Stephen Walt’s Advice to Would-be Foreign Policy Wonks: Study International Law!

by Peggy McGuinness

With new students entering college and grad school, Stephen Walt posts here very sound advice on the “top ten things would-be foreign policy wonks should study.”   At number five he lists international law, but not for any reason that is likely to warm the heart of an international lawyer:

5. International Law. You might think that a realist like me would dismiss international law completely, but I took a course in the subject as an undergraduate and have always been grateful that I did. Among other things, it reaffirmed my suspicion that international law is a pretty weak instrument, especially when dealing with great powers. Nonetheless, states and other international actors use international law all of the time, and they certainly invoke it to try advance their own particular interests. So it’s good to have some idea what international law is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do.

One of the challenges for IR students is that not all political science departments offer international law on a regular basis.  Crossing campus to take international law at the law school is a good alternative, but beware that we law professors teach (and evaluate) our students as law students, not theorists.  The grad students who have taken my classes have often struggled with case reading — a skill that is old hat to 2 and 3Ls.  But once you get over that, you might learn some things about the law that will help you critique even a hardened realists like Walt!

One Response

  1. Response…
    His remarks imply awareness of what a Realist should ultimately come to realize, having engaged in rather thorough attention to actual patterns of practice and opinio juris among all relevant actors (the two elements of customary international LAW, for example) — that a great deal of law has real world mooring in general patterns of expectation and behavior.

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