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International Hierarchy

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Recently, international hierarchy has taken center stage in international relations (IR) theory. Hierarchy is typically understood as a feature of domestic institutional stratification; it defines a set of social arrangements that reflects relations of authority. Where anarchy had once dominated IR theory, there are now substantial debates about how to account for hierarchical international relations between nominally sovereign states, as well as a prevalent conflation between hierarchy and hegemony to discuss unequal material and social arrangements. Yet the focus on hierarchy is nothing new. Theories such as Power Transition Theory and Hegemonic Stability Theory had attempted to understand the international system as a consequence of significant material imbalances of power. Moreover, critical theoretical approaches relying on Marxian analysis tended to emphasize the diverse hierarchical forms of international relations in the political-economic realm. More recent literature on international hierarchy is derived from a rationalist ontology, which explains why it would be a legitimate policy choice for states to enter into asymmetric relations. This literature understands hierarchy in its formal-juridical dimensions. In addition, discussions of international hierarchy by critical and postcolonial theorists take different ontological and epistemological starting points, as hierarchy can be understood in broader terms as a way of constituting and demarcating identities, for example. In other words, hierarchy is as much a social concept as a juridical one. However, this raises crucial theoretical questions concerning the differences between hegemony and hierarchy.

Keywords: international hierarchy, hierarchy, anarchy, hierarchical international relations, hegemony, formal-juridical models, asymmetric relations, unequal material and social arrangements


The concept of anarchy is central for international relations theory. Typically defined as the lack of a global government capable of adjudicating disputes between states, anarchy is considered the starting point for theorizing state action in structural theories of international politics. In the 21st century, however, theorists are taking a renewed interest in theorizing hierarchy in international relations. As we will see, defining international hierarchy is by no means as self-evident as that of international anarchy. There are substantial debates about how to account for hierarchical international relations between nominally sovereign states. There is also a prevalent conflation between hierarchy and hegemony to discuss unequal material and social arrangements. Hierarchy is typically understood as a feature of domestic institutional stratification; it defines a set of social arrangements that reflects relations of authority. Max Weber famously defined hierarchy as a “clearly established system of super- and subordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones” (Weber, 1968, p. 957). Hegemony, which is a term more commonly used in international relations, refers to the mobilization of leadership. Nonetheless, both hierarchy and hegemony problematize the traditional model of juridically equal sovereign nation-states negotiating the predicament of anarchical self-help. Although hierarchy and anarchy are often juxtaposed, their etymologies are different: anarchy emerges from archos, which means “without a leader,” whereas hierarchy is derived from a combination of hieros (sacred) and arche (rule) (Donnelly, 2006, p. 141). Hence, Ian Clark defines hierarchy as “a social arrangement characterized by stratification in which, like the angels, there are orders of power and glory and the society is classified in successively subordinated grades” (Clark, 1989, p. 2). Nonetheless, this prevalent juxtaposition between hierarchy and anarchy results in a different way of understanding international and domestic political society. For Kenneth Waltz, “Political actors [in a hierarchy] are differentiated according to the degrees of their authority and their distinct functions are specified” (1977, p. 81). This is precisely what is perceived to be lacking in the international system that conditions states into becoming functionally undifferentiated.

A renewed interest in hierarchy in international politics should not be surprising for two broad reasons. First, many discussions of state action under conditions of anarchy between structural realists and liberals in the 1980s revolved around the capacity of states to create institutions, regimes, or patterns of cooperation that mitigate the worst excesses of a self-help system. Functionalists and institutionalists have long debated “how shared interests, increasing independence, informational problems, and transaction costs lead to the creation of international organizations or international regimes” (Weber, 2000, p. 2). A key puzzle for structural international theorists during the 1980s was why states would choose to bind themselves and limit their freedom of action in alliance systems or international organizations that constitute relations of authority between states. Second, more recently American unipolarity has solicited widespread theoretical and political discussion concerning constitution of this international order. G. John Ikenberry, in particular, is concerned with demonstrating the compatibilities between American material supremacy and a liberal international order that is constituted by consensual relations of authority and hierarchy (2011). David Lake’s conceptualization of hierarchy is also tied to a concern with demonstrating the intrinsic legitimacy of an American lead social order: “I will admit a preference for American-led international political orders over any alternatives dominated by another single country” (Lake, 2009, p. xii). Nonetheless, questions abound about the longevity of this contemporary unipolar system, the legitimacy of an American-led social order that motivates a turn to hierarchy (Acharya, 2015; Monteiro, 2014).

Although these two reasons are important for understanding the increasing popularity of theorizing international hierarchy, there are also general historical and normative reasons. Historians and historical-sociologists recognize that international politics was essentially more hierarchical than is typically assumed (Arrighi, 2010; Wallerstein, 2004). The emergence of the modern state system in the 17th century coincided with the initial colonization of the new world and the establishment of an international order largely centered on political, economic, and cultural/racial hierarchies. Empire and the emergence of global political as imperial politics are fundamental feature of global politics since the 19th century (Buzan & Lawson, 2015). Forms of hierarchy emerged not just because of formal, juridical, or material relations but are also actualized through discursive formations of language and self-identity that structured relations between the West and the rest of the world (Zarakol, 2011). Processes of racialization, patriarchy, economic inequality and poverty, and Western-centric practice and theory contributes to a hierarchicalization of global politics more generally (Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004; Vitalis, 2015; Towns, 2010).

Theorizing international hierarchy is not a new endeavor. Stanley Hoffmann argued in 1959 that historical-sociological questions such as “the international relations of non-Western civilizations, and world politics of periods other than those of city or nation-state” needed to be addressed in international relations theory (Hoffmann, 1959, p. 368). “The relations between empires, the complex hierarchy within empires, the relations between empires and peoples at their borders are worth study” (Hoffmann, 1959, p. 368). By 1977 Hoffmann would again call for a more theoretical examination of international hierarchy: “Another zone of relative darkness is the functioning of international hierarchy, or, if you prefer, the nature of relations between the weak and the strong” (Hoffmann, 1977, p. 58).

Nonetheless, the predominance of Waltzian structural realism in the 1980s made it appear as if the ontological position of anarchy versus hierarchy had been settled. There also has been a deep-seated ambivalence in international relations concerning the place of empire and imperialism (Barkawi, 2010). However, international relations theorists have in one form or another addressed aspects of international hierarchy. The first part of this entry explores how theorists have approached international hierarchy in terms of material inequalities. Theories such as Power Transition Theory and Hegemonic Stability Theory attempted to understand the international system as a consequence of significant material imbalances of power. Moreover, critical theoretical approaches relying on Marxian analysis tended to emphasize the diverse hierarchical forms of international relations in the political-economic realm. The second part of this entry examines the more recent literature on international hierarchy. Much of this literature is derived from a rationalist ontology, which explains why it would be a legitimate policy choice for states to enter into asymmetric relations. This literature understands hierarchy mainly in its formal-juridical dimensions. Discussions here of international hierarchy then are entwined with liberalism’s attempt at rationalizing a consensual American liberal project.

By contrast, discussions of international hierarchy by critical and postcolonial theorists take different ontological and epistemological starting points. This last part explores the various ontological and epistemological conceptualizations of hierarchy beyond formal-juridical models. Hierarchy can be understood in broader terms as a way of constituting and demarcating identities, for example. In other words, hierarchy is as much a social concept as a juridical one. However, this raises crucial theoretical questions concerning the differences between hegemony and hierarchy. This article concludes by exploring future avenues of research on international hierarchy.

