How convincing is the idea of ‘international society’ at the centre of the English school approach?

There are many labels attached to theories within International Relations, the English school being no exception; commonly referred to as Rationalist, Grotian or after any of its key supporters (Bull, Wight, Vincent &c.). The multitude of names alludes to the nature of the theory, for there are multiple interpretations of what constitutes the focus of the English school; international institutions, an international society, international law and world society to cite but a few.

In this essay I will address the ‘international society of states’ that is intrinsic in the English school’s approach to International Relations; exploring the theoretical perspectives and criticisms between the English school’s international society and the realist and world society perspectives. The notion of ‘international society’ detached from the theory of the English school is not that which I will concentrate upon, for I believe there are few who would dispute the validity of a claim that an international society of some form has existed historically over many centuries. The matter in question is to what extent the English school’s particular idea of ‘international society’ is convincing. I believe that the ‘society of states’ proposed by Hedley Bull is entirely convincing as an interpretation of the relations of states in the past, that the notion of international society is an excellent framework or starting position from which to assess and analyse the conditions of global politics, but am yet to be convinced that the ‘idea’ has been developed to the extent necessary to give greater validity to an independent English school approach or theory.

Hedley Bull’s key proponent publication of the English school, The Anarchical Society, highlights in its title the paradoxical nature of an ‘international society’; a society of states that exists despite – and within – a potentially anarchic global atmosphere. English school theorists argue that the absence of a world government does not create a chaotic environment because state relations are conducted in a social condition that, when two or more states have sufficient contact or influence on one another, form an ‘international society’. Bull furthers this, asserting that the 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.[1]

The contemporary understanding of the position of English school theory is between the two extremes of realism and idealism and that it is a theory constructed by an amalgamation of ideas from these opposing poles. Brown claims that the common visualisation of international society is ‘occupying a space between the international system of realism and the world community of utopianism’[2]. International society goes beyond the traditional Realist concept of an international system, understood here as a focus on power politics in the relations of states, to comprehend state relations and the existence of ‘institutionalised’ shared rules and norms.

The ‘security dilemma’ is at the heart of most realist theory and as such many Realist criticisms of an international society focus on its failure to address this issue of ‘anarchy’. The absence of a controlling world government that regulates acceptance and adherence to common interests, norms and rules force a state to focus on power as the means to maximising security due to continual uncertainty of the motives of foreign states. Copeland establishes two criticisms that originate in the English school’s naivety ‘about the true forces that produce either cooperation or conflict between states’[3]. He claims that states, being driven by self-interest, will manipulate – or be concerned that others will do so – the established commonalities for their own benefit. The second criticism is that policy-makers will be concerned that military and economic cooperation could work to the benefit of a potential adversary. For Copeland, as with many Realists, the problem is that ‘international societal norms provide little restraining power against an adversary bent on war’. Beyond an opposition to the ideas of an international society, Copeland heavily criticises the English school for its lack of theoretical sophistication, claiming that it is ‘less a theory that provides falsifiable hypothesis to be tested than a vague approach to thinking about and conceptualising politics’[4]. Therefore, the inability to measure ‘international society’ as a causal variable and the inextricable result of being unable to provide a conditional framework under which the norms of an international society would affect state behaviour, lead Copeland to discount the English school and the concept of international society as underdeveloped and ‘still [having] a long way to go before it can claim to offer a theory that competes with American realism’[5].

The notion of a ‘balance of power’ is equally important in realism, and Bull devotes an entire chapter to its discussion and how it relates to the maintenance of international order in The Anarchical Society. Far from disputing realist arguments of the importance of a power balance in creating temporary order in an inherently anarchical society, Bull supports it. But while Realists may argue that the balance of power is not a determined policy of states – merely a coincidence – Bull claims that the balance of power is an important feature of international order because is serves to maintain the international society (when a socially ‘contrived’ goal rather than a systemic ‘fortuitous’ balance). Brown suggests that this is because the international society is itself desirable because it ‘constitutes a rational political order for humanity taken as a whole’ and that political order of individual states is the single viable and realistic means to achieve the social discourse that is necessary to advance the ‘common good’ of humanity[6]. There is another vital divergence between neo-realism and international society that helps to explain the critiques each direct at the other, poses Brown, and that is that ‘there is a reason we have and need an international society’ – to achieve the common good – whereas some realist and much neo-realist theorists see the political environment as contingent; ‘it just happens to be the case that we have an anarchical system, everything else follows from this’[7].

There is a powerful relationship, Richard Little asserts, between Bull’s ‘contrived’ balance of power and international law. Adherence to international law is seen by the English school as a co-constituent factor in an international society of states. Little states that the ‘argument seems to be that in the context of a societal balance of power each state will abide by international law because if it fails to do so, other states will sanction them’[8]. Little furthers his discussion by exploring the many common strands of thought between the English school and classical realism, recognising for example, that ‘Morgentheu, therefore, established an intimate link between international society and the balance of power, and the English School travels along exactly the same route’. But while Little recognises that the English school have provided many explanations for why international law is followed these examples do ‘no more than establish an aggregate list of factors’, leading to the interpretation of many American realists of the international society approach as ‘incomplete and inadequate’[9]. However, Brown claims that the English school cannot be so ‘easily distinguished from realism’ and rather one must explore the ‘variety of alternative conceptions of world or global society’[10] to fully understand the theoretical positioning of the English school.

In assessing the English school’s contribution to the study of International Relations, Little stresses that ‘proponents of international society consider themselves to be occupying the middle ground that keeps theorists who focus on the international system apart from theorists who are concerned with the creation of world society’[11]. Nevertheless, an international society is not exclusive to the existence of a world society and it is perhaps because of this that other theoretical camps – such as Constructivism – can attain a greater affinity with the English school. Brown and Little both recognise the importance of the concept of world society in the international society approach and that, as Bull states, ‘it is always erroneous to interpret events as if international society were the sole or dominant element’[12]. Rather, that the events within a world society should be interpreted as occurring within the broader scope of the society of states. Members of the English school did not have an objection to the Burtonian theory of a ‘cobweb’ of world society, for ‘Bull identifies just such a phenomenon’, but Burton’s claim that there was only an international system, and that ‘it was non-social, and parasitic on world society’[13] put an end to further coexistence. An international society of states, being established on common values and for the furtherance of the common good, has mechanisms in-place for the avoidance of conflict – the institutions of international law and diplomacy – but Burton’s theory of world society argues that conflict occurs precisely because of the existence of states. It is states that dissect and overrule the normal boundaries of socially-orientated action and through exercising their power to resist change they subsequently create conflict. Brown disputes the claim that power to resist change is only vested in the state, detailing the English school argument that ‘power is a feature of all social relationships’ and that the international society approach is compatible with a range of theoretical interpretations:

from the liberal notion that the state is the solution to certain problems… to the more positive role assigned to the institution by Hegelians… but the notion that the state actually creates problems simply will not do.[14]

Although there are perspectives of world society that could be accommodated within the existing international society approach of the English school, notably that developed by the ‘Stanford school’. A working society of states with members of common institutions and followers of common rules serves to subdue the authority and autonomy of individual states and therefore is similar to the Stanford school’s theory that a ‘world culture celebrates, expands, and standardises strong but culturally somewhat tamed national actors’. Furthermore, the Stanford school accepts that the ‘willingness to accept certain authoritative practices of law and diplomacy, is ultimately a source of strength’[15]. The English school considers the institutions of diplomacy and international law as crucial to the success of international order and society; Bull declares that without the communication that diplomacy facilitates ‘there could be no international society, nor any international system at all’[16] and international law underpins the entire construct of a viable and legitimate system of sovereign states. Furthermore, membership of international institutions is an avenue through which states can broaden their conceptions beyond self-interest and into greater levels of cooperation: Keohane and Nye have argued that the regulation accompanying membership of institutions commonly ‘discourages the narrow pursuit of national interests’ and therefore ‘suggests that the international system is more normatively regulated than realists would have us believe, a position further developed by the English school’[17].

Therefore, I believe that the English school and the international society approach in particular has defended itself well against considerable attacks from more developed theories of International Relations. Realist criticisms are often directed at the inadequate sophistication of the theories behind the ideas and historical examples of international societies, but often cannot fault the historical basis for a society of states such as the English school proposes. In this regard – that is to say, historically and perhaps philosophically – the idea of an international society is exceedingly convincing. Furthermore, the growing discourse concerning the English school and international society is adding a much-needed modern legitimacy to the ideas behind the school. The many similarities between classical Realism, Constructivism and other emerging theories and the international society approach proves that the ideas are far from redundant and perhaps more accurate than many would perceive. Hence, theoretical expansion of the English school is entirely possible, but finding historical evidence to support the proposition of a theory when it is not there is impossible; the international society approach has amassed considerable evidence, now simply has to develop further the logical framework to explain it. Only then will I be convinced of the relevance of the idea of ‘international society’ in the contemporary world.


·         Chris Brown, (2001) ‘World Society and the English School: An ‘International Society’ Perspective on World Society’. European Journal of International Relations 7 (4)

·         Hedley Bull, (1977) The Anarchical Society. Basingstoke: Palgrave: 13.

·         Burchill et al. (2001) Theories of International Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

·         Dale C. Copeland, ‘A Realist critique of the English School’. Review of International Studies (2003) 29.

·         Richard Little, (2000) ‘The English School’s Contribution to the Study of International Relations’. European Journal of International Relations 6 (3).

·         Richard Little, ‘The English School vs. American Realism: a meeting of minds or divided by a common language?’. Review of International Studies (2003) 29.

[1] Hedley Bull, (1977) The Anarchical Society. Basingstoke: Palgrave: 13.

[2] Chris Brown, (2001) ‘World Society and the English School: An ‘International Society’ Perspective on World Society’. European Journal of International Relations 7 (4): 424.

[3] Dale C. Copeland, ‘A Realist critique of the English School’. Review of International Studies (2003) 29: 435.

[4] Dale C. Copeland, ‘A Realist critique’: 427.

[5] Ibid: 441.

[6] Chris Brown, ‘World Society and the English School’: 428.

[7] Ibid: 429.

[8] Richard Little, ‘The English School vs. American Realism: a meeting of minds or divided by a common language?’. Review of International Studies (2003) 29: 448.

[9] Ibid: 449.

[10] Chris Brown, ‘World Society and the English School’: 423.

[11] Richard Little, (2000) ‘The English School’s Contribution to the Study of International Relations’. European Journal of International Relations 6 (3): 396

[12] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: 55.

[13] Chris Brown, ‘World Society and the English School’: 430.

[14] Ibid: 431.

[15] Ibid: 434.

[16] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: 164.

[17] Burchill et al. (2001) Theories of International Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave.


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