Reversing Field: What Can International Relations Learn from International Law?
90 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2012 Last revised: 26 Aug 2015
Date Written: April 9, 2012
International Relations has rediscovered the study of international law in recent years. And yet, this new “IL/IR” scholarship has been highly unbalanced, with political science scholars paying little or no attention to the potential contribution of international legal scholarship, which is seen as excessively formalist and blind to the realities of modern power politics. Ironically, by ignoring what lawyers know about how international law operates, IR scholars themselves unwittingly fall prey to a type of formalism that is insufficiently attentive to the practical realities of how the international legal order works. Happily, IR scholars can remedy these defects by drawing upon the theoretical frameworks and empirical analyses of their counterparts in law. To encourage such an engagement, this paper proceeds in three parts. Part I provides a thumbnail history of the relationship between the disciplines, including their post-war estrangement, the recent rapprochement, and the unbalanced terms of trade between the two disciplines today. Part II sets out a brief primer on the leading theoretical approaches to international law, demonstrating that the common image of international legal scholarship as overly formalistic and blind to political realities is simply incorrect, and that IL scholarship offers important insights into issues that political scientists care about. Part III turns more directly to how international legal thought can advance IR thinking. We identify several concepts – which we call process, power, pluralism, and normativity – that are central to legal analysis but often overlooked or treated differently in IR scholarship. Next, by way of example, we highlight three broad areas of inquiry – the making, interpretation, and enforcement of international law – where international law approaches can make a distinctive contribution to IR scholarship.
Keywords: International law, international relations, interdisciplinary, international legal theory
JEL Classification: K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation