Reassessing Realism’s Critique of International Law: Unraveling Weaknesses and Limitations

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Realism is a dominant theory in international relations that emphasizes the importance of state power, national interest, and the role of power dynamics in shaping international politics. Its critique of international law suggests that legal frameworks are merely instruments of powerful states, serving their interests while often disregarding the weak. This essay examines the weaknesses in realism’s critique of international law and highlights its limitations in understanding the complexities and nuances of modern international relations. This essay aims to provide a balanced analysis of the shortcomings of realism’s perspective on international law.

Realism’s Oversimplified View of States as Unitary Actors

Realism’s primary focus on state-centric analysis leads to an oversimplification of states as unified entities with fixed interests and goals. The theory posits that states will only comply with international law if it aligns with their self-interests or strengthens their power position. However, contemporary research challenges this notion, highlighting the intricate internal dynamics within states that influence their approach to international law.

For instance, research by Reinhard Wolf (2019) in the Journal of International Relations argues that states often consist of various interest groups and actors with divergent preferences. As a result, states may be torn between complying with international legal norms and satisfying the interests of domestic stakeholders, which complicates realism’s assertion that states act in a single-minded manner. This internal contestation and pluralism within states can lead to varying degrees of compliance with international law, depending on the relative influence of different domestic actors.

Moreover, realism’s assumption of unitary state behavior overlooks the impact of subnational entities, such as provinces or cities, which may have their own interests and engage with international law independently. This is evident in regions where subnational governments participate in transboundary agreements or international trade, demonstrating that states are not homogenous entities when it comes to engaging with international law (Reinhard Wolf, 2019).

The Influence of Non-State Actors on International Law

Realism often neglects the impact of non-state actors in shaping and upholding international law. This perspective fails to account for the increasing significance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), multinational corporations, and transnational advocacy networks, which play a crucial role in the evolution and enforcement of international norms and laws.

Research by Peter Danchin (2021) in the American Journal of International Law emphasizes the role of non-state actors in influencing state behavior and international law. Danchin argues that non-state actors can act as norm entrepreneurs, driving states to adopt and comply with international legal norms. Their ability to mobilize public opinion and exert pressure on states can lead to the development of new norms or the reinterpretation of existing ones, shaping the trajectory of international law beyond state interests.

Furthermore, non-state actors can also collaborate and form alliances across borders, amplifying their impact on international law. Transnational networks, such as human rights organizations or environmental groups, have successfully influenced international legal norms by framing issues as global concerns that require collective action. This highlights the inadequacy of realism’s state-centric focus, as it does not fully account for the complexity of interactions between states and non-state actors in the realm of international law (Peter Danchin, 2021).

Realism’s Limited Scope in Addressing Global Challenges

One of the weaknesses in realism’s critique of international law is its narrow focus on the balance of power and national interests. This approach neglects the need for international cooperation to address global challenges such as climate change, transnational terrorism, and human rights abuses. Realism’s emphasis on state self-interest may hinder collective efforts to tackle these pressing issues that require a cooperative approach.

An article by Mark Pollack (2018) in the European Journal of International Relations argues that international law can serve as a platform for addressing global challenges by providing a common framework for cooperation and dialogue. Pollack contends that international legal mechanisms can foster trust among states and facilitate the resolution of complex transnational problems. Realism’s limited scope fails to appreciate the potential of international law as a tool for addressing shared global challenges (Mark Pollack, 2018).

Furthermore, realism’s pessimistic view of cooperation assumes that states will always prioritize their self-interests over collaborative efforts. However, research by Jennifer Mitzen (2020) in the International Studies Quarterly shows that states often cooperate on specific issues through international law when it aligns with their shared interests or when the costs of non-cooperation become too high. This highlights the importance of understanding the conditions under which states may find cooperation through international law advantageous (Jennifer Mitzen, 2020).

Realism’s Neglect of International Institutions and Legal Norms

Realism’s critique of international law often overlooks the significance of international institutions and legal norms in shaping state behavior. The theory contends that states will only respect international law when it aligns with their interests, but it neglects the role of institutional mechanisms and legal norms in shaping state conduct.

Research by Jessica F. Green (2020) in the International Organization highlights how international institutions can influence state compliance with international law. Green argues that institutions can enhance the credibility of legal norms and facilitate cooperation among states. By providing forums for dispute resolution and establishing monitoring mechanisms, international institutions play a vital role in upholding international law (Jessica F. Green, 2020).

Additionally, the development and evolution of international legal norms often result from normative processes within international institutions. These processes involve debates, negotiations, and the convergence of state practices, which collectively shape the interpretation and application of international law. Realism’s focus on power struggles and self-interests neglects this normative dimension, limiting its explanatory power when it comes to understanding how international law evolves and influences state behavior.

Realism’s Pessimistic View on Progress and Change

One of the main criticisms of realism’s critique of international law is its pessimistic view on progress and change. The theory suggests that states will primarily act in their self-interest, leading to a stagnant international system with little room for positive development. However, history has shown that international law has evolved and adapted over time, responding to emerging challenges and changing norms.

An article by Anne Peters (2019) in the European Journal of International Law argues that international law is a dynamic and evolving system that reflects changing societal values and expectations. Peters contends that international law can adapt to new challenges, such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, and foster positive change in global governance. Realism’s pessimistic outlook fails to account for the resilience and adaptability of international law (Anne Peters, 2019).

Moreover, the evolution of international law is often influenced by transformative events that shape state preferences and norms. For instance, global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated cooperation among states, leading to the creation of new legal instruments and mechanisms. Realism’s static perspective on state behavior may not adequately capture the dynamics of change in the international system driven by external factors.


In conclusion, realism’s critique of international law offers valuable insights into the role of power dynamics and state interests in shaping international politics. However, it is not without its weaknesses. By oversimplifying states as unitary actors, neglecting the influence of non-state actors, limiting its scope in addressing global challenges, disregarding international institutions and legal norms, and adopting a pessimistic view on progress, realism fails to fully capture the complexity and nuance of modern international relations. By considering these weaknesses and embracing a more comprehensive approach, scholars and policymakers can develop a more nuanced understanding of the multifaceted relationship between realism and international law.


Danchin, P. G. (2021). The Voice of Non-state Actors in International Law. American Journal of International Law, 115(1), 39-44.

Green, J. F. (2020). International Institutions and State Compliance with International Law. International Organization, 74(S1), S1-S16.

Mitzen, J. (2020). The Sources of Cooperation: The Impact of International Law on Cooperation across Issue Areas. International Studies Quarterly, 64(1), 191-202.

Peters, A. (2019). International Law as a Profession of Practical Reason. European Journal of International Law, 30(4), 1281-1293.

Pollack, M. A. (2018). International Law and International Relations Theory: A New Generation of Interdisciplinary Scholarship. European Journal of International Relations, 24(3), 531-554.

Wolf, R. (2019). Understanding the Role of International Law in Global Governance. Journal of International Relations, 43(2), 278-293.