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).

At 2 hours and 47 minutes I will recommend my students watch this 1992 Noam Chomsky documentary more in hope than in expectation.

If I recommended just one excerpt then skip to 1:52:25 about TV debate, which incidentally reminds me of a presentation to the 2013 ESSL PGR conference by my colleague Kate Wicker at Leeds School of Sociology & Social Policy on “what makes an expert” and how they achieve the authority to appear on the news.

Anyway I remember watching Chomsky for the first time on VHS (!?) a number of years ago courtesy of my eldest brother who went on to tease me with the provocation that “the Cold War didn’t happen”. Incredulous at the time, I’ve since then read through Hegemony or Survival and Understanding PowerThe New Mandarins, cited appropriately enough at a 2013 BISA Roundtable on Telling Truth to Power, has made it onto my Amazon Wishlist.

Besides admiration for Chomsky’s range of expertise, defence of free speech and prodigious output, simply put I get uncomfortable when I read him, which is of course exactly what he wants. The gist of “manufacturing consent” is that propaganda is to democracy what violence is in a dictatorship, and the very use of the term propaganda exhibits one of his central arguments. Namely that the media, politicians, academics and other public figures, by framing issues and selecting stories bound the debate beyond which any discussion, opinions or indeed terminology such as “propaganda” appear extreme, fringe or ridiculous. Indeed Chomsky was one the first people I read to criticise the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, “the good war”, and thus speak beyond such boundaries, and has not confined his critique to the classroom as his police record testifies and academics opposed to the Trident nuclear deterrent at Faslane Naval Base would applaud.

Such “unpopular truths” about “necessary illusions” are often deemed “conspiracy theories” to be rightly dismissed by the well informed. So how do I get from unpopular truths to uncomfortable reading? After all it can’t simply be the violent realities and true costs of foreign policy exposed for all to read (see Chile, 1973 the other 9/11), for Chomsky’s books have no monopoly on these, save highlighting ones of which we are not aware or would prefer to ignore.

No the discomfort is because Chomsky’s world view is at odds with what I know I’m supposed to think, what a responsible member of the political class is supposed to do, and thus is comfortable with. His interpretation of international relations is at odds with the theories with which most academics are comfortable, that international society and the liberal rights order are a form of American hegemony if not empire. That The Persian Gulf War of 1991 was not a multilateral endeavour with precision weaponry. That containment by sanctions of Saddam Hussein in the 90s wrought horrific consequences. That the state, our accepted political unit of choice and the reference point upon which IR depends, is in fact the problem to which anarchy is the solution and not as we would have it, vice versa.

And this is what the excerpt at 1:52:25 gets too. My discomfort stems from the concern that when we debate intervention in Syria we do so within bounded terms using the correct language and expressing the appropriate talking points or “conventional pieties”. Bad enough when we do this in the pub, or to inform our voting, but it gets worse when we have a direct responsibility to others say by editing a student newspaper or by being a Teaching Assistant, both of which I have done with varying degrees of effectiveness…

The purpose of a university education should be to foster independent critical ability rather than rehash conventional wisdom, inculcate acquiescence or promote an agenda. But all too often this critique can come across as the stereotypical propagation of dissent, ripe for dismissal, simply because it attempts to question the consensus and thus make the listener uncomfortable about their complacency.

Five minutes into a typically thunderous speech, with which it has to be said I pretty much agree, Galloway hits upon a key question – who gets to decide what the international community is, who it includes and who it doesn’t?

For me, this question goes to the very heart of the study of politics. The discipline is about more than merely the practice of government, party competition or inter state relations. Lasswell got closer when he suggested it is about who gets what, when and how. Morgenthau was correct to focus on power as the currency of politics, but let us not forget those who are powerless or acted upon rather than doing the acting. And it is here for me that the nub of politics resides, who gets to decide what is normal? Who gets to decide which states are in the international community, what they may or may not do, who the rogues are and how they’re to be punished?

You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to suspect the term “International community” is a malleable rhetorical device applied to legitimise whatever action The West is taking. But even Bush Jr had to make do with a “coalition of the willing” because language can stretch only so far. Meanwhile a cursory search reveals the term is beloved by non-Western states too. However that could simply be because no one wants to be against “international community” in the same way that no politician comes out against “hard working families”.

Meanwhile in IR land. which although not necessarily an ivory tower, is somewhat more relaxed and rarefied than the real world, I would argue that The English School does draw a distinction between the international society of states and an international community. Where the former includes all 193 UN members, the latter reflects a closer knit association, which is, to tweak Nardin’s distinction, both practical and to some extent purposive, reflecting as it does an attachment to more substantive norms (more on these in a future post).

At the risk of oversimplification (the bane of academia) it could be said that international society is a largely pluralist entity where states agree to accept one another’s pursuit of the good life within their own borders and recognise that difference over values if not interests stands in the way of anything other than coexistence. Thus the animating purpose of society is to regulate interstate conduct by maintaining procedural rules of interaction such as non intervention, a balance of power, diplomatic exchange and respect for treaties.

