there is a rough separation between the public and private sector.
This is truer today than it was during the days of the Cold War, when countries’ governments were the alter egos of the economic systems.
Public International Law
When most people think of international law they think of countries exchanging ambassadors, or the United Nations, or war crimes. From ancient times, nations have maintained diplomatic relations through the exchange of ambassadors.
Communications between governments through these ambassadors guided relations between the countries. When diplomatic relations were severed, war, another institution as old as human civilization, often ensued.
To be sure, over the centuries nations have even developed rules of war and armistice. War constantly redraws the world’s political map and exchanges the balance of power in the international community. There has probably been no time in human history when a state of war did not exist somewhere in the world.
Thus, issues of war and peace are intractably interwoven with public international law.
As the war with Iraq and negotiations over disarmament with rogue countries like North Korea cast a pall on the prospects for world peace, and revolutions in Third World countries make travel and business less than safe for Americans, public international law is as important as it has ever been in the history of the world.
The United States cannot afford the luxury of isolationism in a globally interdependent world. With more people travelling across borders, diplomatic services often provide needed assistance to visitors to other countries.
For some, this help may involve something simple like replacing a lost passport; for others, the problem may be more acute, such as facing criminal charges in a foreign legal system. The same kind of assistance is routinely provided to foreign nationals visiting in the United States by their own embassies and consulates.
For many Americans as well as foreigners, travel across borders can be for extended periods of time beyond vacations and sightseeing. It is not uncommon for temporary or even permanent jobs to force citizens of one country to spend extended periods of time in another country.
Some visitors may become permanent residents or expatriates, and a few even take the major step of seeking citizenship in their new home country (either renouncing their prior citizenship or gaining dual citizenship).