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Interdisciplinary Discourse between International Relations (IR) and International Law (IL)
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Interrelations between International Relations (IR) and International Law (IL) has attracted attention of IR and IL scholars, as well as those operating in both specialties (herein dubbed IR/IL). By means of desktop review, this paper categorizes and assesses three areas of consensus and four areas of conflict between the two disciplines using a qualitative-interpretive method. Two main texts, Yamato & Hoffman (2018) and Slaughter et al (1998)-along other secondary texts are reviewed to meet this objective. The conclusion presents a critique of the pathway (s) currently adopted to pursue the interdisciplinary ‘dual-agenda’, by claiming and arguing that the venture is globally unviable if it must proceed on a Euro-American DNA of IR and IL that currently defines the extant IR/IL interdisciplinary discourse.  

Introduction: The Origins of Divergence and Re-Convergence

The discipline of International Relations (IR) was birthed in 1919 (Linklater et al., 2013) owing to the during-and-post-First World War Wilsonian idealism, which sort to legalized international relations and politics by domesticating the international order with domestic legal principles as a panacea for an international perpetual peace. Wilsonianism defined IR for about two decades but was short-lived when another ‘Total War’ (Mahar, 2016) emerged in 1939. The consequent deconstruction of the ‘liberal dilutions’ (Meersheimer, 2001), which were termed utopian and responsible for the outbreak of the war by frontline first generation realists, among them Carr (1939) and Morgenthau (1948) who changed the environment that had, hitherto,  presented a somewhat optimum condition for a coexistence between International Law (IL) and IR. Thenceforth, the legal and political spheres of the ‘international’ (Bentham, 1781) witnessed a period of mutual neglect (Slaughter et al., 1998, p. 393; Yamato & Hoffman, 2018, p. 1; Hathaway, 1991, p. 476) only to re-converge in the post-Cold War. Henceforth, an army of IR/IL inter-disciplinary scholars have emerged to speculate about the need for an IR and IL interdisciplinary discourse (IR/IL), not least, because it is perceived that to legalize politics and politicize law is the way to make international relations, and international law constitutes a fundamental state to attaining an ordered international society (Abbott & Snidal, 2013). The object of this paper is brief and twofold: To assess the areas/factors of ‘consensuses and ‘contestations’ (Mboya, 2020) between IR and IL ’interdisciplinarity’ (Yamato & Hoffman, 2008) and to provide a criticism of the pathway that the integration of such a dual agenda has since taken. Two primary texts are used: Yamato & Hoffman, 201 and Slaughter et al. (1998) alongside many other relevant works as can be found in the reference section.

In the following section, three areas of convergence and four areas of divergence between IR and IL are discussed. The areas of convergence or consensus include a) the need to broaden the theoretical lenses in IR and IL, b) need for more nuanced explanations of the outcomes of international affairs, c) and a quest for a common research agenda. Areas of contestation are discussed under the following headings a) the fear for an interdisciplinary colonialism, b) the perceived impossibility of an epistemological union, c) the difficulty for scholars to operate as both IR and IL specialists and finally d) the fear the fact that each discipline has its own intra-disciplinary divergences. These are discussed below.

Areas of Consensus

Need to Broaden the Theoretical Toolkits of Each Discipline for Problem Solving

The interdisciplinary discourse between IR and IL has the same aim that any other inter-disciplinary interactions, say IR and global political economy or global environmental politics seek to attain: The need to broaden theoretical toolkits from both ends of the spectrum to capture the new worlds that the other partner brings in Slaughter et al. (1998, p. 367-378) contend that IL specialists use IR theories to extend theirs in order to achieve three things: Extend their diagnosis framework of international events and sort for solutions to them; to explain the function and structure of international institutions; and to define and reexamine the whole regime of international law. It is clear from their assessment that IL theory as constituted (at the time of their writing) was unable to direct practical investigations of these three broad but core areas. Yamato & Hoffman (2008 p. 3-11) support this observation when they aver that the European version of IL has borrowed from the ‘alternative approaches to international theory’ (Smith & Owens, 2005, p. 271-293), which informs critical legal analysis, which in turn informs critical approaches in IR.