Hierarchy as a Function of Material Power

The centrality of anarchy in international relations theory is not just tied to conceptualizing international politics; it is in part an attempt at differentiating international relations as an academic discipline. As Nick Onuf and Frank Kline argue, the “opposition between authority and anarchy . . . serves to constitute Political Science and International Relations as disciplines” (Onuf, 1989, p. 196). Nonetheless, there is a Hobbesian distinction at work here between the state of nature, which becomes increasingly conflated with international anarchy, and relations of authority defined institutionally by the state. This “levels of analysis” distinction between the domestic and the international becomes reified quickly in international relations literature beginning in the late 1970s. As Robert Art and Robert Jervis state at the beginning of their classic volume International Politics, “Unlike domestic politics, international politics takes place in an arena that has no central authority . . . . States can make commitments and treaties, but no sovereign power ensures compliance” (1985, p. 2). For Kenneth Waltz, “the prominent characteristic of international politics . . . seems to be the lack of order and organization” (1979, p. 89). “It is obvious,” Hedley Bull writes in The Anarchical Society, “that sovereign states, unlike the individuals within them, are not subject to a common government, and that in this sense there is . . . an ‘international anarchy’” (Bull, 2012, p. 44). Alexander Wendt also notes the prevalence of “cultures of anarchy” even if their Lockean and Kantian versions do not necessarily lead to the realist conclusions of continuous self-help (1999).

The stark division between domestic/hierarchical versus international/anarchical is largely a consequence of Waltz’s structural realist theory, which set the ontological parameters for subsequent debates. But as Jack Donnelly argues, juxtaposing anarchy with hierarchy is a “conceptual error that significantly impedes understanding the nature of international inequalities” (Donnelly, 2006, p. 141). As mentioned above, not only is it etymologically false, but it precludes the possibility of multiple hierarchical social arrangements embedded within global anarchy. “Hierarchy (super-ordination and differentiation),” Donnelly continues, “in anarchy is not only theoretically possible but is . . . historically common” (Donnelly, 2006, p. 141). Differences in material capabilities create possibilities of hierarchical relations. Waltz himself admits this in that “in any realm populated by units that are functionally similar but of different capabilities, those of the greatest capability take on special responsibilities” (1979, p. 198). Such special responsibilities reflect a desire of great powers, or dominant firms in economic parlance, more generally, to maintain a system that is “orderly and peaceful” (Waltz, 1979, p. 198). Thus to create the conditions of an orderly system of states would require great powers to “interfere in the affairs of, lesser states” (Waltz, 1979, p. 198). Waltz is thus admitting a division between great powers and inferior powers on the basis of material capabilities.

Arguing that hierarchy based on material capabilities (i.e., coercion) implies a “special responsibility” to create and maintain an “orderly and peaceful” under conditions of anarchy is an obvious gesture to the original work of Charles Kindleberger and became central for IPE throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Kindleberger argued in his classic 1973 text The World in Depression, 1929–1939, that the “1929 depression was so wide, so deep, and so long because the international economic system was rendered unstable by British inability and U.S. unwillingness to assume responsibility for stabilizing it” (1986, p. 289). He goes on to argue that the core responsibility of such a power must resemble that of a central bank in that it provides the “market” with a stabilizing set of mechanisms to readjust (i.e., maintaining open markets; long-term lending; maintaining stable exchange rates; coordinating economic policies; lender of a last resort). Interestingly, Kindleberger himself does not use the language of hierarchy or hegemony; he describes these functions, much like Waltz, as a “responsibility” and characterizes the use of the term hegemony as “cynical” if not more “realistic” (1986, p. 289). Nonetheless, scholars influenced by Kindleberger’s work would draw parallels between the role of the state for economic stabilization during periods of crisis and global politics.

Hegemonic stability theory, more generally, was a neorealist/neoliberal attempt at reconciling significant disparities in material power and the emergence of conditions for an open and stable international system. George Modelski, Robert Gilpin, Robert Keohane, and Stephen Krasner were at the forefront of developing a theory of hegemonic stability in international political economy. The two main case studies, the British Empire of the 19th century and the post–Second World War United States, are meant to illustrate a convergence of benefits between great and small powers. Both are said to have provided public goods—open and free trade, for example. Stephen Krasner, in his canonical essay “State Power and the Structure of International Trade,” attempted to render this idea into a causal argument that an open economic system was more likely under a hegemonic power than otherwise (1976, p. 322).

