IL/IR Book Discussion: Beyond the “Isms War”?

by Jeffrey Dunoff and Mark Pollack

[Jeffrey L. Dunoff is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Law at Temple University Beasley School of Law and Mark A. Pollack is professor of Political Science and Jean Monnet Chair ad personam at Temple University]

One of the most difficult choices in our book, and one of the most contentious discussions at two book workshops, was about how to approach the question of “theory.”  Our approach was to identify four research traditions in IR that had been invoked productively by IL/IR scholars – namely, realism, institutionalism, liberalism, and constructivism – and ask four leading scholars to review and identify how each tradition had been adapted and developed to explore the making, interpretation and implementation of international law.

Doing so, however, posed two problems.  First, it privileged IR theory over international legal theories.  We agreed with this critique, but we felt that the centrality of IR theories in the IL/IR literature in fact reflected our view of the literature more broadly, which is that what was labeled IL/IR scholarship was not primarily interdisciplinary in nature, but represented the application of IR theory and methods to international law as a subject.  We see this imbalance between IR and legal theory as a lamentable feature of contemporary IL/IR scholarship – a point to which we will return in a subsequent post – but one that accurately reflects the current state of the field.

Second, a number of our participants were concerned that, in selecting these four theories and asking our authors for canonical statements of each, we were reifying distinct, non-overlapping theories, and thus aggravating a decades-long “isms war.”  Far better, some contributors suggested, to do away with the isms altogether, in favor of a “non-paradigmatic approach.”  Despite such concerns, our own view was that realism, institutionalism, liberalism and constructivism, as distinct theoretical research programs, have been the intellectual nurseries within which scholars have developed and refined theories and testable hypotheses about factors such as power and distribution (realism), information and institutions (institutionalism), domestic and transnational society (liberalism) and norms and ideas (constructivism).  In this symposium, for example, Richard Steinberg makes a strong case for the distinctive contributions of realist theories focusing on states, state interest, and state power.

In fact, the lively debate between Steinberg and Ian Hurd (see also here) demonstrated the potential for debate to take the form of an “isms war” over the boundaries of realism and its contribution relative to other theoretical traditions.  In the end, however, Steinberg and Hurd come close to substantive agreement, to the effect that state power, once emphasized primarily if not exclusively by realists, is now understood by a wide range of IR and IL scholars to be central to our understanding of law, and that serious students of international law should and do consider power as an important causal variable alongside institutions, ideas and norms, and domestic state-society relations.  A recent survey of IR scholars by a team at the College of William and Mary revealed that, when asked to identify their preferred theoretical orientation, a plurality of scholars for the first time answered that their work was “non-paradigmatic,” i.e. that it drew in an eclectic or “tool-kit” fashion from multiple theoretical traditions in an effort to understand real-world problems.  We strongly advocate just such an approach, which can benefit from engagement with the definitive reviews of the four traditions in our volume (i.e., Steinberg on realism, Koremenos on institutionalism, Moravcsik on liberalism, and Brunnée and Toope on constructivism).  Indeed, we see such an approach as gaining ground in much IL/IR scholarship, and our own aim – both in the volume and in other writings – is to see such IR traditions enriched further by engagement with international legal theorizing, to which we return on Friday.

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