The Anarchical Society by Hedley Bull is an important text in the International Society or ‘English School’ approach to International Relations, which deserves a much longer node written about it, as does its author. This node is a simple, short one about the idea of anarchical society, rather than the whole book.

To begin with, it’s important to define anarchy. Its literal definition is a lack of rule or government, but it has also been more commonly associated with chaos. In domestic terms, this association is legitimate; it is quite probable a lack of rule would lead to chaos, unless you ask an anarchist, of course. However, in international terms, anarchy by lack of government is a way of life.

Classical realism says that this state of anarchy is unavoidable, due to the power struggle between states and that international politics is zero-sum, in that one state’s gain is at the expense of another and that there cannot be any justice as each actor will be a judge of its own cause.

Liberal Internationalism works on the domestic analogy that anarchy on an international level is as dangerous as anarchy on a domestic level, that it would cause chaos, and there is a need for international government to combat that anarchy.

Bull challenged both these theories in The Anarchical Society by saying that anarchy by lack of government was inevitable in international society, but it was more acceptable in international society and didn’t have the same chaotic consequences. He argues that there is no need for a government for an international society to exist, and that international society has its own common values. That the essential values of how states interact are established on a mutual basis between states. The institutions of diplomacy, international organisations, international law and even war and the balance of power all act within certain rules, from the extra-territoriality of embassies or the theories of just war (ius ad bello) and just practice in war (ius in bellum).

Bull argues that there may be anarchy, like realists argue, but only in the sense that there is no government, not that states can do what they like, and there is no need for an international order to be created, like liberal internationalists argue, because states find their own common values, and even in times of war, most states will adhere to these values, despite the lack of legal authority in an international society. He claims the domestic analogy does not work in this sense because

“States are not as vulnerable to attack as individual citizens … this does not hold the same prospect of sudden death for a state as it does an individual.”

Which means that anarchy is not as intolerable or contradictory for a society of states as it is for a society of individuals.


The Globalisation of World Politics – Chapter 17 – ‘Diplomacy’ – Baylis and Smith

The Anarchical Society, – Headley Bull

The lectures of Professor Ian Clark, University of Aberystwyth.

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