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society of states to produce the internally contradictory global order that
we live in today.
16 For an overview of the English school™s work, including a discussion of the importance of
the British Committee, see Timothy Dunne, Inventing International Society: A History of
the English School (London: Macmillan, 1998). The shortcoming of Dunne™s otherwise
excellent treatment, in my view, is that he does not place the English school into its
deeper historical context: his contextualization of the school™s work does not really go
much further back than E.H. Carr; whereas I think that the main in¬‚uences on the
school™s view of order in modern world politics have to be located much earlier, in the
early nineteenth-century reaction to the French Revolution.
1 The orthodox theory of order
in world politics




Nowadays, order in modern world politics is usually described in terms
of the norms, rules and institutions of the European society of states. The
distinguishing characteristic of this international society is that it acknowl-
edges the existence of different political systems and cultures in the world,
and attempts to facilitate their peaceful coexistence with one another by
promoting toleration. It tries to achieve this goal through the norma-
tive principle of the reciprocal recognition of sovereignty: each state is
supposed to recognize the independent sovereignty of the others within
their territorially de¬ned spheres of domestic jurisdiction. Thus no state
is allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of another, and each has the
space to develop its own way of life as it chooses. Numerous implications
for the structure of international order follow from this starting point.
Because each state is an independent sovereign, there is by de¬nition no
central authority that can lay down and enforce international law, main-
tain peace and security, or compel the members of international society
to act in ways that are contrary to their national interests. The institutions
of the society of states therefore have to be able to cope with extreme de-
centralization, even anarchy. For example, the integrity of the system and
the independence of its individual members are primarily maintained by
the highly ¬‚exible and voluntaristic institution of the balance of power,
albeit sometimes with the addition of a special managing role for the
great powers. Another important example is the distinctive character of
modern international law: in line with positivist doctrines, and in contrast
with theories of natural law, the only foundation for legally binding rules
in international society is the volition of states, and the scope of interna-
tional law is therefore restricted to rules to which states have given their
consent.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the theory that order in modern
world politics is built upon a society of states like this rests on two propo-
sitions: that the modern international system is composed of states, in
other words that it is a ˜states-system™; and that in their relations with one
another, states do indeed constitute something that can reasonably be

12
The orthodox theory of order 13

described as a ˜society™.1 Both of these propositions have a long history in
political and legal thought. The idea of a states-system originated about
200 years ago. In its current form, as a description of a system of mutually
independent states who recognize each other™s territorial sovereignty, it
was developed by late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century conserva-
tive historians who wanted to present a picture of European public order
that would legitimize their efforts to contain the French Revolution and
undermine the Napoleonic imperial system; they worked out the notion
of a states-system (Staatensystem) to achieve that end. The proposition
that international relations can be described as a society is even older.
This idea was ¬rst developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
by legal scholars who tried to describe the binding force of the law of
nations (ius gentium) in terms of a society of nations (societas gentium). As
one would expect, their understanding of society was heavily coloured by
their jurisprudential interests: the crucial evidence for the existence of a
society, on this view, is the existence of an authoritative legal order, and
international society is synonymous with an order of binding norms and
rules that applies to all rulers and peoples.
The theory of the modern society of states that scholars use today is
a combination of these two strands of thought: the political-historical
concept of a states-system and the legal concept of a societas gentium.
But it is important to notice that current scholarship typically begins with
the idea of a states-system, and only then adds the proposition that an
international society exists, suggesting that having established a system-
atic pattern of relations with one another, states then go on to constitute
a society by making a collective commitment to observe certain shared
norms, obey general rules and participate in common institutions.2 Iron-
ically, that is a reversal of the chronological order in which the concepts
actually emerged in political and legal thought, where the idea of a societas
gentium preceded the idea of a states-system by over one hundred years.
It should immediately be obvious that this transposition might lead to
problems. In the ¬rst place, the contemporary theory of order in mod-
ern world politics relies on an account of the historical development of
European public order that is highly polemical, having been designed
by reactionaries to suit their needs in the struggle against Revolutionary
France and the Napoleonic Empire. Secondly, it offers an interpretation
of sixteenth and seventeenth-century legal thought about international
society that is largely carried out in terms of a pattern of order and a set
of normative principles that were, for the most part, quite unknown to
1 One of the clearest examples of this argument is Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A
Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan, 1977), ch. 1.
2 Ibid., p. 13.
14 Beyond the anarchical society