Another early attempt at theorizing a form of hierarchy on the basis of differences in material capabilities was A. F. K. Organski’s Power Transition Theory. Originally published in his text 1958 text World Politics, Power Transition Theory describes a hierarchical world of great power exerting control over their spheres of influence (1968). For Organski, “The international order is best visualized if one thinks of a pyramid with one nation at the top and many nations at the bottom” (1968, p. 364). This hierarchy is largely defined in terms of power: from great powers, middle powers, small powers, and dependencies. What Organski aims at is a theory of change on the basis of dissatisfaction among emergent industrial powers. Hierarchies here are understood as never entirely stable and are challenged by the moment when there emerges a rough parity between dominant power and challenger. As Douglas Lemke explains, power transition theory has a different understanding of what happens at system equilibrium points than balance of power theory: “In direct contrast to balance-of-power hypotheses about the power relationships associated with the outbreak of war, power transition theory posits that periods of rough equality, or parity, of power are war prone” (2002, p. 25). In other words, power transition theory implies that a hierarchy international order based on preponderant military capabilities is one in which great power conflict remains muted. Lemke himself builds on Organski’s power transition theory by beginning with the idea an international order constituted by multiples hierarchies.

While Hegemonic Stability Theory and Power Transition Theory each sees the international system as constituted by hegemonic states defined in terms of their predominance of material power, Marxist analysis of global political economy is grounded in the prevalence of the expansion of capital through imperialism. As opposed to seeing hegemonic forms of hierarchy as being beneficial for the global economy, Marxist analysis takes the emergence of international core-periphery as a result of the long history of imperialism as responsible for the impoverishment of the global South for the benefit of the industrial North. Because Marxist and neo-Marxist theories are tied an emancipatory project from domestic and international forms of domination they reject the perceived beneficial place of international hierarchy for the global political economy.

There is evidently a long Marxist tradition of theorizing imperialism as a consequence of capitalist logics in the works Lenin (1916), Luxemburg (2003), Hilferding (2006), and Bukharin (2003). Luxemburg famously argued in The Accumulation of Capital that colonial expansion was an integral component to the maintenance and expansion of capitalism (2003). For Luxemburg, international hierarchy as a logic of capital was on display in the form of “colonial policy, an international loan system—a policy of spheres of interest—and war. Force, fraud, oppression, looting are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment, and it requires an effort to discover within this tangle of political violence and contests of power the stern laws of the economic process” (2003, p. 432). Global wars then were the consequence of this global hierarchical establishment premised on the permanent accumulation of power. Classical Marxist theories of imperialism were instrumental in influencing the emergence of dependency theory (as an international political-economic theory and also as a critique of the dominance of modernization theory) and world systems theory as an historical sociological account of international hierarchy (Arrighi, 2010). Here the emphasis is on core-periphery dynamics and the international division of labor that constitute unequal economic relations (Wallerstein, 2004). While dependency theory and world systems theory have different positions with respect to the nature of inequality, such dynamics are governed by the material power of core states—to for example, restructure peripheral states for the benefit of continuous capital accumulation. Nonetheless, such approaches also emphasize the importance of elite networks to cement institutions such as the UN, World Bank, or NAFTA and the role of ideology in legitimizing global inequality but in also transcending the nation-state system.

Even though classical Marxist or neo-Marxist theories of imperialism waned after the end of the Cold War and were largely critiqued for their economic determinism (Fieldhouse, 1961; Robinson & Gallagher, 1961), there has been a resurgence of interest in the decade after the start of the American global war on terror. The perception that contemporary globalization is predicated on a different form of imperial power (Wood, 2003), a diffuse form of capitalist “Empire” (Hardt & Negri, 2000) or a renewed form of imperial dominance (Callinicos, 2009; Harvey, 2005). For Callinicos, in particular, “The global hierarchy of economic and military power that is a fundamental consequence of the uneven and combined development inherent in capitalist imperialism was not dissolved, but was rather complicated by the emergence of new centers of capital accumulation” (2009, p. 186). More generally, recent neo-imperial events have motivated a resurgence of interest in historical materialism to explain the persistence of uneven and combined development (Anievas, 2010). This renewed interest in historical materialism has also sparked Marxist-inspired revision histories. Alexander Anievas’s Capital, The State and War reexamines the crisis of the early 20th century through the legacy of international capitalist development and rivalry that would lead to the cataclysm of the Second World War. For Anievas, however, an important point remains the compatibilities between anarchy and hierarchy: “Under capitalism, anarchy and hierarchy, are mutually conditioning, one need not beget the other. The international is thus constituted by a nexus of antagonistic relations of competition and domination” (Anievas, 2014, p. 123).

