Nations regulate arbitration through a variety of laws. The main body of law applicable to arbitration is normally contained either in the national Private International Law Act (as is the case in Switzerland) or in a separate law on arbitration (as is the case in England and Jordan). In addition to this, a number of national procedural laws may also contain provisions relating to arbitration.
The United States and Great Britain were pioneers in the use of arbitration to resolve their differences. It was first used in the Jay Treaty of 1795, and played a major role in the Alabama Claims case of 1872 whereby major tensions regarding British support for the Confederacy during the American Civil War were resolved. At the First International Conference of American States in 1890, a plan for systematic arbitration was developed, but not accepted. The Hague Peace Conference of 1899, saw the major world powers agreed to a system of arbitration and the creation of a Permanent Court of Arbitration. President William Howard Taft was a major advocate. One important use came in the Newfoundland fisheries dispute between the United States and Britain in 1910. In 1911 the United States signed arbitration treaties with France and Britain.
Arbitration was widely discussed among diplomats and elites in the 1890-1914 era. The 1895 dispute between the United States and Britain over Venezuela was peacefully resolved through arbitration. Both nations realized that a mechanism was desirable to avoid possible future conflicts. The Olney-Pauncefote Treaty of 1897 was a proposed treaty between the United States and Britain in 1897 that required arbitration of major disputes. The treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate and never went into effect.
American Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (1913–1915) worked energetically to promote international arbitration agreements, but his efforts were frustrated by the outbreak of World War I. Bryan negotiated 28 treaties that promised arbitration of disputes before war broke out between the signatory countries and the United States. He made several attempts to negotiate a treaty with Germany, but ultimately was never able to succeed. The agreements, known officially as "Treaties for the Advancement of Peace," set up procedures for conciliation rather than for arbitration. Arbitration treaties were negotiated after the war, but attracted much less attention than the negotiation mechanism created by the League of Nations.
By far the most important international instrument on arbitration law is the 1958 New York Convention on Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, usually simply referred to as the "New York Convention". Virtually every significant commercial country is a signatory, and only a handful of countries are not parties to the New York Convention.
Some other relevant international instruments are:
• The Geneva Protocol of 1923
• The Geneva Convention of 1927 
• The European Convention of 1961
• The Washington Convention of 1965 (governing settlement of international investment disputes)
• The Washington Convention (ICSID) of 1996 for investment arbitration
• The UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration of 1985, (revised in 2006).
• The UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules (providing a set of rules for an ad hoc arbitration)
It is often easier to enforce arbitration awards in a foreign country than court judgments. Under the New York Convention 1958, an award issued in a contracting state can generally be freely enforced in any other contracting state, only subject to certain, limited defenses. Only foreign arbitration awards are enforced pursuant to the New York Convention. An arbitral decision is foreign where the award was made in a state other than the state of recognition or where foreign procedural law was used. In most cases, these disputes are settled with no public record of their existence as the loser complies voluntarily, although in 2014 UNCITRAL promulgated a rule for public disclosure of investor-state disputes.
Virtually every significant commercial country in the world is a party to the Convention while relatively few countries have a comprehensive network for cross-border enforcement of judgments their courts. Additionally, the awards not limited to damages. Whereas typically only monetary judgments by national courts are enforceable in the cross-border context, it is theoretically possible (although unusual in practice) to obtain an enforceable order for specific performance in an arbitration proceeding under the
New York Convention.
Article V of the New York Convention provides an exhaustive list of grounds on which enforcement can be challenged. These are generally narrowly construed to uphold the pro-enforcement bias of the Convention.
Certain international conventions exist in relation to the enforcement of awards against states.
- The Washington Convention 1965 relates to settlement of investment disputes between states and citizens of other countries. The Convention created the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (or ICSID). Compared to other arbitration institutions, relatively few awards have been rendered under ICSID.
- The Algiers Declaration of 1981 established the Iran-US Claims Tribunal to adjudicate claims of American corporations and individuals in relation to expropriated property during the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. The tribunal has not been a notable success, and has even been held by an English court to be void under its own governing law.