the theorists concerned; it refracts earlier theories through the prism of
later ones. The current conventional wisdom about the society of states
is therefore suspect both in its description of the pattern of order in the
modern international system and in its treatment of the concerns of ear-
lier legal theories of international society.
Unfortunately, most people take the orthodox theory of order in mod-
ern world politics at face value. Few have investigated the sources for its
concept of the states-system to ask what might have been left out by the
counter-revolutionaries who invented the idea; nor have many scholars
questioned the accuracy of the prevailing interpretation of the older le-
gal concept of international society. I will explore both of these issues
here, with the intention of demonstrating the limitations of the orthodox
theory. Like the conventional approach, I will begin with the concept
of a states-system, explaining exactly where this idea came from, and
what was left out of it, deliberately or otherwise; I will also look at how
the concept has been developed in contemporary theories of the society
of states, where despite considerable additions the most serious origi-
nal ¬‚aws of the concept have not been corrected. Then I will look at
orthodox accounts of the concept of international society, charting the
confusions and distortions that have been created by the effort to ¬t six-
teenth and early seventeenth-century legal theories into the context of
eighteenth and nineteenth-century political debates. As I indicated in the
introduction, throughout this chapter my focus will be on the ˜English
school™ (or the British committee on the theory of international politics),
and especially Hedley Bull, whose theory of the ˜anarchical society™ of
states has been hugely in¬‚uential in contemporary international relations
theory, and which I consider to be a reasonable proxy for the entire con-
temporary literature on modern international society. Nevertheless, it is
worth repeating that the English school should in no way be thought of as
having originally developed this way of thinking about order in modern
world politics: the orthodox theory that I am describing here has been a
part of mainstream scholarship for over a hundred and ¬fty years, as the
in¬‚uence of the new counter-revolutionary history of the states-system
began to make itself felt among both political and legal theorists.


The origins of the idea of a states-system
When the members of the English school began to construct a theory of
international relations, they agreed that their work ought to include an
historical analysis of the distinctive characteristics of modern world pol-
itics. To bring that element into their research programme, they decided
to focus on the comparative history of states-systems. In many ways, that
The orthodox theory of order 15

was the obvious choice. One of the British committee™s leading mem-
bers, Herbert Butter¬eld, had great respect for the original authors of
the concept of a states-system “ the ˜Gottingen™ or ˜German historical
¨
school™ “ whom he saw, with good reason, as the founders of modern
historiography.3 Their thesis that the distinction between the medieval
and modern worlds can be understood in terms of the development of a
decentralized system of mutually independent sovereign states, a Staaten-
system, has exercised a pervasive in¬‚uence on historical, sociological and
political theoretical scholarship over the last 200 years, and continues to
do so today; the English school are hardly alone in having fallen under
its spell.4 And, in any case, the members of the English school ¬rmly
believed that by studying the European states-system they could uncover
phenomena of general and lasting signi¬cance for contemporary world
politics, if only because, as Bull observed, Europe™s long period of global
dominance had attached a unique importance to that particular way of
organizing international affairs.5
Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that the decision to
focus on states-systems had serious implications for the orientation and
unfolding of the English school™s research programme. In adopting this
idea as their organizing concept, the British committee were aware that
they were committing themselves to a particular theory of modern history
that had been developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth cen-
turies by scholars who were ˜apologists or protagonists™ for the European
states-system at a time when it was facing a mortal threat from the French

3 Herbert Butter¬eld, Man on his Past (Cambridge University Press, 1955). See also
Butter¬eld, The Origins of History (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981). The most famous
member of the German historical school, and the most in¬‚uential in terms of the de-
velopment of modern historical method, was Leopold von Ranke, but on the idea of a
states-system the key thinker was A.H.L. Heeren. So far as the English school™s historical
research programme was concerned, the Ur-text, so to speak, was Heeren, Manual of the
History of the Political System of Europe and its Colonies, from its Formation at the Close of
the Fifteenth Century to its Re-Establishment upon the Fall of Napoleon, translated from the
5th German edn, 2 vols. (Oxford: D.A. Talboys, 1834) (the 1st edn was published in
1809). See Bull, The Anarchical Society, p. 12; Martin Wight, Systems of States (Leices-
ter University Press, 1977), pp. 20“1; Adam Watson, ˜Hedley Bull, States Systems and
International Societies™, Review of International Studies, 13 (1987), 147“53; and Watson,
˜Systems of States™, Review of International Studies, 16 (1990), 99“109.
4 For an interesting historical attack on this widespread assumption, albeit one that fol-
lows a rather different tack from my own, see Nicholas Henshall, The Myth of Abso-
lutism: Change and Continuity in Early Modern European Monarchy (London: Longman,
1992).
5 Hedley Bull, ˜The Emergence of a Universal International Society™, in Bull and Adam
Watson (eds.), The Expansion of International Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984),
p.124; on its relevance to contemporary world politics, see also Watson, The Evolution of
International Society (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 196. I ought to add that I strongly
disagree with Bull on that point, as will become clear in due course.
16 Beyond the anarchical society

