“The Anarchical Society” in a Nutshell

“The Anarchical Society” is considered as one of the most important books among the English School of International Relations. Written by Hadley Bull, this book has been listed in a graduate reading list since the publication. Today I shall write a brief summary and review of this insightful book.

As the subtitle of the book shows, Bull studies “Order in World Politics” here. He raises following three questions considering the world order, and each question makes up one of the three parts of the book.

1. What is order in world politics?
2. How is order maintained within the present system of sovereign states?
3. Does the system of sovereign states still provide a viable path to world order?

What is order in world politics?
In the beginning, he considers the order in social life so as to define “order in world politics.” He regards order in social life as patterns of human activity in which sustain basic purpose such as protection of life from harm, keeping promise and agreement. By the extension, an order in world politics is defined as “a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states, or international society.”

Based on this definition, does this order exist in world politics? Bull answers in the affirmative, saying

”order is part of the historical record of international relations; and in particular, that modern states have formed, and continue to form, not only a system of states but also an international society. “

As foundations of this argument, Bull points out the existence of “an idea of international society, proclaimed by philosophers and publicists, and present in the rhetoric of the leaders of states” throughout the history. In addition, Bull contends, historical practices of states has reflected this idea. Because “most states at most times pay some respect to the basic rules of coexistence, mutual respect for sovereignty, the rule that agreements should be kept.”

In sum, although the international politics is characterized as anarchical, ”the modern international system is also an international society”. Therefore, ”Anarchical Society”.

It would be worthy to note that it is not to say Bull recognize only societal and normative features of international politics. He also bears in mind the other aspects which realists and liberalists see.

“Because international society is no more than one of the basic elements at work in modern international politics, and is always in competition with the elements of a state of war and of transnational solidarity or conflict, it is always erroneous to interpret international events as if international society were the sole or the dominant element.”

How is order maintained within the present system of sovereign states?
Bull moves on to study the mechanism by which order in world politics maintained. He contends that balance of power, international law, diplomacy, war, and great powers play important roles in maintaining the order.

The balance of power has three functions in this regard: preventing conquest for a universal empire, protecting the independence of states, and providing “the conditions in which other institutions on which international order depends are able to operate.” As for the third point, he says “International law, the diplomatic system, war and the management of the international system by the great powers assume a situation in which no one power is preponderant in strength.” Apparently, he regards material stability by the balance of power as a foundation of normative stability.

I hope it goes without saying that international law and diplomacy are also cornerstones of order in world politics. (Despite the difference on the faith on these two, this reminds me of Morgenthau, who asserts diplomacy is the most promising way to achieve international order.) The idea worth to mention here is that Bull considers that importance of international law is its reflection and enforcement of common interests in elementary or primary goals mentioned above. He writes about this later again.

Some may confuse why Bull include the war in the mechanism of sustaining international order (of course I was surprised too). It would be helpful to know that when he mentions ‘war’, this could be interpreted as ‘the threat of war’. With that said, these are the functions war performs for international order; 1) means of enforcement of international law, 2) means preserving the balance of power, 3) (more doubtfully he says,)means of necessary change. But perhaps most important is that threat of war in order to “contain war within tolerable bounds.”

Lastly, great powers contribute to the maintenance of the order, for example as the one actor of the balance of power, and by controlling crises and preventing misunderstanding between states.


Does the system of sovereign states still provide a viable path to world order?
Yes. Bull considers the possibility of ‘a system but not a society’, ‘states but not a system’, ‘world government’, ‘a new medievalism’, and some variations within current states system. However, he contends that

“despite the existence in principle of alternatives to the states system of various kinds, there was no clear evidence that the states system was in decline, or that it was dysfunctional in relation to basic human purposes, provided that the element of international society in it could be preserved and strengthened, in ways that were indicated.”

I don’t want care to elaborate the detailed logic behind this assertion (because I don’t think it’s compelling nor core of this book), but basically he compares current states system and alternatives to it in terms of their ability to provide peace and security, and societal and economic justice, etc. I would say for many people the defense of current states system by Bull is not compelling. The fragility can be seen in his argument about peace and safety. He counts on prudence and restraint of states for peace and safety, saying

“It has certainly to be recognized that if this system restraint is not maintained and extended, a minimum of peace and security, or of minimum world order, cannot be achieved through the states system. However, it is reasonable to hope that this system of restraint will be preserved and extended…”

So if states system is not obsolete nor dysfunctional as he says, how we can promote order in world politics? Bull put emphasis on the importance of the element of that society.

“the states system can remain viable only if the element in it of international society is preserved and strengthened. This depends, in the first instance, on maintaining and extending the consensus about common interests and values that provides the foundation of its common rules and institutions, at a time when consensus has shrunk. … This consensus must include a sense of common interests among the great powers, sufficient to enable them to collaborate in relation to goals of minimum world order, and especially the avoidance of nuclear war.”


What Part Ⅲ is all about is “an implicit defense of the states system, and more particularly of that element in it that has been called international society.” I think this shows both a good point and bad point of English school. The good point is it emphasizes the importance of history, and extract insightful discovery from that. The bad point is, due to this backward perspective, it tends to be loath to think about progress and change.  But it is unequivocal that the concept “anarchical society” and study about how this is managed provides us something like the eclectic way of understanding world politics, and it’s very valuable. This approach takes perspectives from Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism into account. Needless to say, this approach is still helpful and what we should remember.

Thank you for taking time to read this article! Leave a comment, question, or correction if you like! Much appreciated:)

Hedley Bull, 1977, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, Columbia University Press.


Images are creative commons downloaded via pixabay.





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