International law is less useful when there is a conflict of interest or it needs to solve a collective-action cooperation problem. In those cases, diplomacy is more important.

A Distribution Problem is where states do not agree on how resources are allocated. States manage scarce resources with alternative uses. Power resolves this issue, not law. To the extent that law is created, it is made by the powerful state to permanently impose its will on the losing state.

The first case are conflicts of values. These are usually intrastate conflicts, but there interstate conflicts too. Conflicts of values are normally non-negotiable zero-sum games. You win or lose.

Values are important because they represent how a state regime will manage resources or mismanage them. This situation often takes place as an internal contest to control the government. Say there are democrats and monarchists.
Democracy: Democrats (5), Monarchists (-5)
Monarchism: Democrats (-5), Monarchists (5)

And that’s it. These two will be locked into conflict until there is a victor who imposes its will on the loser. This is the Revolutionary Conflict. International Law plays no role. As a matter of fact, the laws of the ancien régime in the domestic or international arena made conflicts more severe as they have to be overthrown too. States will go to war to change the international laws to favor them or a new system of values.

The more common dispute are resource distribution problems. These are usually
Resource Distribution Problems are usually non-zero sum games (as economies grow larger) but the relative benefits and costs are asymmetrical.

No two individuals have completely overlapping preferences in every distribution scenario. Their positions are different so their interests are different. The same is even more true of states.

Take a very simple example. Two states are debating a policy. Consider the policy a spectrum of incremental choices. For instance, you do not “raise” or “lower” tax rate absolutely. You raise it in increments of 1%, 2%… nth%. State 1 most favors a 40% version of the policy, State 2 favors a 60% version of the policy.


Not only do they favor different positions, but they have an even greater dislike of the other state’s preferences.

Power is the means used to influence the other state’s choices. It includes persuasion, incentives, punishments, and coercion.

Persuasion can convince the state to change its position by arguing that the long-term benefits are better than the short-term. Incentives and Punishments try to change your opponents expected utility – incentives to make your policy more desirable, punishments to make their policy less desirable. Coercion uses force to compel your opponent to your will.

Every state must be ready to use all options otherwise it makes its position weaker. A state cannot rely entire only on incentives and persuasion while taking punishments and coercion off the table. If they do so, it gives far greater leverage to the other state to use coercion and punishments.

Both states engage in a figurative tug of war to incrementally pull the policy decision towards their side. State 2 pulls it to 51%, then 52% then 53% – as far as it can go. State 1 pulls back to reduce its losses.

The saddle point in the above graph is 50% – that’s the minimax value for both states. This will be the policy point if both sides are 100% symmetrical in power. Neither are satisfied with this, but if they cannot win a tug of war (they’ll end up back at 50%).

That’s the very simplified value. In reality, states “link” multiple policies together into a package. This means they have multiple policy preference peaks as seen here.


This is another very simple example but one that is difficult to resolve. Not only are there multiple policy peaks, there is no coincidence of interest. Each state prefers the opposite of the other across a spectrum of policies. The state preferences will be intransitive. It’s the classic cyclical preference of A>B>C>A.

Both sides will play the tug of war game, but they may even be confused about their own objectives. Then it gets more complicated as both states hide their preferences from the other states.

Diplomacy and armed force are the only tools to resolve these disputes. Given how greatly and rapidly the preferences shift, laws are too inflexible to be useful.