In the recent literature of International Relations (IR), the concept of anarchy is often considered as the basic concept from which to analyze interstate relations, especially among realists.1 Realism puts the consideration of the international anarchy at the core of its international relations analysis.2 However, critiques to this well-rooted assumption consider anarchy as a closed concept with a single way to be understood.3 As Lewis puts it: ‘anarchy is one of the most vague and ambiguous words in language’.4 Despite an agreement on the general acceptation of the term, the meaning of anarchy varies even among realist thinkers and, consequently, the degree of importance attached to it differs. For this reason, in this essay, I analyze the various nuances attached to the concept of anarchy by those who consider it as the basic aspect of IR, namely the realists, highlighting the disagreements around the meaning itself and therefore their considerations of its importance. Mainly, I focus on four authors, Kenneth Waltz, Christopher Gelpi, Joseph Grieco, and Hedley Bull. I start by providing Waltz’s structural definition of anarchy and comparing it with Grieco and Gelpi’s historical-contextualized view of it. I continue by providing the differences between Waltz and Grieco’s vision and Bull’s idea of ‘international society’. I conclude by asserting that the concept of anarchy should not be the basis of international relations regardless, as its degree of importance varies according to the historical and geographical period examined.
The concept of anarchy acquires fundamental importance in the field of IR with Kenneth Waltz’s formulation of it in his books Man, The State and War (1959) and Theory of International Politics (1979). In these studies, Waltz defines the international system as a perennial state of tension and insecurity, where the possibility of conflict is always present. Wars happen because there is nothing that can prevent them, as there is not a higher authority than the states themselves. The very existence of another state sets the stage for distrust and fear, as each satisfies their own interests in a context of limited resources.5 Waltz’s view is of a binary type: the state, with a legislative system and a central authority to enforce it, and the international space, which is devoid of these two characteristics. The first is fundamentally a hierarchical system, whereas the second is anarchical, and every political system can be just one of these two types.6 Waltz’s possess an existentialist and structural-rational vision of human beings and their way of organizing societies which is neither historically nor geographically contingent. Indeed, he sustains that ‘two, and only two, types of structure are needed to cover societies of all sorts’7, whatever ‘their particular character or history.’8
In this regard, Grieco and Gelpi’s (GnG) concept of anarchy differs from Waltz’s. Indeed, they argue that economic expansion due to trade between democratic states inhibits the willingness of their leaders to initiate military conflicts against their commercial partners.9 Although they also agree on the anarchic nature of the international space, GnG believe that such condition could be mitigated by the combination of at least two variables, namely democracy systems and the economic interdependency between them. What is clear from the GnG’s study is the contextualization of the anarchy analysis within a system composed of economic growth due to international trade, and the presence of a democratic system among such political units.10 Hedley Bull’s concept of anarchy also seems to be closer to GnG’s view than Waltz’s. According to him, structural realists like Waltz make the mistake of believing that common ideas and values can only be realized and maintained in international politics through the employment of a centralized authority. For this reason, they argue that there can only be an ‘anarchical system’, since no international institution would be able to enforce shared ideas and regulations. However, Bull believes it is possible to build an ‘international society’ whose functioning is proportional to the amount of knowledge and norms shared among the state units. This ‘societal international space’ works in a context of decentralization and distribution of power rather than centralization as it happens in domestic politics and in Waltz’s analysis. In this case, order would be enforced not by a central institution but from the power decentralization itself. Bull asserts that ‘states are unlike individuals and are more capable of forming an anarchical society. The domestic analogy is no more than an analogy; the fact that states form a society without government reflects features of their situation that are unique.’11 Whereas Waltz applies the same principles that govern the relationship between men and the state to assess those between states, Bull separates the two. Consequently, Bull’s concept of anarchy differs from that of Waltz and is instead similar to GnG’s, that is, it is based on variables (common ideas and shared knowledge) which are geographically and historically identifiable. Waltz analyzes the interdependency and cooperation aspect, yet he neglects the democratic variable, and does not consider the consequences that the contingent existence of these two elements would entail. He states that even a situation of interdependence between state units does not lead to a decrease in the degree of anarchy ‘so long as each fear how the other will use its increased capabilities.’ This happens regardless of their type of political organization.12 Waltz assessed the value of international anarchy as fixed and dictated by the very structure of society, whereas according to GnG and Bull, this can vary if state units share some specific characteristics.
