Hedley Bull’s “The Anarchical Society” is a landmark text and one of my favourites. I recall buying it when I was a sabbatical officer with the intention of making up for only skimming it as an undergrad. I remember taking it to Japan to read on holiday, and again to Carlisle some years later having never quite gotten into it. Needless to say I did and I’m now doing post graduate research in the same field.

“A society of states (or international society) exists when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions” Bull, H. The Anarchical Society : A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan:1977) pg.13

Bull’s thesis is that a society of sovereign states exists in our world today and that this “international society” is anarchical in form given the absence of a central orderer. However as the subtitle to the work indicates, there is most definitely a form of “order” in world politics to which international society contributes. Like many of the best authors Bull sets out not just the topics he will cover, but those that are related but not his focus, most notably justice (xiii). At various points he outlines the notion that order is a pre requisite for justice (86), however he acknowledges that unjust orders exist, and that in his belief justice should not be sacrificed in the cause of order as a “commanding value” (98) – “If international order does have value, this can only be because it is instrumental to the goal of order in human society as a whole” (22). Yet he recognises that the prospect for substantive change here is limited given “to pursue the idea of world justice in the context of the system and society of states is to enter into conflict with the devices through which order is at present maintained” (88).

The sweep of Bull’s writing encompasses philosophy, history and then contemporary Cold War international relations. Philosophically, he critiques the common reading of a Hobbesian state of nature, and the simplistic contrast between domestic hierarchy within states and international anarchy (46). What of Lockean cooperation in the absence of a leviathan he asks (48) or primitive stateless societies (62)? Bull argues that conforming to notions of acceptable behaviour is more important than the mere existence of rules and speculates on the reasons states conform. As one would expect from a founder of The English School he makes use of detailed historical comparisons, tracing the evolution of International Society from Christendom to modern Europe before engaging the 1970s Cold War context (113).

The Anarchical Society follows a clear structure over three sections and 320 pages, with Bull outlining the aims and conclusions of each of the 14 chapters. Part One discusses the nature of order in world politics, with Bull focusing on its purpose as the realisation of shared primary goals (53). Here the case is made for international, (second order) society in an abstract sense, as Bull outlines how such a “precarious achievement” is maintained in an anarchical setting in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. Part Two addresses order in the contemporary international system. In this, the section I most enjoyed, The English School is applied to the traditional notions of; the balance of power; international law; diplomacy; war; and the Great Powers. Although eventually concluding that the study of world politics is purely an intellectual pursuit (319), in Part Three Bull treats the reader to a consideration of alternative paths to world order. At first glance one may consider this a treatise or personal manifesto on Bull’s part, a political agenda not in keeping with his otherwise academic detachment. However he remains true to his aims by coolly assessing each in turn, offering criticisms of the unworkable and unlikely where they are due and refraining from any utopian impulses. Indeed as an advocate of The English School, he is naturally inclined to the reform of the states’ system rather than its decline or obsolescence.

Does Bull fulfil the task he sets himself? Does he prove the existence and utility of the anarchical society? His reasoning deconstructs the oft levelled comparison between international relations and domestic political arrangements. As the title of the work indicates, Bull agrees that anarchy is a defining feature of international relations, but he rejects hierarchy as the only path to order. Moreover he clearly articulates the contrast between the mechanical series of interactions that characterise an international system, from the mutually held value laden perceptions and interactions that are the hallmark of his international society. Indeed he addresses sceptics head on asserting “my contention is that the element of a society has always been present, and remains present, in the modern international system, although only as one of the elements in it, whose survival is sometimes precarious” (41). This is an important caveat within The English School. Theirs’ is a tripartite outlook of an international system, international society and world society simultaneously coexisting. Thus The English School accepts the role that Great Powers play in determining the values and processes of international society and settling questions of stability and change. Bull sees international society jostling alongside war, transnational loyalty and division as elements of international relations (51) (73). Where critics see war (especially by Great Powers) as contrary to international law and thus proving realism’s assertion that the national interest and self-help always predominates, Bull points to the significance of states at least alleging they have just cause for war, keen as they are to appear reasonable members of international society (45). He underlines this point in his consideration of the efficacy of international law as “a social reality to the extent that there is a very substantial degree of conformity to its rules; but it does not follow from this that international law is a powerful agent or motive force in world politics” (139).

