Who is the Sovereign in Sovereign Debt? Reinterpreting a Rule-of-Law Framework from the Early Twentieth Century

By Odette Lienau

Combining legal interpretation with political science analysis, this Article highlights the competing "statist" and "popular" conceptions of sovereignty at stake in sovereign debt issues. It argues that these two dominant approaches do not exhaust the offerings of intellectual history and considers an alternative approach that emerged in the early twentieth century and may be of relevance again today. The Article contends that U.S. Chief Justice Taft's foundational 1923 "Tinoco" decision, which grounds the current approach to sovereign governmental recognition, has been misinterpreted to support a purely statist or absolutist conception of sovereignty.

New: Rethinking Sovereign Debt: Politics, Reputation, and Legitimacy in Modern Finance

By Odette Lienau

This book challenges the prevalent assumption that sovereign debt must be repaid — even after a major regime change — in order to maintain country creditworthiness. It argues that this conventional wisdom is overly simplistic and in some cases entirely wrong, and contends that its underlying assumptions of political neutrality, creditor uniformity, and historical constancy all fall away upon closer inspection. It points out that practices of sovereign debt and reputation are rendered intelligible only with reference to the highly politicized idea of ‘sovereignty,’ and argues that these practices necessarily diverge depending on the approach to sovereignty adopted. Furthermore, the book highlights that creditor uniformity cannot simply be assumed, and in fact different creditors may view — and historically have viewed — the same debt repudiation in opposing ways. It contends that the post-World War I cases of the Soviet Union and Costa Rica have been misinterpreted, used to ...

Odette Lienau Professor of Law
Photo of Odette Lienau

Contact Information

Cornell Law School
112 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901

Phone: (607) 255-1449
Fax: (607) 255-7193
Email: ol53@cornell.edu


Jamie Weber
Cornell Law School
213 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
Email: jaw6@cornell.edu

Professional Biography

Odette Lienau is a Professor of Law at Cornell University, where she also co-directs the International Law/International Relations Colloquium and is a Faculty Member in the Graduate Field of Government. Her research and teaching interests include international economic law, international law and international relations, bankruptcy and debtor-creditor relations, and political and legal theory. Her scholarship seeks to understand the broader norms and principles that underpin international market rules and that impact expectations about appropriate behavior for businesses, governments, and other actors.

Her book, Rethinking Sovereign Debt: Politics, Reputation, and Legitimacy in Modern Finance (Harvard University Press, 2014, winner of a Book Award from the American Society of International Law), challenges the conventional wisdom that all states, including those emerging from a major regime change, must repay debt or suffer reputational consequences. She contends that this practice is not essential for functioning capital markets, and locates the twentieth century consolidation of the repayment rule in contingent actions taken by government officials, international financial institutions, and private market actors. Her articles and chapter contributions have been published or are forthcoming with the Harvard International Law Journal, the Yale Journal of International Law, the Hastings Law Journal, and Oxford University Press, among others. She has consulted for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on the establishment of a sovereign debt workout mechanism, and is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

She practiced with the Financial Restructuring and Insolvency group at Shearman & Sterling in New York City prior to joining Cornell Law School, and has been Nomura Visiting Professor of International Financial Systems at Harvard Law School. She received an A.B. from Harvard College and a J.D. from NYU School of Law, where she was awarded the Jerome Lipper Prize for Excellence in International Law and the John Bruce Moore Award for Outstanding Work in Law and Philosophy. She earned a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard University, where her dissertation received the university's Charles Sumner Prize.


A.B., Harvard College, 2000
J.D., NYU School of Law, 2006
Ph.D., Harvard University, 2009