Revolution.6 The idea of a states-system was originally developed as part
of the attempt to justify certain normative principles as the authentic ba-
sis for order in modern world politics; for all the merits of the concept
as a way of highlighting genuinely important dimensions of modern and
contemporary international relations, its initial purpose was to stigmatize
the French Revolution, and especially the Napoleonic imperial system,
as unlawful in terms of the ˜traditional™ principles of European public
law and order. Like all good propaganda, the historical concept of the
states-system contained a substantial kernel of truth, but presented in a
distorted way. It exaggerated the signi¬cance of some aspects of mod-
ern world politics, while down-playing or even ignoring others that were
not so helpful to the counter-revolutionary cause. Such distortions may
well be inherent in any historical narrative, and the reactionaries were no
less scrupulous than their opponents, but I submit that it is unacceptable
to take their history for granted as an objective description of order in
modern world politics.
Although several scholars have complained about the problems that
¬‚ow from conceptualizing modern world history in terms of the idea
of a states-system,7 the reasons why the orthodox perspective is a dis-
torted one are not fully appreciated at present because far too little atten-
tion has been paid to the sources that the counter-revolutionaries used
to construct their account of the modern states-system. It is therefore
impossible to understand what they were including and, just as impor-
tantly, what they were leaving out. The trouble here is that most schol-
arship on pre-revolutionary thought has concentrated overwhelmingly
on speculation about natural law and the law of nations as the root
of modern thinking about the European political system, usually trac-
ing a path from Hugo Grotius, through Samuel Pufendorf, to Emerich
de Vattel. Certainly, Pufendorf was one of the ¬rst to use the idea of
a states-system, although he meant something completely different by
that term from the way it is now understood. It must also be acknowl-
edged that Vattel™s description of the European political system looks
remarkably like the orthodox conception of international society in use
today:
The constant attention of sovereigns to all that goes on, the custom of resident
ministers, the continual negotiations that take place, make of modern Europe a
sort of Republic, whose members “ each independent, but all bound together by
a common interest “ unite for the maintenance of order and the preservation of
6 Bull, The Anarchical Society, p. 12.
7 For a recent discussion of this point, and in my view a very perceptive one, see the
introduction to James Muldoon, Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800“1800
(London: Macmillan, 2000).
The orthodox theory of order 17

liberty. This is what has given rise to the well-known principle of the balance of
power.8

That does sound familiar, but for all the apparent similarities, Vattel was
not the main source for the idea of the states-system that the English
school put at the centre of their historical research programme. To sup-
pose that he was is to overlook a crucial element of his conception of
the European political system and its legal foundation. The early modern
legal theorists mentioned above were primarily trying to discern, through
rational speculation, principles of natural law that could be used as a gen-
eral normative framework for the family of nations. By the middle of the
eighteenth century, as illustrated par excellence by Vattel, this approach
was increasingly linked to the belief that revolutions were justi¬able if a
ruler had violated the fundamental principles of natural law, and that in-
terventions in support of revolutions in other states might be justi¬ed on
the same grounds.9 Of course, that was precisely the conclusion that the
counter-revolutionaries wanted to avoid, and in consequence they were
wary of adopting the natural lawyers™ conception of the European politi-
cal system. They occasionally acknowledged Grotius™s reputation, but did
not use his or any other earlier theories of natural law to any great extent.10
Nevertheless, with the French revolutionary armies in the ascendant
and with the prospect of Napoleonic hegemony looming, the reactionar-
ies were more desperate than ever for an account of European public law
that would justify the principle that the liberty of individual states should
be respected; their problem was that they needed an argument that would
support this point without jeopardizing monarchical dynasticism. The so-
lution lay in a quite distinct, and now somewhat neglected, literature on
the law of nations that had also been developing since the mid-seventeenth
century. In contrast with the more abstract, rationalist approach of the
natural lawyers and the philosophes, this literature was based on the em-
pirical analysis of treaties: a typical work would present a collection of
the texts of some important agreements, with a commentary on the ne-
gotiation process that had led to them and an analysis of the implications
of their provisions for the rights and duties of individual rulers.11 With
8 Emerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct
and to the Affairs of Sovereigns, trans. C.G. Fenwick (Washington: Carnegie Institution,

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