[Ian Hurd is an Associate Professor in Political Science at Northwestern University]
Steinberg opens his chapter with the line that “realism is the theory that international lawyers love to hate.” But he goes on to present a version of realism that is so encompassing that there is little to disagree with.
Realism, he says is about “the state, state power, and state interests” (147). He emphasizes that state power plays a role in making international law and in shaping states’ responses to international law. Among other things: “powerful states (or their rulers) conclude treaties to advance state interests…. Hence, powerful states could sometimes impose international law on weaker states, and sometimes states could agree among themselves on issues of common interest” (147). He also notes that powerful states use law to shape the capacities of others, which implies that they gain some advantage from this (157). International law is therefore a product of state power, and a contributor to it. IR/IL scholarship must focus on the complex dynamics among power, interests, and law.
As a description of some key elements of international politics this has much to recommend it. What is left of international politics if one leaves out states, state power, or state interests? There are many non-state forces in international relations but many are interesting for how they connect with or contradict state power. Who would deny that powerful states often evade their legal obligations, or that they strive to use their power to create a legal order that favors their interests? State agency is not absolute and it is shaped by international legal forms among other things, but one cannot deny that it exists.
But therein lies the problem -- it takes on so much that it is hard to see what a non-realist approach to IR/IL could be.
Steinberg sets out to make essentially two points: first, that scholars of international law should pay more attention to power, especially state power, and its relation to international law; and second, that to do is called ‘realism.’
[Ian Hurd is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. This contribution is cross-posted at the Ethics and International Affairs Blog.]
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