From this analysis it is possible to deduce a second consideration on the variations of the concept of anarchy among these realist authors. For Waltz, anarchy is composed of two interdependent aspects: 1) the lack of an international organization which 2) leads to a perennial state of insecurity. Therefore, the perennial state of insecurity exists due to the lack of a central authority capable of preventing it. As mentioned above, Waltz specifies that collaboration between states would not improve this condition, as there is ‘uncertainty of each about the other’s future intentions and actions.’13 The only way to ensure order would be through a system of balance of power, which anyway carries a possibility of conflict. Although GnG and Bull agree on the existence of an unregulated anarchist system, they believe that the absence of an international authority is not correlated with the existence of the anarchical system. In the long term, they argue, the anarchical space tends to ‘homogenize’ states and develop common interests and ideas through competition, reducing the odds of conflict.14 In this case, by competition it is meant the will of the states to ‘catch up’ with other states for their own defence and self-preservation.
In the light of the above considerations, shall we dispute the fact that the principle of anarchy should not be at the basis of the analysis of international relations? To some extent, I argue that it is the case. As I have shown, not all realist scholars agree with the immutability of the degree of anarchy. This implies reconsiderations on the importance attached to the concept in IR. From GnG and Bull’s standpoint, the influence of the degree of anarchy on inter-state relations is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas, knowledge, and norms they share. It comes naturally to think that contemporary states have a much higher degree of homologation than previous political units, due to growing interdependence and globalization processes over the last decades. US international domination has ideologically shaped much of the world from the end of the Cold War, creating the basis for the interconnections of state interests and knowledge.15 Consequently, the phenomenon of anarchy appears relevant not in absolutist terms, as Waltz suggests, but only in a well-defined historical context composed of different variables. Waltz’s Hobbesian vision does not consider these aspects, which for GnG is fundamental in determining the degree of anarchy between two political units, nor the possibility of an international system of a hierarchical type without central authority, as Bull argues. For this reason, I believe that the concept of anarchy should be the basis of inter-state analyzes only to the extent that these political entities share no interest, idea, or norm. On the other hand, when these variables are present, it is necessary to reassess the incidence that the anarchical condition has within IR.
Alker, H. Rediscoveries and Reformulations: Humanistic Methodologies for International Studies, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Art, R. and Jervis, R. International Politics (Boston, Little Brown & Company, 1986).
Bull, H. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (New York, Palgrave, 2012).
Clark, I. ‘Hierarchy, Hegemony and the Norms of international Society’, in The Globalization of International Society, edited by Christian Reus-Smit and Timothy Dunne (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 268-295.
Donnelly, J. Realism and International Relations (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Donnelly, J. ‘The discourse of anarchy in IR.’ in International Theory, 7(3) (2015), pp. 393-425.
Gelpi, C. F. and Grieco, J. M. ‘Democracy, Interdependence, and the Sources of the Liberal Peace’, in Journal of Peace Research, 45(1) (2008), pp. 17-36.
Halliday, F. Rethinking of International Relations (London, The Macmillan, 1994).
Lewis, G. C. Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms (London, B. Fellowes, 1832).
Milner, H. ‘The Assumption of Anarchy in International Relations Theory: A Critique’, in Review of International Studies, 17(1) (1991), pp. 67-85.
Schmidt. B. C. The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations (New York, State University of New York, 1998).
Waltz, K. N. Theory of International Politics (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1979).
1 Waltz, K. N. Theory of International Politics (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1979), pp. 102-7; Schmidt. B. C. The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations (New York, State University of New York, 1998), pp. 152-188.
2 Art, R. and Jervis, R. International Politics (Boston, Little Brown & Company, 1986), p. 7.
3 Notable exceptions that question the anarchy definition are: Alker, H. Rediscoveries and Reformulations: Humanistic Methodologies for International Studies, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 355-393, and Donnelly, J. ‘The discourse of anarchy in IR.’ in International Theory, 7(3) (2015), pp. 393–425, as well as Milner, H. ‘The Assumption of Anarchy in International Relations Theory: A Critique’, in Review of International Studies, 17(1) (1991), pp. 67-85.
4 Lewis, G. C. Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms (London, B. Fellowes, 1832), p. 226.
5 Waltz, Theory of International Politics, pp. 104-11.
6 Ibid, p. 114.
7 Ibid, p. 116.
8 Donnelly, J. Realism and International Relations (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 83.
9 Gelpi, C. F. and Grieco, J. M. ‘Democracy, Interdependence, and the Sources of the Liberal Peace’, in Journal of Peace Research, 45(1) (2008), pp. 18-21.
10 ‘We express the substantive impact of the variables in terms of the change in the relative risk of dispute initiation’. Ibid, p. 27.
11 Bull, H. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (New York, Palgrave, 2012), pp. 48-9.
12 Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 105.
13 Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 105.
14 Halliday, F. Rethinking of International Relations (London, The Macmillan, 1994), pp. 94-7.
15 Clark, I. ‘Hierarchy, Hegemony and the Norms of international Society’, in The Globalization of International Society, edited by Christian Reus-Smit and Timothy Dunne (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 248-51