IL/IR Book Discussion: Wanted- Dead or Alive: Realism in International Law

by Richard Steinberg

[Richard H. Steinberg is Professor of Law at the University of California. Los Angeles; Visiting Professor of International, Comparative & Area Studies at Stanford University; and Director of the Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project.]

“Realism” is the theory international lawyers love to hate. Dozens of commentators have attacked realism or written its epitaph. Some commentators have even asked: is anybody still a realist?

Many international law (IL) scholars challenge “realism” because most think it means that international law is epiphenomenal and so devoid of meaning – which could make their jobs irrelevant, wasteful, and quixotic.  But they also seem to love realism – or a version of it – because the misunderstood and mischaracterized structural realist straw-man claim that “international law does not matter” serves for them as the perfect foil for arguments that international law (IL) is important.  It is the null hypothesis that enables international lawyers to show that their argument and life’s work does have meaning.  There’s another reason IL scholars may dislike realism: it is seen as an amoral theory, at best.  And it offers a basis for attacking the feasibility of much of the normative work that espouses changing the status quo in international law.  In IL, a field that remains driven largely by normative agendas, realists constantly raise annoying facts and analyses that spoil the party.  Finally, realists don’t see nearly as much customary law in the world as most international lawyers who aspire to build a more legalized world order.  What’s not to hate?

This book chapter argues that realism remains very much alive, not only because international lawyers have kept it alive by attacking a straw-man misinterpretation of the structural realist variant, but also because it is a useful tool for positive analysis of international law: even its structural realist variant (correctly understood) has heuristic power, and realist concepts may be hybridized with insights of other approaches – for example, cooperation theory in economics, liberalism, social construction theory, or empiricism – to constitute a valuable research program in international law, with substantial explanatory and predictive power. Finally, realism is critical for the advancement of normative agendas in international law.  Realism’s epitaph is premature. Realism in international law remains alive and vibrant.

Introducing Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations: The State of the Art

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]

We are very grateful to our friends at OJ for hosting this symposium, which we trust will continue the work begun in our recent edited volume, namely providing a critical assessment of the innovations and contributions, as well as the lacunae, biases and blind spots, of international law and international relations (IL/IR) scholarship.  In this post, we kick off the discussion by providing a brief introduction to international law/international relations literature; discussing the motivation behind, and aims of, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations: The State of the Art; and identifying one significant conceptual shortcoming found in much IL/IR scholarship.

The Fall and Rise of IL/IR

The disciplines of international law (IL) and international relations (IR) both seek, albeit in different ways, to understand the causes and consequences of international cooperation, in general, and international legalization, in particular.  Perhaps not surprisingly, then, for several decades prior to World War II, practitioners from both fields pursued common research interests.

However, the cataclysm of World War II brought this era of disciplinary convergence to a crashing halt.  Influential political scientists, such as Morgenthau, Kennan and Carr, argued that state actions were driven by national interests, and that, as Kennan wrote, international law was “too abstract, too inflexible, too hard to adjust to the demands of the unpredictable and the unexpected” that mark international affairs. A dominant school of “realism” argued that “law,” as understood in the domestic sense, could not serve as a meaningful constraint on states’ pursuit of the national interest in an anarchic international system, and for many years thereafter IR scholars paid little attention to international law or international legal scholarship.  One consequence was a decades-long mutual estrangement between the two disciplines.

This period of mutual neglect began to ebb only with the end of the Cold War, and the increased salience of international norms and institutions.  (more…)

Book Symposium: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations, by Jeffrey Dunoff & Mark Pollack

by An Hertogen

This week, we are hosting a symposium on Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations: The State of the Art, edited by Jeff Dunoff and Mark Pollack. Jeff and Mark will introduce the book later today, but here is the abstract:

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations: The State of the Art brings together the most influential contemporary writers in the fields of international law and international relations to take stock of what we know about the making, interpretation, and enforcement of international law. The contributions to this volume critically explore what recent interdisciplinary work reveals about the design and workings of international institutions, the various roles played by international and domestic courts, and the factors that enhance compliance with international law. The volume also explores how interdisciplinary work has advanced theoretical understandings of the causes and consequences of the increased legalization of international affairs.

Each day, one of the authors will introduce a chapter, followed by a comment. Richard Steinberg will be the first out of the blocks today, with his chapter “Wanted-Dead or Alive: Realism in International Law”, with Ian Hurd as commentator. Tomorrow, Ed Swaine will comment on Larry Helfer‘s chapter on flexibility in international agreements. On Wednesday, Judge Joan Donoghue will provide her perspective on Joost Pauwelyn and Manfred Elsig‘s chapter, and on Thursday, Tim Meyer and Jana von Stein will take the stage. On Friday, Ruti Teitel, Jeff Dunoff and Mark Pollack will wrap up the discussion with a general overview.

We believe we have a great lineup of participants, but would love to complete it with our readers, so please join the discussion in the comments!