Hierarchy as a Relation of Authority

David Lake proposes an alternative conceptualization of hierarchy that is not derived from imbalances of power or coercive capacity. Rather than seeing hierarchy as a structural feature of the international system defined in terms of a hegemon possessing a sphere of influence or of particular regional contexts defined by great powers, Lake’s account of hierarchy is derived from the basis of multiple (i.e., dyadic) asymmetrical relationships: hierarchy can vary in intensity from one relationship to another even if the capacity of coercion may be roughly similar. The central concept that constitutes hierarchical relations is authority rather than coercive power. Though a type of power, authority, Lake argues, rests on distinct “mechanisms through which power is exercised” (2009, p. 21). Whereas power ultimately rests on a threat of violence, authority derives its capacity to compel on the basis of legitimacy. As Lake argues, “Authority is a particular form of power in which subordinates grant certain rights to a ruler” (2009, p. 24).

Hierarchy is then defined as a relation of authority between two agents such that one power has the ability to regulate certain aspects, or all aspects, of the other on the basis of consent. “Hierarchy,” Lake writes, “is a variable defined by the authority of the ruler over an increasing number of actions of the ruled” (2009, p. 62). Such actions may be political or economic ones. One can imagine here a spectrum of hierarchical possibilities across the international system. On the one side, the lack of hierarchical relations between two states implies then an anarchical relationship. On the extreme other side there is a complete hierarchy that tends toward forms of formal empire. What this implies is a conceptualization of sovereignty as divisible in which states may have sovereignty over certain actions but not over others (Lake, 2009, pp. 46–47).

By defining hierarchy in terms of authority, legitimacy, and ultimately consent, Lake is essentially tying hierarchy to political order much like in social contract theory (2009, p. 28). Though he admits that an optimal political order, which is defined as “the protection of persons, property and promises”—an essentially liberal order—can emerge under anarchy, “hierarchy is generally a more efficient mechanism for producing order” (Lake, 2009, p. 29). Hierarchy becomes a rational answer to collective action and bargaining problems “because the ruled anticipate the suboptimality of strictly voluntary provision” (Lake, 2009, p. 29). Lake continues: “It is the ability to use violence legitimately that makes the modern state so effective in producing political order on a large scale, and it is this same force that makes hierarchy between states viable and possibly even attractive” (2009, p. 30).

This last point is discussed in greater detail by G. John Ikenberry in his 2011 book Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis and Transformation of the American World Order. Here Ikenberry explicitly spells out what Lake was alluding to in his “preference for American-led international political orders over any alternatives dominated by another single country” (Lake, 2009, p. xii). Ikenberry is much more explicit in affirming the beneficial role of American hierarchy in the post–Second World War period. Indeed, Ikenberry’s larger aim is affirming a consensual American leadership role and the longevity of the liberal international order that it created after the Second World War. As Ikenberry argues

In the case of the American post-war order . . . there are several features that . . . give it a more consensual and agreed-upon character than imperial systems. One is the sponsorship and support of a loose system of rules and institutions that it has itself operated within. Another is its leadership in the provision of public goods – including security and maintenance of an open economic system. As an open system organized around leading liberal democratic states, states that operated within it have opportunities to consult, bargain, and negotiate with the United States. In effect, subordinate states have access to decision making at the center. Institutions for joint or concerted leadership span the liberal hegemonic landscape. These features of the American-led order do not eliminate hierarchy or the exercise of power, but they mute the imperial form of hierarchy and infuse it with liberal characteristics. (2011, p. 26)

Ikenberry shares Lake’s idea that hierarchy cannot simply be a product of differences in material capabilities. The exercise and longevity of hierarchical social arrangements must exhibit a semblance of legitimacy. However, Ikenberry is more explicitly focused on outlining the differences between forms of imperial hierarchy and liberal hegemony in order to demonstrate how American unipolarity fits more or less into the latter category.

