Is International Relations Corrosive of International Law? A Reply to Martti Koskenniemi

48 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2013 Last revised: 9 Jun 2013

See all articles by Mark A. Pollack

Mark A. Pollack

Temple University - Department of Political Science; Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Date Written: June 4, 2013


Over the past two decades, cooperation between international law (IL) and international relations (IR) scholars has produced a vibrant, interdisciplinary IL/IR scholarship. Yet such interdisciplinarity has also produced a backlash from some legal scholars. Martti Koskenniemi, in particular, has for decades warned legal scholars about the potentially damaging effects of exposure to international relations. In his writings, Koskenniemi paints a picture of an IR field dominated by realism, in thrall to American policy-makers, and firmly committed to an antiformalism that is corrosive of international law and of the international legal profession, whose American practitioners have become so corrupted as to be unable to distinguish the law from the interests of American imperial power. Koskenniemi’s concerns, I argue, are not without foundation, yet his critique of IR represents at best an anachronism, and at worst a distortion of IR scholars’ attitudes, aims, and influence on the legal profession. IR scholarship is guilty of multiple sins, which can and should be corrected in dialogue with international legal scholars, but these sins are quite different from those imagined by Koskenniemi. The paper is organized in three parts. In the first, I briefly summarize Koskenniemi’s indictment of IR, including his provocative claim that IR has corrupted the American international law community. This argument, I argue, is flawed by a series of distortions of the views of IR and legal scholars alike, and does not survive careful scrutiny. In the second part of the paper, I take issue with Koskenniemi’s characterization of the IR field as a realist policy science, drawing on recent data to depict a field that is far more theoretically diverse and less in thrall to American policy-makers than Koskenniemi suggests. This is not to say, however, that IR scholarship is without fault as an approach to the study of international law. In the third and final section, therefore, I consider the real problems with IR scholarship in relation to international law. By contrast with Koskenniemi, who sees IR’s relentless antiformalism and commitment to interdisciplinarity as the field’s original sins, I argue that contemporary IR is characterized by precisely the opposite problems, namely a naïve and unwitting formalism in its treatment of law, and a disciplinary insularity that has prevented IR scholars from learning some basic lessons that are familiar to international legal scholars. These weaknesses of IR scholarship are real, but they are remediable through more, not less, interdisciplinary collaboration.

Keywords: international law, international relations, international legal theory, realism, liberalism, epistemology

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Pollack, Mark A., Is International Relations Corrosive of International Law? A Reply to Martti Koskenniemi (June 4, 2013). Temple International & Comparative Law Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2013, Available at SSRN: or

Mark A. Pollack (Contact Author)

Temple University - Department of Political Science ( email )

461 Gladfelter Hall
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

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