Modern International Economic Law may be traced through three major epochs of development. The pre-World War II colonial period of increased globalization, followed by the post-World War II decolonization, leading to the current post-1990 emergence of global capitalism. Each of these eras saw the development of significant case and treaty law as nations and the eventual emergence of trading blocs and multinational corporations increased both interaction and complexity in the field.
Following the establishment of the League of Nations, and the Permanent Court of International Justice, the interwar period was distinguished by a series of international economic legal conflicts revolving around colonial issues. The postwar industrialization, coupled with the challenges of increasing calls for independence for colonial holdings drove increased conflict among nations for natural resources – both economic and military. The interwar period saw significant increases in protectionist policy as nations focused on economic expansion and recovery from a devastating world war.
Partially as a result of these conflicts, the period of peace was frequently interrupted, first in Asia and Africa, and later in Europe, with the advent of World War II. The war brought a halt to the development of global economic legal elements until the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements and the development of a post-war vision by the Allied powers.
One of the key elements of the post-war world was the move to decolonization by the traditional colonial powers. As these newly emerging nations began to exercise greater sovereignty, they began to run into economic conflict with both prior colonial powers and the companies that were given economic concessions by the former colonial powers. It was in this environment that international economic law began to develop its modern character, moving from a Eurocentric to a global application.
These newly independent countries leveraged their newfound influence in the United Nations to exercise increasing sovereignty over natural resources, human rights and economic activity within their borders. Prior international economic law, designed to support a capitalist global economy, began to adjust to a world where many of the new nations had a socialist element in their economy, and the US and USSR were engaged in a 40+ year “Cold War”, vying for influence among the superpowers.
With the fall of the USSR in 1990, and the reemergence of capitalism as the primary global economic model, international economic law once again began to shift to address increased corporate and economic interaction with the economic and legal systems.
Following the Second World War, the Allies established the Bretton Woods organizations, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. These organizations were designed to provide a level playing field for international actors. However, they were established between 1944 and 1947, ad designed to maintain the then international status quo. Decolonization in the 1950-1975 period placed significant strains on these existing organizations as emerging nations sought assistance and a helping hand up to developed nation status.
In many cases, following years of colonial rule, these nations not only sought access to the international economy, but also looked to the systems, including the Bretton Woods organizations and the United Nations, as a platform for improving economic and human rights and broader economic and social justice. The “majority vote” elements of governance in the UN General Assembly as well as the Cold War created significant areas of conflict – economic, political and military – among and between the emerging nations and the developed nations during this period.