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Discuss Hedley Bull’s concept of the ”anarchical society of states”, central to the ‘English School’ of International Relations. Do you think the concept is relevant in contemporary global politics?

Publication of Hedley Bull’s acclaimed work, The Anarchical Society, in 1977 brought a starkly dissenting voice into IR theory, almost fully monopolised by the realist school. Bull dismissed the realist concept of international politics as a mere power struggle between self-contained units (states) and argued that the states of the world are in fact members of a ” society ” characterised by the absence of governance, that is – by the condition of anarchy. As members of the anarchical society, Bull suggests, states abide by certain rules and regulations, thus allowing much more civility in international politics than classical realists were willing to admit. States, according to Bull, act in such a way as to preserve international order, because this order is in their own interest, facilitating the states’ pursuit of security and prosperity. Bull’s emphasis on the international order and proclaimed scepticism about international morality made his reputation as a kind of a wolf in the sheep’s clothes – the most polite of all realists, an ” English ” realist. Yet Bull was never able to draw a distinct line between the imperatives of Order and Justice. His anarchical society balances uneasily between the two concepts, unable to reconcile them. Contemporary global politics speak to the inherent difficulties with Bull’s invention: the tension between international Order and Justice has not subsided in the least since the end of the Cold War. If anything, this tension has intensified.

Hedley Bull was not the first IR scholar to encounter the troubling interrelationship of morality and reality. Indeed, E.H. Carr, in The Twenty Years’ Crisis argued that ” any political situation contains mutually incompatible elements of utopia and reality, morality and power i. ” Carr said this before delivering a comprehensive critique of ” utopian ” approaches to the international politics, which, he believed, characterized the scholarly discussion in the inter-war period and ultimately failed to account for the outbreak of World War II. Carr famously dismissed morality as a subjective concept, meaning different things for different nations. The ” supposedly absolute and universal principles “, he argues, ” [are] not principles at all, but the unconscious reflections of national policy based on a particular interpretation of national interest at a particular time. ” ii Under these circumstances, power defines the reality of global politics and the only imperative of states is to pursue power by all means. Carr’s pessimistic account is echoed in works of other realists. Kenneth Waltz, for instance, in The Theory of International Politics, builds his argument around the assumption of an international system, that is – an arrangement of independent and self-contained states, aligning and realigning in order to protect their security iii. In Waltz’s account, there is no place for common principles or any kind of common rules except for the overriding principle of international politics: the balance of power.

Bull was not happy with the realists’ moral relativism. In his critique of The Twenty Years’ Crisis, Bull points to the weakness of Carr’s attack on morality: ” In the course of demonstrating how appeals to an overriding international society subserve the special interests of the ruling group of powers, Carr jettisons the idea of international society itself. ” iv While Bull’s critique is arguably unjust in relation to Carr (who, in his later works, such as Nationalism and After, clearly implied the existence of common values in the international politics), his point is well made: realist emphasis on the Hobbesean state-of-war nature of international relations overlooks the orderly conduct of these relations v. The order is what fundamentally distinguishes Bull’s anarchical society from the anarchical system of states, adhered to in the realist camp.

The distinction between a ” system ” and a ” society ” is a crucial one. ” System “, as Stanley Hoffman argues, ” means contact between states and the impact of one state on another “. vi Society for Bull entails the existence of ” certain common interests and common values […] common set of rules and institutions ” vii. International law and diplomacy are precisely the kind of common rules and institutions, which, according to Bull, implicitly regulate the anarchical society of states. Bull disagrees with the realist accounts of international law as a simple cover-up for the national interests of states, to be dispensed with when realpolitik so requires. According to Bull, it is rather surprising that states ” often judge it in their interest to conform to it [international law] ” viii. The likely reason for such compliance is ” states will adhere to the rules and norms of the society of states even when these conflict with their non-vital interests [so as to strengthen] the normative principles of international society. ” ix The core normative principle here is deemed to be the preservation of social order among states, conducive to the pursuit of security and prosperity within the international anarchy.

Thus, whereas classical realists perceive Order, in the words of E.H. Carr, as simply ” a special vested interest of predominant Powers “, for Bull, Order is a universal value x. ” I do in fact hold that order is desirable, or valuable in human affairs, and a fortiori in world politics ” xi. So, for instance, at the time of writing of The Anarchical Society, Bull viewed the US-Soviet détente (and the Cold War international order) as a common good, not only serving the interests of Washington and Moscow, but that of the European countries, the non-aligned and the third ” worlds “. That was because avoidance of a nuclear war was an imperative for all states. Incidentally, with the disintegration of détente and the onset of the Second Cold War in the early 1980s, Bull became dissatisfied with the ability of the superpowers to preserve international order. In an article published in the summer of 1980 Bull lamented that the respective ideologies of the Soviet Union and the United States hampered their cooperation in the common interest of the international society xii. But admitting the importance of a common ideology for the anarchical society would open a Pandora’s box of dilemmas: to what extent can why say that states can agree on moral principles besides the overriding principle of Order? In other words, can the anarchical society have a common understanding of Justice, and how is Justice to be reconciled with Order?

