Fr. Anarchie

Esp. Anarquía

® International, polyarchy, state, system, transnational

In most societies, it is assumed that legal principles dictated by political authorities (the state or equivalent institutions) are necessary to ensure that social relations are not subjected to anarchy as the expression of spontaneous violence. Within polities, these authorities are generally centralized and hierarchical. Between polities, the logical corollary of state sovereignty is that the international sphere is open to anarchy in the absence of a supranational polity, although some form of order can be established by dominant or hegemonic powers, or cooperation through international institutions to settle disputes and enforce norms commonly recognized by their members. The near anarchy of international relations conventionally derives from the analogy posed by many students of IR between state behaviour and human behaviours in a supposedly natural condition, in line with Hobbes's analysis of the human condition in the Leviathan. However, this is questioned by other writers, who argue that this “not only distorts the Hobbesian logic, but it is bound practically to raise unrealistic expectations ending in frustration” (Heller 1980).

Additionally, it should be noted that these views apply exclusively to the recent period, considering that the inter-state system, not to mention the nation-state system, has not always existed. A similar caveat applies to the current interaction between international and transnational actors, which introduces new forms of complexity into the global landscape.

One of Kant’s arguments against a world state is that separate states overruled by a single power would be threatened by a potential “universal monarchy”, whose laws would progressively lose their impact as the government increases its power, which would finally lapse into anarchy (1991, p. 113). Following Kant, Rawls also thinks that a world government, even with legal powers, would lead to global despotism or to a form of empire torn by civil strife between regions or peoples trying to regain their political freedom and autonomy (1999, 36). A single world state is more vulnerable to corruption, and the consequences of such corruption would be proportionally worse, given the increased means of coercion available. Significantly, regional anarchy may be feared in such a context as the Middle East today, where public opinion realizes that anarchy resulting from the absence of badly needed reforms of the state can be worse than authoritarianism, as in Iraq or Syria.

Anthropologists will say that the death of individuals or the decay of a social system do not mean that either disappear, since individuals or groups may survive to a given system until a new system gradually emerges. For example, the collapse of an empire means that new political units will be created, all the more so as pure anarchy, they say, is absent from human life. The death of a human being will lead to its disintegration into a completely different natural environment, but images of past contexts will survive in collective memory in a mythologized world. Rather than a sudden break-up, this process is rather a change in human and collective life. Undoubtedly, anthropologists have found societies where no state or central political authority exist, but they consider anarchy, understood as the absence of any power structure, as unconceivable in a human community because its public dimension implies that a social act must be recognized on the basis of power norms. This also excludes the ordinary significance of anarchy or anarchism as a human context without any rights. In IR theories, the concept of recognition may explain how the more undesirable consequences of anarchy can be mitigated through the mutual recognition of collective identities. In any case, an existing regime or identity may sometimes be confused with such wide metaconcepts as civilizations, when it is not realized that political and cultural systems are likely to evolve within a more permanent historical framework.

In a different perspective, theories of international relations from realists to idealists are broadly based on the assumption that states as its main actors need to preserve their interests, whichever allies (in a Kantian perspective) or enemies (for Hobbes) they may have. In structural realism, the interaction of states gives rise to anarchy as the central emergent property of the international system. This will bring a selection of states that are most able to ensure their own security, while weak states will be marginalized (Waltz 1979).

A related point in social sciences is that a system with no power, government or recognized authority will not necessarily fall into disorder. Some realist theorists argue that international society equated to a Hobbesian state of nature deprived of any international or supranational authority will be in a permanent state of potential conflict, while others will say that an “anarchical society” (Hedley Bull, 1977) can establish cooperative tools (international law and institutions) to alleviate the impact of anarchical forces. In both cases, anarchy remains an inherent component of social systems, whatever their relative and provisional (in) stability. A further distinction is that the very term “society” excludes the concept of “chaos”, if only because changing relations among individual and collective players may enter into cooperation agreements or conform to a “balance of power”, even though such an order is not presided over by a sovereign, vertical instance. On the other hand, wider society and IR in the broad sense include more than formal institutions, and the inter-state system can be qualified as an orderly context compared with the so-called civil society: as Marcel Merle says (1995, 272), “Whatever the degree of anarchy the inter-state system may have reached, it remains a model of order and organization compared with the ceaseless, uncontrolled mushrooming of oddball INGOs:  it is a French garden compared with an equatorial jungle.”

A peculiar case is illustrated by what is called “post-national”, illustrated by the European Union as a unique political entity based on the assumption that nation states are fundamentally dangerous and that the only way to tame the anarchy of nations is to impose a common authority on them. Obviously, a structure ideally adapted to the post-modern state does not prevent the opposite trend, as nationalists and populists (in 2018) increasingly want to destroy supranational polities to return to a conventional nation-state system (Cooper, 1999).



Immanuel Kant, ‘‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’’, in H. Reiss (ed. ), Political Writings, 1991[1795], 2d ed., New York: Cambridge University Press, 93–130.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999 [1971].

Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1977, 3rd ed.

Waltz, Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Edward Keene, Beyond the Anarchical Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Mark A. Heller, "The use and abuse of Hobbes: the state of nature in international relations," Polity 13, no. 1, Autumn 1980.

Marcel Merle, “A legal tangle: the ‘status’ of nongovernmental international organizations between international law and national laws”, Transnational Associations, 1995/6, transl. from “Un imbroglio juridique: le "statut" des OING, entre le droit international et les droits nationaux”, in L'internationalité dans les institutions et le droit. Etudes offertes à Alain Plantey, Paris: Pedone, 1995.

Robert Cooper, “The post-modern state and the world order”, London: Demos, 1996, revised 2000 ; The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first Century, London: Atlantic Books, 2003; “The Postmodern State” in Mark Leonard (ed.), Re-ordering the World : The Long-term Implications of September 11, Foreign Policy Centre, 2002.

Seva Gunitsky, “Complexity and theories of change in international politics”, International Theory, 5(1), 2013.

Georges-Henri Soutou, « Le nouveau système international », lecture delivered on 6 June 2011, French Academy of Science. travaux/communications/2011_06_06_soutou.htm