Manfred Elsig – Univeristy of Bern

Are the Contents of International Treaties Copy-Pasted? Evidence from Preferential Trade Agreements

Much of what we know from scholarship on diplomacy and international negotiation suggests that widespread copy-pasting of treaty texts is unlikely. On the other hand, emulation is an emerging theme in studies of international institutions, and legal scholars remind us that contracts are often produced from past contract language. The reality is that we know little about whether international agreements are systematically drawn from past ones, and in particular, whether treaty drafters go so far to copy large amounts of language verbatim from another treaty. Thus our primary goal in this research is to provide more conclusive evidence on the copy-paste question – a dynamic that if true would be expected by some, surprising to others, and noteworthy to all.  To do so, we systematically compare the texts of several hundred agreements that address a common issue, in our case trade liberalization. Utilizing a novel and appropriate type of text analysis, our analyses reveal that most PTAs copy a sizeable majority of their content verbatim from an earlier agreement. Copy-pasting is even more pronounced when we compare the most important substantive provisions of trade agreements – such as chapters on antidumping, services, or intellectual property – where we regularly find chapters that are copied in their entirety, with literally no changes, from a pre-existing agreement. These findings are highly robust to different methods of comparison and the copy-paste percentages we report are actually quite conservative. Additionally, we reveal that copy-pasting is most prevalent in two distinct scenarios:  low-capacity governments that turn to an existing template to help devise their agreements, and powerful states that spread their preferred set of rules globally.



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