Idealism and Realism in International Law and Relations:

A brief note responding to a couple of comments on my post on Brad Roth’s paper.

We have to distinguish here between “liberal” or, if one prefers, “progressive,” on the one hand, and the “international law academy” in the US context, on the other. It is not that the international law academy is not “liberal” in the American sense; it is. But it is in a particular way. American liberal/progressive politics overall has long tended to a form of liberal internationalism that matched up with the internationalist values of the international law professoriat. (Liberal internationalism here means a belief that power politics in international relations should be, and will, be transcended by international institutions and international law. to borrow Fukuyama’s useful characterization.)

For a long time it was assumed that this – and by extension, liberals including the academy – alone defined the ‘idealist’ position in international law and politics. Idealists (including the international law professors) to the left, realists to the right? Not precisely. Not all realists were ‘right’ – on the contrary, many realist IR professors broke that mold. But it could be said that with few exceptions, international law professors were all on the liberal-left, and that conservatives were generally realists.

But it turned out that conservatism and democratic sovereigntists were not all cold realists. Some of them – us – instead turned out to be animated by versions, and visions, of political idealism animating them. The strongest form, I suppose, being neoconservatism in its foreign policy mode, though that term has now largely lost much meaning. (Losing its meaning in part, as Fukuyama pointed out in his book on neocons, because neoconservatism in domestic policy was supremely realistic, in the sense of invoking the unintended consequences of well intended social policies and social engineering, and taking account of forward-looking incentives and disincentives on social behavior.)

I would count myself one such idealist in international law and relations – a believer, not in liberal internationalism, but instead in the sovereignty of liberal democratic states as the best order, not because it is sovereign, but because sovereign power serves as the vessel that best guarantees the security of liberal democracy. What makes that an idealist, rather than merely realist, position, is that it sees this as the best, rather than merely ‘realistic’ second best (ie, ‘if only we could achieve liberal internationalism, but we can’t, so …’ second best), position as a matter of political morality.

As the neocon vision of universal democracy remaking the irredentist Middle East unraveled in the Iraq war – as even conservative defenders were pushed back to realist defenses – a number of liberals re-discovered their realist side, buried with John Kennedy and Scoop Jackson. I have elsewhere called this the “new liberal realism” and think there is something of an ideological conflict within the Obama administration as between the new liberal realists (e.g., whatever you think of human rights in China, we’re not going to go after our leading creditor and once-and-future financer of our national debt) and the traditional trasnationalists/liberal internationalists, exemplified by Harold Koh, where the position is roughly that international institutions and law should and will replace power politics in international affairs. I think the differences will get papered over by invocation of that kick-the-can down the road standby, “engagement.” Engagement is an invocation of diplomatic ambiguity; it can artfully mean different things to different parties.

But ‘engagement’ is a policy you announce to the world, to the outside, and then can do whatever you like, or not, in the name of engaging. Inside the administration, in the struggles between ideological factions – I suppose I could be completely wrong, and everyone pretty much shares the same view, I have fielded no inside calls from Administration friends – I suspect the ‘bridging’ ideology is Whig history – the view that history follows a progressive trajectory. It has value in this context in allowing the sides to come together by saying that whatever they do today, it will be part of the long term historical trajectory toward liberal internationalism.

Among international law academics, there is far less division – there is not much of a realist wing, a power wing, for international law academics to contend with inside the legal academy itself, nor is there much of an “alternative” sovereigntist position based in democratic sovereignty idealism – although in each case, realism and idealism, more than there used to be. (I’ll try to add some links later.)