Need to Attain a More Mature Explanation of International Affairs as the Basis Constructive Criticism and Reconceptualization

While the first area of consensus or cooperation between IL and IR relates to expanding theoretical frameworks that open the practical operations black box, even a higher level of area of consensus relates to the need from both ends of the spectrum for more broadened theory for explanation and prediction of international affairs. Slaughter et al. (1998) supports this view by cataloguing a number of IL scholars who have used IR theory to expand the theoretical frames of IL to explain such processes as negotiations and the normative structure of GATT to find the basis to critique WHO processes (Shell, 1995), and how liberal domestic analogy of IR applies in transnationalism and leads to a particular definition of power-based IL as the basis of explaining states interactions to find a ground to criticize and re-conceptualize the domestic sphere (Slaughter, 1995). On the other hand, international relations scholars are using IL precepts to expand, explain and predict politico-legal phenomena more accurately. Slaughter et al (1998) avers that IR scholars like Keohane have expanded the previously limited IR theoretical lens by accepting the legal dimensions of institutionalism, in order to criticize more broadly the instrumentalist orientation of institutions, which he characterizes as ‘normative optic’ (Keohane, 1997). Moreover, constructivism has implied that IR scholars must explain power in more nonmaterial terms including how international law constitutes the conversational discourses leading to identity formation and reality construction (Foucault, 1970; Barret, 2005 p. 251-270), bringing in to IR theory the normative approaches (Brown, 2005).

Need Have a Common Research Agenda

Finally, the IL/IR interdisciplinary discourse has the ultimate aim of harmonizing the research agendas of both in order to destroy, completely if possible, the disciplinary ‘frontiers’ (Palan, 2000) between IR and IL. To that effect, Slaughter et al. (1998) suggested six practical research questions that the IR/IL scholarship needs to consider going forward, as the most important step in the quest for mutual and interdisciplinary relationships between IR and IL. These range from issues of regime design, process design, shared norms, issues on transformation of the international structures, governmental networks, to the issue of embedded institutionalism. On their part, Yamato & Hoffman (2018) criticizes the current path of IR/IL scholarship and aver that three questions must be considered in an IR/IL interdisciplinarity is to be achieved. These are ontological, epistemological, and axiological questions concerning IR and IL and IR/IL.

Areas of Contestation

The calls for consensus do not imply achieved harmony in the IR/IL scholarship. Intellectual contestation and conflict exists. Three areas of conflict are eminent. The first area of contrast is the fear of a possibility of one discipline colonizing another. According Yamato & Hoffman (2018) the fear is profound from the IL side of the debate with IL seen by IR as only a source of raw data and deeply refined histories and anecdotes (Slaughter et al., 1998) of description of state conduct which are integrated into IR to meet its intellectual aims. Even though Slaughter portends that this is changing and IL is increasingly becoming an equal player (Ibid), Yamato & Hoffman (2018) show that IL is actually colonized from within (with the North American version being the hegemon) and from without by the rationalist North American International Relations. This conflict is arguably in inherent factor to a successful IR/IL dual agenda.

Secondly, the fear of an impossibility of epistemological union between IL and IR also stages a conflict for a possible union between the two fields. According to Yamato and Hoffman, the trajectory that IR/IL scholarship has been deficient as it does not emanate from a meta-theoretical understandings of each discipline and their interactions (Ibid). The scholars’ suggestion is that meta-theoretical issues should be resolved first. For example before empirical theories are utilized to call for an IR/IL interdisciplinary discourse, theories should be advanced to explain the theoretical approaches that lead to hypothesis guiding the interdisciplinary scholarship.