Solidarism, as the name suggests sees both the possibility and reality of solidarity among states based not just on common interests but also values held in common. These in turn, be they free markets, free trade, minimum standards of human rights, opposition to slavery, condemnation of racial discrimination or expectations of good governance inform cooperation and coordination among states to realise joint projects by the community. This could take the form of the regional integration, pollution controls, banning certain weapons of war or agreeing to limit (but but not eliminate) the use of force.

If a pluralist international society is one in which states see only “far away countries of which we know little”, the supposed hallmark of a solidarist international community is the collective enforcement of international law. A place where law can be based not just on consent, but consensus and so yes, Syria can be held to account in line with a Chemical Weapons Convention that it has not signed but which 189 other states have.

Back then to the Honourable Member for Bradford West. In the early days of the UN, when membership sat at around 50 states, the likes of China, India and Russia delighted in pointing out that though outnumbered in the society of states, they made up most of the world community. But of course whilst Russia and China represent 2.5 billion people, do their governments really represent them?

If the international community represents a normative project, then I argue that project is one that is animated by the self styled community of democracies and by this criteria, Russia and China fall short of the mark. A mark I hasten to add before Chomsky rebukes me, that many Western states don’t exactly excel at – does “Not in my name” circa 2003 ring any bells?

Ian Clark writing in 2005 sums up the best response to Galloway’s question, “International Society speaks with several voices, and we should listen more attentively to the voice that speaks with a democratic accent”. In other words, it’s quaint but daft to imagine all states are of equal legitimacy, which in any case we know is false in terms of materiel, influence and power.

Indeed the whole point of the UNSC veto and the concept of Great Powers rests on this widely held assumption that some states are required to do the heavy lifting, and that in return for this role and the rights that flow with it to be recognised by international society they must discharge certain responsibilities, such as acting to maintain “international peace and security”. But even accepting this material fact alongside the value judgement that all states are equal, but some states are more equal than others, even by defining the more exclusive community within the society, Galloway’s critique still stands.

As I survey Syria (mercifully from afar) I am struck by the sense that something must be done and that we (the international community) have a responsibility to protect. I am struck by the simplistic (there it goes again) notion that there have been good interventions and bad ones, and that the international legitimacy denied to the Iraq War by the lack of second resolution, could still yet be present in Syria despite the lack of a second resolution.

Now the debate as to the efficacy of intervention belongs in another post, my concern here is that the putative international community cannot exist without an international society and that society is jeopardised by the exclusion and disregard for Russia and China which will thwart not just our ambitions but that which we presently take for granted.

Photo0945Two recent news stories caught my eye as highlighting International Society in their own ways. First as part of the winding down of the Afghan War/Insurgency/International Stabilisation, talks are due to be held in Qatar between the governments’ of America, Afghanistan and Taliban representatives.

Such talks were always going to be painful and there are myriad historical examples of the diplomatic finesse required in even getting enemies face to face in the same room, never mind agreeing the shape of the table they will sit around (as was famously the case at the Paris Peace talks to end the Vietnam War).

But before the talks even began, the Afghan Government was incensed when at the official opening of their Qatari office on June 18th, The Taliban raised a flag, played an anthem and put up a plaque reading “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. In the immediate aftermath the talks have stalled (if something can stall before it starts) and the offending plaque and flag have been removed.

Problem number two meanwhile is the smog engulfing Singapore as a direct consequence of illegal forest burning next door in Indonesia. Today marked day six of the crisis which according to Reuters may have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and has seen record pollution levels, prompting school closures and curfews across neighbouring countries.

In the case of Afghanistan we have a state jealously asserting its sovereignty by refusing to countenance any rival claims to legitimate political representation of the same population. The Afghan government does not recognise any such Islamic Emirate within its territory, styling itself as the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” by the way. A number of observations can be made here;

  1. Glib talk of the death of the state, is just that, glib. Around the world plenty of peoples and governments still aim for and covet statehood and the privileges that come from membership of international society.
  2. Politically this throwing of “the toys out of the pram” at such an inoffensive gesture could be just that, gesture politics that won’t get in the way of doing the deals that have to be done, but are part of parcel of diplomatic ritual and a way for the Kabul government to vent frustration…
  3. Or perhaps such a fierce reaction is proportional to how tenuous the Kabul Government’s claim to sovereignty is (see Bernard Bajolet’s April 2013 valedictory remarks). Surely given the decades of conflict, hundreds of thousands of casualties and billions of dollars, a flag shouldn’t get in the way of peace talks? And yet the weaker the government feels, the more caught up it gets over such (in)consequential symbols.

If the Afghan example marks a government caught up in the trappings of sovereignty, the problems of Singapore highlight the social and the limited nature of sovereignty. Yes state borders can be products in part of geography, but it is people who invest meanings in what are otherwise lines on maps and choose to respect or ignore them (notice how people who are literally killing each other in one place can meet and talk openly and safely because they’re somewhere else).

Sovereignty in the domestic sphere is predicated upon international recognition and reciprocation, and whilst intervention and interference are more normal than international law would have you think, as Singapore shows, nature  more often if not always trumps socially defined boundaries.