Ikenberry’s notion of hierarchy and the specific role of the United States is therefore significantly based on a liberal notion of consent: “States enter the international order out of enlightened self-interest, engaging in self-restrain and binding themselves to agreed-upon rules and institutions” (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 62). Importantly, it was after the destruction of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War that the United States affirmed a global liberal agenda that initially took hold in the West and subsequently socialized the rest. What Ikenberry terms “liberal hegemony” is a “regime-based order created by a leading state” (2011, p. 70). It is a hierarchical order but one that is consensual insofar as “it invites participation and compliance by weaker and secondary states” (2011, p. 70).

The approaches taken by Lake and Ikenberry on hierarchy have opened the door to theorizing its prevalence and in problematizing the conceptual dominance of anarchy. Both Lake and Ikenberry are able to conceptualize hierarchy in terms of a rationalist ontology that highlights the incentives and bargaining conditions for states to bind themselves within hierarchical orders. Lake and Ikenberry show that state incentives to subordinate themselves cannot be just a function of coercive capability but is fundamentally tied to notions of—liberal—legitimacy. To be sure, Ikenberry admits that there are variances in such a liberal hegemony; liberal-hegemonic powers sometimes need to use “crudely imperial” methods to “discipline and coerce weaker states, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East” (2011, pp. 60, 66). Lake also argues that “political authority and intimately related in the use of violence to enforce commands” (2009, p. 22). Incentives to “flout rules” must at times be addressed by the potential for violence as a means of enforcement. The line drawn then between material capabilities and authority to constitute the source of hierarchy is by no means fully marked.

Hierarchy as an “Ordering Language”

The previous two sections have shown how the theorization of international hierarchy falls between two general starting points. On the one hand, the assumption that significant differences in material capabilities leads to hierarchical arrangements is either implicit or made more explicit in various structural theories of international politics. On the other hand, the approach pioneered by David Lake and John Ikenberry rests on the notion of authority relations between states. This approach focuses on the consensual elements that structure such hierarchical relations of authority beyond mere the capacity for coercion. Lake, in particular, sees hierarchical arrangements as the product of rational self-interested actors with a stake in maintaining mutually beneficial relations. To be sure, these conceptualizations of hierarchy are contingent upon an acceptance of differences of rank, grade, and status to create and maintain the idea of hierarchical relations between social groups.

Richard Ned Lebow, for example, defines hierarchy “as a rank order of statuses” (2008, p. 65). Status involves notions of honor and the privileges accorded by one’s place in a society. Hierarchy then is not necessarily reducible to a Weberian ideal type of institutionalized subordination and super-ordination of offices (i.e., a chain of command); it instead reflects the social acceptance of rank. Thus while states may pursue material goals such as security or economic maximization they may also be concerned with social standing, recognition, and their respective place in various hierarchical arrangements. Ayse Zarakol also departs from an idea of social hierarchy as reflection of social status. However, she demonstrates the “‘insider but outsider’ status” that states such as Turkey, Russia, and Japan possessed in relation to “the West” (Zarakol, 2011, p. 30). Hierarchy manifests itself as a form of stigma, which Zarakol defines as an attribute or attributes that “sets the agent apart” (2010, p. 63). Stigma represents a social relation in which (quoting Zygmunt Bauman) “the institution of stigma is eminently fit for the task of immobilizing the stranger in his identity of the excluded other” (Zarakol, 2011, p. 63).

David Kang’s East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute uses this idea of hierarchy as a relation of status to examine the East Asian tribute system. For Kang, this tribute system, in which China was identified by the states as the center, structured foreign relations between East Asian states. As Kang writes, “The emphasis on status and hierarchy pervaded not just states’ relations to China but extended to all foreign relations of the time” (2010, p. 71). Furthermore, Kang continues: “The tribute system was the regionwide political framework that allowed for diplomacy, travel, and official and private trade between all the states in the region. . . . Status in the hierarchy [of the tribute system] was a function of cultural achievement, not economic wealth or military power” (2010, p. 71). Kang’s work illustrates the importance of examining hierarchy beyond the consequences of material power or relations of authority. Status consciousness is a prevalent feature of international politics and one, more generally, reflective of a larger cultural fabric between different polities.