In his preface, Bull declares that The Anarchical Society is an opportunity to systematically bring together his thinking on international society and international order, where elsewhere he has only done so in “a piecemeal fashion”(ix). To do so he meditates on Hobbes, Grotius and Kant, whose worldviews are associated with the tripartite perspective which is the hallmark of The English School. Variously, Bull cites other notables in relation to their respective fields; Kelsen & Hart on international law; Gilpin & Hunt on the role of transnational corporations; Ali Mazrui  and Rajni Kothari on the Developing World’s justice agenda; and Richard Falk on the prospect of a New Medievalism. Ultimately this is Bull’s own work and the argument and analysis, both historical and political is his own. The Anarchical Society is written for an audience of academics and policy makers. For the latter are special lessons on the responsibilities of Great Powers; the risks posed by nuclear weaponry and the potential of institutions.  For the academic or student are definitions of concepts such as order; society; system; justice; war; balance of power and Great Power. Bull methodically contrasts related concepts with one another or details their components such as with the criteria for “socially effective rules” (56). Then there are his multiple levels of analysis, ranging from the international to both regional and global, and which through discussion of New Medievalism, countenance the role of non-state actors. Several times Bull directly addresses himself to his readers on some of the book’s most contentious topics and overarching questions. He highlights his refusal to justify order at the expense of justice, recognising this is the de facto position of The West (94). He criticises advocates of the nuclear peace, whilst directing readers to his writings elsewhere on the subject (126). He baldly rejects utopian cosmopolitan schemes as dreamt up by privileged Western elites and as such as patronising and ineffectual as they are impossible (85) (286) (304). In concluding, he chastens readers to accept that we remain in the dark about most things in spite of detailed research and it is foolish to pretend otherwise (320).

Written 40 years ago there are several interesting and insightful facts and observations one can gleam from a read of The Anarchical Society. It is readily apparent that talk of the rise of non-state actors and the phenomenon of globalization are not recent developments, with Bull tracing the globalization of European international society and the role of non-state terrorist actors. He speaks frankly of the post 1945 international society maintaining an order at the expense of equitable and proportionate notions of justice, telling the story of Walter Lippmann’s proposed post war regional Great Power management system as one mooted alternative (222). The greatest strength of the work is Bull’s careful treatment of concepts with which most international relations scholars are familiar and interested. He explores the paradox of how war is both a cause of disorder and thus a threat to international order/society and yet also an accepted instrument of state policy used to enforce international law or as a driver of change (91) (188). He separates discussion of the viability of international law from a focus on centralised coercion, arguing instead that self-help measures can ensure its application. Indeed he firmly identifies himself as a believer in law as “a social process”, rejecting “the idea of law as a ‘body of rules’ because they hold that this process of authoritative and effective decision-making does not consist simply of the application of a previously existing body of rules, but is shaped by social, moral and political considerations as well.” (128). Of particular relevance to my research would be Bull’s thoughts on how  an unjust order could be sustained (93); his analysis of how Great Powers legitimise themselves (229); and the strength of the cosmopolitan culture upon which international society rests (316).

What then is missing, what issues or questions are avoided by The Anarchical Society? Stanley Hoffmann, Adam Watson, Alan James, Kalevi Holsti, Kai Alderson, Andrew Hurrell, Yale Ferguson, Richard Little, John Williams, Edward Keene, Nicholas Wheeler, Tim Dunne and Barry Buzan are just some of those who have pieced over Bull’s legacy and reconsidered The Anarchical Society, now on its Third Edition. The have critiqued his separation of system and society, his moral vision, hesitant pluralism, methodological inexactitude and dismissal of economic integration or sub global developments. For my money, perhaps it is not the place, or it is best that he simply alludes to it, but a deeper (perhaps Gramscian) treatment of the values and institutions that define international society would be welcome. Although this work is picked up elsewhere in The English School. From a contemporary perspective the absence of religion/Islam as a theme is telling of its 1977 provenance. In terms of the existence of bias, as has been mentioned Bull’s voice is evident throughout The Anarchical Society, and he does address the reader deliberately whenever he picks sides in a debate, be it on nuclear weapons; cosmopolitanism; structural functionalism or natural law. As he sums up in a witty anecdote about being lost in Scotland, the present international society perhaps isn’t the best place to start from in search of world order, but it is here that we are, so it is here we must begin (295).