The Recipe is Unrealistic: Realism’s Critique of International Law

In critiquing international law (IL), the theory of realism is at its weakest when rebuffing critical theories of international relations (IR) that contribute to building discourse surrounding IL. The argument of John J. Mearsheimer, that critical theory cannot predict which discourse will replace realism but that it does, in fact, posit that realism will be replaced, shall be examined in detail (Mearsheimer, 1995, p. 44). Is a theory actually any less valid if it does not absolutely solve a problem, but only recognizes there is a problem? In effect, Mearsheimer might also be hinting at critical theory lacking the ability to predict potential outcomes in IR. Using constructivism, interactional legal theory (ILT) and his example of fascist discourse, the argument for critical theory containing predictive attributes will be made.

Toss in Theories

To fully understand Mearsheimer’s argument, you must also have a description of the theories being thrown around. Realism and critical theory, told through constructivism and ILT, will be the bulk of IR theory examined.

1/3 Realism. As argued by Mearsheimer (1995), realism can be seen as the leading discourse in IR. Realism is the world in terms of self-interest and power politics. Each state much navigate the turbid waters of IR on their own accord. A state seeks to maximize its own outcomes in every situation to ensure survival. A central tenet of realism is that states are units of equal importance with no authority above them. A balance of power analysis, either between two hegemons, economic differentials or a classic arms race scenario, is highly important in realism (Mearsheimer, 1995, p. 12).

1/3 Constructivism. Critical theory can be viewed as an umbrella term for numerous theories that simply look critically at leading theories of IR and IR itself (Rengger & Thirkell-White, 2007, p.5). Constructivism is the most inclusive of pluralistic discourse. Constructivism posits that our perception of our own reality is built on our own experiences and interactions within reality (Rengger & Thirkell-White, 2007, p. 6). It sounds like it is out of this world, however, it is rather simple in design. Constructivism is really trying to say that everything before, everything right now, and the future you’re thinking of will create your perception of reality and how you interact with it. Social interaction creates deeply held norms and shared understandings between states, societies or even two people (Burnnee & Toope, 2000, p. 5).

1/3 Interactional Legal Theory. ILT takes those deeply held understandings found in constructivism and in a somewhat linear fashion extends constructivism into the creation of law (Brunnee & Toope, 2000, p. 9). The nuance of ILT is the normative process of qualifiers that internally check a law’s legitimacy (Brunnee & Toope, 2000, p. 10). What makes a law a ‘good law’ is a central question asked within this theory, theorist Lon L. Fuller describes this as internal morality. It examines the continual exchange of law(s) and interpretation of law(s). To maintain simplicity, however, social interaction creates shared understandings which develop into norms. Those norms, over time, solidify into customs that eventually might be codified into law. This process can be seen as an internal and external check and balance on the discourse of law.

Mash-up Critical Theory

Mearsheimer is no stranger to a strongly worded defense of realism that requires very sound rebuttals. However, Mearsheimer’s argument against critical theory highlights a misunderstanding of critical theory and, at most, represents the same oversimplification that realism itself suffers from.

Mearsheimer (1995) in critiquing critical theory says, indeed, critical theory cannot guarantee that a new discourse will note be malignant than the discourse it replaces. Nothing in the theory guarantees, for example, that a fascist discourse far more violent than realism will not emerge as the hegemonic discourse. (p. 44)

In arguing that critical theory cannot predict discourse without specifying which theories compiled his opinion, Mearsheimer has oversimplified critical theory. It is almost as if he has issue with being critical of realism in the first place, which rings through as egotistic. It begs the question: is there a high utility in the predictive attributes of IR theory in the first place? On the merits of the argument alone, critical theory does place focus away from prediction in favor of analysis on the current (Brunnee & Toope, 2000, p. 5).  There are, however, strong lines of critical thinking that can make predictions based off of processes within social interaction. There can also be an argumentative leap forward in critical thinking that describes social interaction as the very structure of IR and not one of anarchy.

Mix-in a Rebuttal

Constructivism and ILT combine together to create a highly dynamic, differential system of control. This also creates the space to predict and guide potential change in the structure of IR. Coupling internal, normative qualifiers that define law found in ILT, with external, legitimately shared norms found in constructivism, a sort of differential system of control is created. This is defined as differential because both the external and internal qualifiers will exert influence on any interpretation of law moving forward. This differential system of control in effect allows social interaction to govern social interaction. We can also say because of this that IL will govern IL.

Mearsheimer is correct, critical theory will not predict fascist discourse. This is oversimplified and not representative of the true nature of constructivism. Critical theory will predict the future of fascist discourse when temporal factors, of which should always be considered, are factored into analysis. To truly understand the depth and type of interaction at play, you have to understand where it came from by allowing the past to cast an influence on your current thinking. As we know from constructivism and ILT, our current thinking will also hold ideas of future interpretations (Brunnee & Toope, 2000, p. 15). The lessons of the Second World War are not easily forgotten. With the Second World War, we have been given quite a bit of empirical evidence towards fascist state behavior. Since that time and of an ongoing nature, we have created shared norms and discourse that have sprung forth from the ashes of that war, much of which aimed at curtailing the rise of fascism and acute nationalism (Laqueur, 1996, p. 1). Fascism still exists but it is quickly defined and analyzed in discourse. The differential qualities present in the synthesis of constructivism and ILT ensure any discourse moving forward will face controls in its development. Fascist discourse might rise, but the degree in which it does can be predicted by understanding the discourse that developed it. Within constructivism and ILT there is room for that understanding and prediction.

Cook to Conclude

There is an unsaid power given to all people when our shared norms and understandings develop our customs and IL. When those laws are created out of an internal set of qualifiers, it ensures future constructs of that law at least start from a normative foundation.  Constructivism and ILT create the differentials that allow the passive yet pervasive nature of social interaction and IL to self-govern. This ability is arguably heightened when understanding the institutionalism at play in IR that creates a medium for state interaction (Keohane, 1997, p. 7). It is clearly shown that states interacting is a behavior of social interaction. Mearsheimer’s critique of IL through critical theory in stating the theory cannot predict is wrong and oversimplifies the complexities of critical thinking. Critical theory can predict when taking the very temporal nature of social interaction into account. Furthermore, this continued oversimplification of social interaction hides the possibilities of redefining the structure of IR through social interaction and not anarchy.


Brunnee, J., & Toope, S. (2000). International Law and Constructivism: Elements of an Interactional Theory of International Law. Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, 39.

Keohane, R. (1997). International Relations and International Law: Two Optics.Harvard International Law Journal.

Laqueur, W. (1996). Fascism: Past, Present, Future. Kirkus Reviews.

Mearsheimer, J. (1994). The False Promise of International Institutions.International Security, 19(3), 5-49.

Rengger, N., & Thirkell-White, B. (2007). Still critical after all these years? The past, present and future of Critical Theory in International Relations. Review of International Studies, 33, 3-34.

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