Academic Papers

International society and modern international relations

In line with having a profound understanding of modern-day international relations and the international political system, this paper aims to present and analyse the conceptual fragmentations of the English school and the element of International Society in general. In doing this, the essay will explain what kind of structure the school has been established in and contrast it with its theoretical position in the study of international relations. The essay will also touch on each element of this theoretical combination to specify their contribution to the theory of this interlinked theory. My second part of the essay will mainly focus on whether International Society, as a concept, is sufficiently prepared to present the profound wisdom to address the issues of IR today. Through comparison with other critics and theoreticians, I will scrutinize its problematics.

First, although as a phenomenon, the occurrence of International Society dates back to the Peace of Westphalia, nonetheless as a fundamental tenet of contemporary international relations, this phenomenon is still usually referred to as the English School. But what is this ‘English School’? In the first place, even before being labelled as the “school”, as an intellectual movement, a group of scholars in the late 1950s examined more robustly the question of “international theory”. After Roy Jones published “The English school – a case for closure”, it ultimately came to be perceived as the “school” (Linklater and Suganami, 2006, p12-17). As an idea, the English school is designated, according to Little, over a “tripartite” (Buzan, 2001, p474). To unpack this concept, we need to link each component of this “tripartite” to the most time-honoured three thoughts. Here we attach the perception of the international system to the Hobbesian or, in other words, realist approach that identifies international politics as a state of war as all against the all other.

Secondly, we attach the other element of the concept, world society, to another famous tradition, the Kantian universalist approach. This approach presents international politics as the imaginable society of all humankind. And lastly, we affix the Grotian or internationalist idea to international society (Bull, 2012, p23). From that point, we should imagine international society as the concept that fundamentally stands in the middle of the realist and universalist traditions. In more detail, Bull and Watson (1984) define international society as “a group of states (or, more generally, a group of independent political communities) which not merely form a system, in the sense that the behaviour of each is a necessary factor in the calculations of the others, but also have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognise their common interest in maintaining these arrangements” (cited in Buzan, 2001, p476). In its hybrid form, the concept of international society accepts the anarchical system of the realist tradition and believes that world society is an anarchic society. That means it still leaves room for rivalry.

Nevertheless, it does not suggest a path that leads to isolation and paranoia; on the contrary, it stimulates economic and social interactions that help to mitigate the situation. In other words, all states in international society, in their dealings with one another, are restrained by the rules and institutions initiated by themselves. It looks like creating a democratic mechanism at the interstate level rather than among individuals. This also leads to rejecting one of the essential universalist extremes, prioritising individual rights more than states. Here, the Grotians agree with the Hobbesian tradition that sovereigns or states are the principals in international politics.

Likewise, one of the main distinctions between the fundamentals of International Society and World Society is that, however, while the latter plays a role as a nonconformist to overthrow terrible and replace it with cosmopolitan society, the former somewhat accepts the coexistence and cooperation of terrible too (Bull, 2012, p23-26). To pursue its goals and maintain order in international relations, the concept of international society accepts and implements some institutions and elements from the opposite Liberal and Realist traditions. These institutions are positive international law, as already mentioned above, diplomacy, the balance of power, and war.

Beginning with Bull’s argument, the evolution process of today’s positive international law starts with the Christian International Society (2012, p27). That is to say, during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a group of thinkers (Victoria, Suarez, Gentili, Grotius, Pufendorf) who were against respublica Christiana as well as imperium mundi, delivered the idea of an international society with the undertaking of natural law. For this idea, all nations were subject to connect under the law initially taken as natural law, which later transformed into international law. Although natural law was supposed to serve as a central source of law for all, none of the theorists of early international society believed that Christian nations could form the same kind of relationships with other nations as they did within the Christian circle. Even for some, such as Victoria and Suarez, natural law was inextricably linked to divine law (Bull, 2012, p27). This alone could be cited as one of the main factors representing the problems of international society today. While another pillar of international society, diplomacy, will be discussed in the second part of the essay, for now, I will look at the place of another perception from the realist tradition: war and the balance of power in the concept of international society. However, most early internationalists never completely disavowed the reality of war; moreover, they emphasised the Thomist tradition that war should only be fought under proper authority and at the expense of causes; by doing so, they essentially tolerated the authority of states in waging wars.

Moreover, Grotius’ doctrine of freedom of the seas, as framed in Mare Liberum (1609), originated from his justification of the Dutch East India Company’s warlike activities (Bull, 2012, p29). And correspondingly, indeed, war yet stays as the reality of modern-day global politics and is still considered one of the leading international relations theory issues. But in this case, very interestingly, the arguments of another leading English school scholar Buzan, still need clarification regarding an understanding of international society. Buzan implies that war and the balance of power will be an outdated way of discussing international society with the arrival of modern-day democratic peace and globalisation, especially in Europe. He further claims that if wars and balances of power were the core institutions of classical European international society, they would have already been replaced by markets and great power security communities (2001, p484). Let’s consider that many of today’s international society consists of non-European nations. Each state acts interdependently, not exploitative but in a productive way, as such. War should be treated as a problem affecting the whole international society and discussed more at the interstate than at the exclusive level. To begin to perceive war as a non-European institution may go entirely against the structural foundations of international society.

