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I think that that is suf¬cient to illustrate some of the historiographical
problems that are created by the orthodox idea that order in modern world
politics is fundamentally de¬ned by the European states-system. But, as
we have just seen, the English school, and especially Bull, usually talked
about the legal concept of an international society, rather than the notion
of a states-system as such. I want to turn now to asking how this blend
was achieved, and with what consequences for our understanding of early
modern international legal thought, and that of Grotius in particular.


The concept of international society and the
˜Grotian tradition™
The second strand of the English school™s research programme was an
analysis of the history of political and legal thought about international
relations, particularly in an effort to identify and develop the special via
media that they saw as integral to ˜Western values™.42 To locate this middle
way, Wight distinguished between three different traditions of ˜interna-
tional theory™ (realism, rationalism and revolutionism), each of which had
its own particular conception of international society, theory of mankind,
theory of war, theory of ethics and so on.43 Bull tentatively suggested
that this scheme of three traditions may have been derived from Otto
von Gierke.44 Gierke had argued that, as early modern theorists of nat-
ural law progressively moved away from medieval conceptions of world
monarchy, they began to use instead a novel idea of a society of nations
(societas gentium) to preserve a belief in the ef¬cacy of the law of nations.
They were attacked from two sides as they did so: exponents of a strictly
absolutist or unitary conception of sovereignty, such as Thomas Hobbes,
denied the existence of a societas gentium because they found it illogical
to place any constraints on the independent will of the sovereign; at the
same time, though, there were several thinkers who felt that the idea of a
mere society of nations was insuf¬cient, and argued for the creation of a
new world-state or empire to replace the old medieval dominus mundi.45

42 Martin Wight, ˜Western Values in International Relations™, in Herbert Butter¬eld and
Wight (eds.), Diplomatic Investigations: Essays on the Theory of International Politics
(London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966), pp. 89“131.
43 Martin Wight, International Theory: The Three Traditions (Leicester University Press,
1991).
44 Hedley Bull, ˜Martin Wight and the Theory of International Relations™, in Wight, Inter-
national Theory, p. xviii.
45 Otto von Gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society, trans. Ernest Barker (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1957), p. 85.
30 Beyond the anarchical society

This gives rise, then, to a picture of three traditions of international po-
litical thought, contrasting theorists of absolute state sovereignty with
theorists of a world-state and, in between these two extremes, theorists
who uphold the idea of a societas gentium as a pragmatic way of defending
the ef¬cacy of moral principles and legal rules in international affairs,
without insisting on the need for a single dominus mundi.
Gierke™s brief statement of this line of argument may well have pro-
vided, as Bull suggested, the ˜germ™ of Wight™s more elaborate treatise,
and it certainly informed Bull™s own version of the three traditions, as
we will see in a moment.46 But it is surprising, and revealing, that Bull
did not mention another important source for Wight™s scheme: histories
of international legal thought. Another tripartite distinction appears, for
example, in T.J. Lawrence™s classic textbook on The Principles of Inter-
national Law, to which Wight frequently referred in his main published
essay on the history of international thought.47 This is important be-
cause Lawrence™s version differed from Gierke™s in a crucial respect. Like
most other international lawyers, Lawrence was interested in a disagree-
ment that did not result from the controversy surrounding the concept
of a societas gentium, but rather from the fact that the more narrowly ju-
risprudential idea of the jus gentium (law of nations) had come to have
two distinct senses in the early seventeenth century. On the one hand,
Lawrence argued, in its classical Roman sense it was little more than an-
other term for natural law; on the other, it gradually came to be associated
with volitional or positive law, established through agreements between
states.48 He maintained that modern juristic debates subsequently re-
volved around this disagreement about the sources of the jus gentium.
Some, most famously Samuel Pufendorf, clung to the old view that the
law of nations was simply a part of natural law; others, like Richard Zouch,
adopted the positivist position and argued that the jus gentium depended
entirely upon the consent of states.49 In between, there was an ˜eclectic™
position, often called Grotian because Grotius was its most celebrated ex-
ponent, although run a close second by Vattel, which attempted to derive
international legal obligations from both natural law and state volition

46 Bull, ˜Martin Wight and the Theory of International Relations™, p. xviii.
47 Wight, ˜Western Values in International Relations™, pp. 101, 102, 112n and 120n. By
contrast, Wight did not refer to Gierke once in that essay, although he did use language
which clearly re¬‚ects a Gierkean in¬‚uence. To his credit, Bull confessed himself unsure as
to whether or not Wight had indeed read the relevant passage in Gierke™s book. See also
T.J. Lawrence, The Principles of International Law, 5th edn (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1910).
48 Lawrence, The Principles of International Law, p. 39.
49 Zouch is often used as an example in the literature. Nevertheless, in my view the most
important architects of legal positivism were the historians of European treaties that I
discussed in the previous section, especially Jean Dumont and G.F. de Martens.
The orthodox theory of order 31