The scholars suggest three pathways for engaging in such a meta-theoretical exercise.  Firstly, it should assess the ontology of IR/IL-the assumption about the object of knowledge in the interdisciplinary discourse-to thermalize their perceived relative autonomy/heteronomy. Secondly, epistemological inquiry-such inquiries that aim to determine how the claims about knowledge in the interdisciplinary discourse is done-should be framed to  should to cover issues of methodology such as  positivist/post/non-positivist, empiricist/non-empiricist ways of claiming to know in IR/IL.

Finally, an axiological investigation should evaluate value schemes that undergird the IR/IL interrelationships. In the final analysis, the scholars are suggesting a post-disciplinary scholarship that, they think, encompasses the many dual agendas currently characterizing the IR/IL scholarship (Yamato & Hoffman, 2018, p. 11-12).

Lastly, intra-disciplinary disagreements also constitute a challenge to the achievement of an integrated global IR/IL interdisciplinary discourse. Within IR, Martin Griffiths and Andrew Linklater are asking the pertinent question, is it ‘conquest or coexistence?’ (Griffiths, 2007, p. 1-9; Linklater et al.,  2013) to connote the hot debate about intra-disciplinary imperialism in IR. Yamato & Hoffman support this when they identify such an internal struggle both in IR and IL, and as constitutive of the conflict that stands in the way of IR/IL successful scholarship. Realism is seen as the most dominating approach in IR and is colonizing other possible descriptive and predictive approaches. The neo-neo debate has led to some agreements between realism and liberalism (particularly in its liberal institutionalist variant) but that has led to a further internal epistemological struggle between foundational/rationalist/positivist-empiricist approaches and the antifoundational/anti-rationalist/post/non-positivist approaches such as the neo-Gramcian School, Frankfurt School, English School, among others (Smith & Owens, 2005, p. 273-275. On the other end, IL also is involved in an internal entanglement. The so-called North-American version, which is heavily influenced by positivism and American scienticism, is pitted against the European version. The triumph of American social science has, however, brought its counterpart inside. A critical legal theory has thus emerged as the alternative pitted against the mainstream and which views laws as performative and largely unfriendly to inter-disciplinarily calls (Yamato & Hoffman, 2008). The average result is that a house divided cannot stand. Internal disagreements within these disciplines make their engagements with the other difficult, least, because they are not clearly defined within themselves as they lack clearly defined theoretical frontiers.

Conclusions: Euro-American dual-Agenda or a Global IR/IL dual Agenda?

From the foregoing discussions the calls for a disciplinary dialogue between IR and IL are largely a theoretical endeavor, but which have practical implications on international politics and relations as well as the causal effects of international law to outcomes of international affairs. It is therefore important that scholar or scholar-practitioners of IR and IL agree on a common agenda that would resolve the conflicts highlighted above (and others) in order to augment the areas of agreements.

Critically, however, the question that begs is, what implications does the agenda have for a multidisciplinary and a globally oriented study of IL and IR particularly out of Europe and America? What does this mean for Africa? How many African voices can be discerned from this debate? Slaughter et al (1998, p.369) answers this questions as follows: What matters is America and who matters is the American (or other non-American IR/IL apologists) writers whose research agenda’s on this scholarship are framed within the American social science methodology (ibid, p. 364-365). Herein, lies a great challenge. Other worlds and voices from out of USA must join this debate to give it a global dimension. Acharya (2014) and Abrahamsen (2017) support this lamentation when they reiterates Stanley Hoffman’s observation that IR should not remain an ‘’American social science’’ (S. Hoffman, 1977). If IR should be transformed in to a ‘global IR’, IR/IL interdisciplinary discourse should even be more global in terms of its substance and the agents spearheading the discourse. It is the conviction of the author that transitioning IR/IL scholarship from ‘monistic Universalist’ research endeavor (which is the current practice) to a ‘pluralist Universalist’ discipline (Acharya, 2014) is the first step toward achieving a truly integrated global IR/IL interdisciplinary scholarship.

Odhiambo Kasera is  graduate student and part-time lecturer at Maseno University.


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Mon, September 14, 2020 10:52 AM (about 20934 hours ago)
Most insightful article.
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