[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.