simultaneously.50 The key point here is that students of legal thought like
Lawrence generally did not see this as a dispute about whether or not an
international society existed, or whether or not the existing international
society should be replaced by some kind of world-state. The disagree-
ment, as they saw it, was essentially internal to the societas gentium, and
was sustained by differing views on the sources, and to a degree also the
content, of the normative principles and legal obligations that they all
agreed were binding upon its members.
I think that the distinguishing characteristic of Wight™s history of ideas
is that is was neither purely Gierkean nor purely jurisprudential, but
sought to combine both. His intention was to unify these two approaches
to the study of international relations, an ambitious goal that he hinted
at by coining the new label, ˜international theory™. Wight used this rather
vague term to describe his subject matter because he did not want to
commit himself to the historical study of either political or legal thinking
about international relations in isolation. On the contrary, his goal was
to overcome the ˜unhappy partition™ that had previously arisen to divide
those ˜philosophically minded international lawyers™ that Lawrence had
talked about from the ˜internationally minded political philosophers™ like
Machiavelli, Hobbes and Althusius, with whom Gierke had primarily
been concerned.51 Wight™s project was to treat both groups as involved
in the development of a single ¬eld of ˜international theory™, to show
how they had furnished international relations with its political philo-
sophical foundations, while simultaneously acknowledging that the bulk
of speculation explicitly concerned with international affairs had, at least
until the twentieth century, been conducted more or less exclusively in
jurisprudential terms about the law of nations.52
The main problem with Wight™s scheme is that this purpose, however
admirable it may have been in itself, entangled him in all sorts of dif¬-
culties when he tried to explain precisely what was at stake in the debate
between the three traditions. At the most fundamental level, the excep-
tionally broad scope of his enquiry raised the question of whether the
three traditions were involved in a disagreement in the wider Gierkean
sense about the existence of a societas gentium, or in the rather narrower
legal sense about the precise sources of the jus gentium within a societas
gentium that everyone took for granted. Wight oscillated between the two.
On the one hand, he argued that each tradition had its own distinctive

50 For example, Amos Hershey, The Essentials of International Public Law (New York:
Macmillan, 1912), p. 62.
51 Wight, International Theory, p. 3.
52 Ibid., p. 1, and Martin Wight, ˜Why Is There No International Theory?™, in Butter¬eld
and Wight (eds.), Diplomatic Investigations, pp. 18“19.
32 Beyond the anarchical society

conception of international society, suggesting a certain proximity to the
three classic schools of legal thought: positivism, naturalism and ˜eclec-
tic™ Grotianism. His description of the traditions™ contrasting views on
international society did not, however, exactly correspond to the ortho-
dox version of the three traditions of legal thought.53 The major differ-
ence was that Wight identi¬ed both positivist and naturalist jurisprudence
with the realist tradition of international theory because both regarded
international society as a society of states enjoying an originally perfect
liberty: the positivists held that states could subsequently be bound by
rules to which they had given their consent, thus providing what Wight
called a ˜general, conventional or inductive™ form of realism; the natural-
ists made an analogy between the position of states in international society
and that of individuals within the state of nature, and so gave a ˜deduc-
tive™ analysis that stressed the importance of natural law in furnishing a
right to political independence.54 This picture gets even more confus-
ing if we note that Wight saw the revolutionists as having most strongly
emphasized the element of international society in world politics, but
they believed that it rested on transnational relationships between indi-
viduals, underpinning the appearance of a society composed of distinct
and independent sovereignties.55 Finally, we have the ˜eclectic™ position
that international society is based on relations between both states and
individuals. This, Wight agreed with the textbook legal histories, was
the distinctively Grotian conception of international society, where in-
ternational law could be derived from both natural and positive sources
simultaneously (although it is logical to suppose that that would make
Grotianism, ironically enough, a form of realism).56
At the same time, however, one can see a thread of the Gierkean ar-
gument interwoven with this account of the three conceptions of inter-
national society. For realists “ and now we are talking about the more
extreme ˜Hobbesian™ realists “ international society does not exist, since
international relations are a gladiatorial arena in a constant and asocial
state of war. Among revolutionists, on the other hand, the idea of an
international society is understood to imply a ˜super-state™ that existing
international arrangements ought or are destined to become.57 Again,
this suggests that revolutionists do not believe that an international soci-
ety actually does exist at present, but uphold the concept as an ideal into
53 Wight, International Theory, p. 233.
54 Ibid., pp. 14, 36, 130“1 and 233“5. On the naturalists™ analogy between the liberty
of states and individuals, see also the classic interpretation in Edwin Dickinson, ˜The
Analogy between Natural Persons and International Persons in the Law of Nations™, Yale
Law Journal, 26 (1916/17), 564“91.
55 Wight, International Theory, pp. 7“8 and 48, and Wight, ˜Western Values in International
Relations™, p. 93.
56 57 Ibid., pp. 32 and 48.
Wight, International Theory, pp. 36“7.
The orthodox theory of order 33

