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How does the realist framework allow for an understanding of the inefficiency of international courts and tribunals in enforcing international criminal law and resolving conflict?

Quick answer:

The realist framework for international relations allows for an understanding of the inefficiencies of international courts because it holds that nations are only motivated by self-interest and self-preservation. Therefore, they will only abide by international court decisions, or international law more broadly, if they feel it is in their interest to do so. For this reason, the realist perspective tends to view international courts as weak and inefficient.

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International courts are generally identified with a liberal approach to international relations. The realist perspective on international relations downplays the role of ideology in global affairs. Rather, it stresses the self-interest of states in foreign policy, and realists are highly skeptical of international organizations. This is because states, motivated primarily by the desire to maintain their own existence, are locked in a constant power struggle with other states according to the realist line of thinking.

Rather than being examples of international cooperation, organizations like the International Court of Justice and ad hoc tribunals are really just another forum in which this struggle takes place. States participate in them because they want to advance their self-interest, not out of some abstract desire for justice. Any decision that comes from them, therefore, is suspect—lacking in legitimacy.

Perhaps the most famous theorist of realism, Kenneth Waltz, argued that international relations were by nature anarchic and questioned the ability of international organizations, least of all international courts, to impose order on them.

In short, international courts are inefficient, and their decisions are difficult to enforce, because they are only enforceable to the extent that they are aligned with the interests of the most powerful nation-states. In order for the decisions of these organizations to be binding, states have to see them as being in their self-interest.

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