A court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a dispute over islands in the South China Sea earlier this week. The Chinese told the court, the Philippines and anyone who cared to listen that they couldn’t care less about what the court said. This has led some to assert that tension is increasing in the South China Sea. If only because people seem to care a great deal about the topic, we need to address it.

First, a lot is said about the rule of law. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, pointed out that law can only exist when a Leviathan exists. What he meant is that the law only exists when there is something enormously more powerful than the individual actors who feel compelled to obey the law. Therefore, international law doesn’t exist because there is no global Leviathan that can enforce the law. It exists only in the sense that there are treaties, agreements and academic volumes on the subject. And there are people who want international law to exist.

But there is no Leviathan, no force that can compel nations to comply with rulings they disagree with. Some may wish international law existed. But it does not. It is as if there were a law against theft, and the thieves were more powerful than the police. In that case, there is a law, but the thieves determine what will and will not happen. There are places like that in most countries, and some countries have only that.

It is similarly the case with the international legal system. Individual states will not capitulate to the legal findings of international courts unless they choose to. And when they choose not to obey, nothing can be done about it.