Bull himself, especially towards the end of his life, was more and more inclined towards acceptance of common justice in the anarchical society. He argued, for instance, for universal application of basic human rights and the redistribution of international wealth as a way to reconcile the ” Northern ” and the ” Southern ” understanding of ” Justice ” without appearing in the unappealing posture of an advocate of Western values xiii. Thus, Bull gradually came to the conviction that ” without justice there could be no lasting order ” xiv. Ian Harris, in his examination of Bull’s concept of Order argues in fact, that though Bull does not unequivocally state so in The Anarchical Society, for him Justice was clearly a ” part of the constitution of Order ” xv. In fact, Bull controversially called upon ” particular states to act as […] local agents of a world common good. xvi ” But what if states fail to agree on what constitutes common good? Clearly, conflicting perceptions of Justice may well undermine the global Order, if Justice is to be awarded a priority in the states’ pursuit of foreign policy.

The tensions between Bull’s concepts of Order and Justice are particularly evident in the post-Cold War period. Humanitarian interventions have posed a dilemma for policy-makers in the West. Interventions in Bosnia and Rwanda, for instance, were approved by the United Nations on the ground that the humanitarian catastrophes in these countries constituted a threat to the international peace and security (in other words, undermined international order). But arguably, these interventions were also a product of the public pressure on the Western policy circles to alleviate the human sufferings and redress violated principles of justice. Whether order or justice is an imperative for action in the anarchical society has thus been left unresolved in the post-Cold War period. The US-led ” war on terror ” again brought into light the unsettling tension between the two concepts. It is curious, for example, that ahead of the invasion of Iraq, Washington undertook serious efforts to present its actions as compliant with the International Law and, thus aiming above all at the strengthening of the international Order (hence the consultations with the United Nations). Yet lurking not so deep beneath were particular notions of Justice (exterminating terrorism).

But the Western conceptions of Justice, as they have been manifested in the contemporary global politics, have had make room for the ” Southern ” political and economic concerns; for instance, the work of the OECD, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and other organizations has increasingly reflected awareness of the ” Southern ” justice, i.e. redistribution of wealth. The WTO Doha communiqué, in particular, provided more concessions to the developing country than any previous statements of the organization. This may indicate that the anarchical society is moving towards a common understanding of Justice. If so, it may finally be possible to reconcile Order and Justice in international politics.

To conclude, Hedley Bull’s concept of the anarchical society of states has contributed significantly to the IR theory by introducing the notion of ” common rules and institutions “, which presumably govern the behavior of states in their common pursuit of international order. Bull’s account of international order, however, leaves unclear the role of justice in international politics. The tension between order and justice was evident at the time of writing of The Anarchical Society, and it has not lessened with the passage of time. Different understanding of Justice among states erodes the stability of the international Order. Though common rules and institutions do exist to preserve this order, one is never sure when a political action of this or that state serves the end of preserving the international order or advancing an interpretation of justice peculiar to this state. Only a gradual emergence of acceptable universal values would make Hedley Bulls anarchical society stable in the long run. On the other hand, emergence of such universal values might undermine raison d’etre of states and pave the way to the evolution of the anarchical society of states into a society of individuals.

Bibliography
Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1995).

Hedley Bull, ” The Great Irresponsibles? The United States, the Soviet Union and the World Order “, International Journal, Volume 35, No. 3 (Summer 1980).

Hedley Bull, ” The Twenty Years’ Crisis Thirty Years On “, International Journal, Volume 42, No. 4 (Autumn 1969).

Edward H. Carr, Nationalism and After (London: Macmillan, 1945).

Edward H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939. An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan Press: Papermac, 1946, 1983 printing).

Ian Harris, ” Order and Justice in the Anarchical Society “, International Affairs, Volume 69, No. 4 (October 1993).

Stanley Hoffman, ” Hedley Bull and His Contribution to International Relations “, International Affairs, Volume 62, No. 2 (Spring 1986).

Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, 1979).

Nicholas J. Wheeler & Timothy Dunne, ” Hedley Bull’s Pluralism of the Intellect and Solidarism of the Will “, International Affairs, Volume 72, No. 1 (January 1996).


i Edward H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939. An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan Press: Papermac, 1946, 1983 printing), 93.
ii Ibid., 87.
iii See Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, 1979), 95.
iv Hedley Bull, “The Twenty Years’ Crisis Thirty Years On”, International Journal, Volume 42, No. 4 (Autumn 1969): 638.
v Edward H. Carr, Nationalism and After (London: Macmillan, 1945)
vi Stanley Hoffman, “Hedley Bull and His Contribution to International Relations”, International Affairs, Volume 62, No. 2 (Spring 1986): 185.
vii Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1995), 40.
viii Ibid., 140
ix Nicholas J. Wheeler & Timothy Dunne, “Hedley Bull’s Pluralism of the Intellect and Solidarism of the Will”, International Affairs, Volume 72, No. 1 (January 1996): 94.
x Edward H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 82.
xi Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, 96.
xii Hedley Bull, “The Great Irresponsibles? The United States, the Soviet Union and the World Order”, International Journal, Volume 35, No. 3 (Summer 1980): 447.
xiii Quoted in Nicholas J. Wheeler & Timothy Dunne, “Hedley Bull’s Pluralism of the Intellect and Solidarism of the Will”, 99.
xiv Nicholas J. Wheeler & Timothy Dunne, “Hedley Bull’s Pluralism of the Intellect and Solidarism of the Will”, 98.
xv Ian Harris, “Order and Justice in the Anarchical Society”, International Affairs, Volume 69, No. 4 (October 1993), 731-732.
xvi Quoted in Nicholas J. Wheeler & Timothy Dunne, “Hedley Bull’s Pluralism of the Intellect and Solidarism of the Will”, 99.

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