which the currently imperfect condition of international relations should
be transformed. In short, rather perversely in view of his earlier remarks
about the debate between the three traditions™ different conceptions of
international society, Wight also appears to concur with Gierke™s idea
that it is only the moderate ˜rationalists™ who believed in the existence
of an international society, which they are defending against both realist
scepticism and the revolutionist belief in a future world-state, empire or
community of humankind.
Several other ambiguities arose as a result of Wight™s attempt to blend
the two earlier historical perspectives on international legal and political
theory. As I have already mentioned, both legal positivists and naturalists
were to be found in Wight™s realist tradition, a tradition that, in its more
extreme form at least, is also represented as denying the existence of a
societas gentium, and hence, one has to conclude, a jus gentium as well.
This leads to the somewhat peculiar (although not completely absurd)
outcome that two of the major schools in the history of international legal
thought are identi¬ed with a political philosophical position that is most
famous for denying the ef¬cacy of international law altogether. Mean-
while, the revolutionists “ the tradition that Wight described as having
most strongly emphasised the importance of the concept of international
society “ apparently have no roots whatsoever in the classic schools of in-
ternational legal thought, if only for the reason that none of those schools
are left to inform the revolutionist perspective: positivism and naturalism
had already been placed in the realist tradition, while Grotianism had
to be located elsewhere. Wight therefore grounded the revolutionist the-
ory of international law in the argument that law is merely ideological
and does not rest on any natural or fundamental normative principles.58
That, however, is an odd way to describe a tradition that is also supposed
to include the Huguenot monarchomachic author of the Vindiciae contra
Tyrannos, or Kantian philosophers for that matter, and to which Wight
credited the belief that interventions might be legitimate on the grounds
that ˜the inviolability of frontiers is subordinated to the illimitability of
truth™.59 It is hard to see how one can uphold the ˜illimitability of truth™
and yet maintain that there are no natural or fundamental principles upon
which to ground a code of international legal obligations.
Most important of all, though, is the ambiguity that surrounds Wight™s
picture of the rationalist tradition, especially in its relationship to the
˜eclectic™ Grotian school of international legal thought. Theorists since
Wight have generally concluded that these two traditions are more or less
interchangeable, and rationalism and Grotianism are commonly depicted

58 Ibid., p. 236.
59 Wight, ˜Western Values in International Relations™, p. 113.
34 Beyond the anarchical society

as one and the same.60 It should already be clear, however, that such
a conclusion is impossible if Wight™s argument is to be taken seriously.
In the classic legal sense, Grotians had occupied the middle ground be-
tween the positivist and the naturalist schools. By collapsing the latter
two into the realist tradition of international theory, Wight was inevitably
changing the nature of the debate with regard to the similarly moderate
position taken up by the rationalists. The point is an obvious one: if you
change the poles of a debate, you must be altering the terrain between
them. To his credit, Wight recognized this, admitting that Grotianism and
rationalism were not synonymous. Where this left the old legal Grotian
tradition was, however, totally unclear. Wight did not want to abandon
altogether any idea of a link between Grotianism and rationalism, since he
saw both of them as crucial to de¬ning the vital category of the via media in
international theory and Western values, but he twisted himself into knots
trying to explain how Grotians were similar to rationalists, while at the
same time retaining a sense of the differences between the two traditions,
as was logically required by his treatment of the schools of international
legal thought whence the idea of a ˜Grotian tradition™ originally came.61
I am afraid that I will have to leave Wight tied up like that, because
I cannot see a way in which his extraordinarily ambitious attempt to
provide an account of the whole of ˜international theory™ can be made
coherent, which may be one reason why he never published his lectures
on the subject (their publication was posthumous). The only way, in fact,
of making it work is simply to ignore all the ambiguities it contains; that,
in a nutshell, was Bull™s solution. He cut the Wightian knot through the
drastic device of reducing ˜international theory™ to international political
thought, spotlighting Gierke™s idea of a debate about the existence of the
societas gentium and pushing the legal debate about the jus gentium into
the shadows.
Bull did not make any real distinction between Wight™s rationalist tra-
dition and the legal Grotian tradition. He understood both as defend-
ing the concept of international society against the extreme perspectives
of those who believe that only international anarchy exists, on the one
hand, and against those who uphold the idea of a universal commu-
nity of humankind, on the other. Grotians are not, as the lawyers would
have had it, defending a middle point between two different conceptions
of the sources for obligations in international society, and to some ex-
tent different theories of the membership of international society. Bull™s
60 Bull, ˜Martin Wight and the Theory of International Relations™ and, for a more recent
example, see Andrew Linklater, ˜Rationalism™, in Scott Burchill, Linklater et al., Theories
of International Relations (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 93“118.
61 Wight, International Theory, pp. 233“4.
The orthodox theory of order 35

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