Nevertheless, as regards whether the concept is appropriate for understanding the character of modern international relations, of course, it is undeniable that the English School, in general, is an ideal and proper tool for this. In addition, it can play a role that, as many scholars have described via media, acts as a mediator between the most contending two streams, realist and liberal streams, allowing them to stay together rather than let them compete against one another (Buzan, 2001, p476). This concept primarily concerns what composition is yielded by combining those traditions rather than determining which is genuine. Yet as long as there are still problems in the International Relations and politics system, the concept reveals some imperfections of itself. That is why to understand the concept and its imperfections best; it would be more logical to reassess the concept as Linklater suggests. As he points out, the English School investigates world politics from three fundamental and interrelated perspectives. These perspectives may be characterised as ‘structural’, ‘functional’ and ‘historical’ (2006, p43).

Although the scrutinisation of world politics is sufficiently given by some English school scholars, primarily by Hedley Bull, and its functionality is still an actual topic of International Relations highbrows, the critics of the school justifiably call its historical interpretations remarkably ahistorical and Eurocentric: because when they introduce the historical background of International Society, they usually neglect or underestimate some significant constructions that existed in the non-European world throughout history. For example, when Bull historicised international society, he provided the source from James Lorimer thus:

” Mankind was divided into civilised humanity, barbarous humanity and savage humanity. Civilised humanity comprised the nations of Europe and the Americas, entitled to full recognition as members of international society. Barbarous humanity comprised the independent states of Asia – Turkey, Persia, Siam, China and Japan – entitled to partial recognition. And savage humanity was the rest of mankind, which stood beyond the pale of the society of states, although it was entitled to ‘natural or human recognition” (2012, p36-37).

Although some contributors of English School theories portray the ‘others’ as ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilised’, Crawford provides a different perspective on Native American international society that challenges Eurocentrism. He lays stress on some Native American and indigenous conceptions of politics earnestly and exemplifies the importance of some organisations that had existed in the pre-Columbian period. He argues that: “the Haudenosaunee, known as the League of the Iroquois, among the Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Mohawk, and Oneida, functioned as a security regime, keeping the peace among its members” (Crawford, 2017, p113). The League was founded in about 1450 (the Tuscarora joined in about 1720) and lasted until 1777. Throughout its long existence, the central notions of the League were about avoiding war and institutionalising conflict resolution by holding regular meetings where disagreements could be peacefully resolved. Moreover, being relatively democratic and developing a shared identity during its existence have been shown as their main characteristics.

When Crawford compares the Iroquois and the Concert of Europe, he claims that the League was more democratic and capable of keeping the peace between its members and then mentions its early diplomatic attempts. This opposes Bull’s argument that diplomacy originated in Italy in the fifteenth century (2012, p30). In addition, similar practices were not unfamiliar to Islamic societies. Based on Bull’s view, Islam divides the world into two poles, dar-al-Islam and dar-al-Harb, as if Islam is a war to convert infidels to Muslims. Thus, their concept naturally fails to encompass all sorts of states.(2012, p42). Conversely, some scholars of the Islamic tradition, e.g. Majid Khadduri, advocate that practices of dawla (state) or other elements of international society, such as diplomacy, which came into existence in the Abbasid period, were already familiar to the Islamic world (2007, p7). Furthermore, most notably, Islamic societies were based on the principles of peaceful societies rather than provoking war. Wars should only be fought if there is any provocative danger from outside (Khadduri, 2006, p171). Moreover, Khadduri contends that Islamic law is a universal nomocracy that appeals to everyone rather than being either a national or theocratic system. In other words, while some of the other traditions, like the Jewish state, regarded themselves as God’s chosen people, and thus, their states were national instead than universal, the universal nomocracy of Islam, like Respublica Christiana in the West, hypothesised that humankind formed a supra-national community governed by a single ruler and bound by one law (Khadduri,2006, p16-17). It would be better to include other practices as long as international society is still considered dynastic in terms of Christendom or European. This would represent every character of the international society from a better perspective.

To conclude, however, as an existing concept, international society is still the best tool to exhibit the nature of the hybridity system of both international relations and the world political system, but it is not entirely understood as covering all historical practices as a whole. Furthermore, it still needs some improvements, which can only be achieved by leaving out the eurocentric viewpoint and applying more objectivity than ever before.


Bull, H. (2012). The anarchical society: A study of order in world politics, 4th ed. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Buzan, B. (2001). The English School: An underexploited resource in IR. Review of International Studies, 27(3), 471-488. Available from doi:10.1017/S0260210501004715

Crawford, N. C. (2017). Native Americans and the Making of International Society. The Globalization of International Society, 102-122. Available from https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198793427.003.0006

Khadduri, M. (2006). War and Peace in the Law of Islam. New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange Ltd.

Linklater, A. and Suganami, H. (2006). The English School of International Relations: a Contemporary Reassessment. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fikrat Guluzade

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