English School theorists have focused on theorizing the various historical state systems of states beyond that of Westphalia. Indeed, as Adam Watson notes, the Chinese tributary system is a good example of what Martin Wight originally called “suzerain” state systems. The Chinese historical example reveals how one major power “asserts unique claims which the others formally or tacitly accept” (Watson, 1990, p. 100). A suzerain state system is one in which “states relate to each other on a basis of sovereign inequality, with one state in some sense dominating the system in core-periphery fashion, both claiming, and having recognized by others, a higher status” (Buzan, 2014). Thus, in certain English School approaches there is a sharp dividing line between a purely hierarchical (i.e., hegemonic) international system and suzerain state systems (Wight, 1977; Bull, 2012, pp. 10–11). What characterizes the latter system is a general or tacit acceptance of the legitimacy of a greater power to impose specific rules (Watson, 1990, p. 106). Adam Watson, however, devotes his ambitious comparative history, The Evolution of International Society, to substantializing the British Committee on the Theory International Relations insights on hegemonic and suzerain systems (2002). For Watson, however, the sharp division between hierarchical international and suzerain systems should instead be understood as a spectrum “between absolute independence and absolute empire” (2002, p. 13). The history of systems of states reveals, Watson claims, that the ideal-types of absolute independence (i.e., sovereign equality under anarchy) and absolute empire are in fact unstable and revert to a certain mean. Watson’s spectrum is made up of five general categories: anarchy, hegemony, suzerainty, dominion, and empire. Watson thus uses the metaphor of the pendulum to illustrate the movement between these five systems:

The further the pendulum swung up the arc, either towards independent states or towards empire, the greater was the gravitational pull towards the centre, between hegemony and dominion. Sometimes the momentum of the pendulum carried it across the midpoint towards the other end of the spectrum. . . . The gravitational pull is a metaphor for what in sociological terms are the constraints exercised by the impersonal net of interests and pressures that hold the system together: constraints which become greater as a system moves towards the extremes of independences or empire. But the pendulum metaphor must be used with caution; there was no regularity in time or rhythm of the swing. (p. 122)

This idea radically challenges Waltz’s dichotomy between hierarchy and anarchical systems by instead emphasizing a degree of asymmetric relations in various historical systems. Rather than international anarchical systems’ being the norm, Watson demonstrates how hegemonic systems typically arise as a consequence of the tension between a desire for order and independence. In other words, the emergence of historically ubiquitous hierarchical forms of governance reflect system immanent tensions rather than differences of material capabilities or the establishment of authority relations. Watson’s work does point to a unique theoretical vantage point for theorizing international hierarchy (see also Buzan & Little, 2000).

A crucial point, however, emerges in Watson’s work on the subject of culture. To understand how a particular place on the spectrum emerges the coherence of the cultural framework has to be understood. As Watson assets, “I know of no international society that did not originate inside a single dominant culture” (1990, p. 101). Culture, in other words, creates the conditions for which the regulatory rules, institutions, and values emerge to govern state interactions. Watson’s emphasis on culture to describe not only different systems in Antiquity but to also shine a light on the formation of the contemporary state system is revealing insofar as it creates divisions between those that belong within a culture and those that do not. This inside/outside division for the ancient Greeks, for example, was highly hierarchical and ethnocentric. As Edward Keene notes, the ancient Greek differentiated themselves on the basis of language and considered non-Greek barbarian; Aristotle would push this even further and articulate a notion of natural slavery that would have profound consequences for European treatment of Native American during the early periods of colonization (Keene, 2005, p. 42).

The importance of cultural difference and the emergence of status hierarchy is essential for understanding the development of international law and early discussions of the emergence of a European public order (Koskenniemi, 1997). Gerry Simpson’s Great Powers and Outlaw States assumes the compatibility between anarchy and hierarchy but hierarchy “signifies the presence of formal status differentiation among the actors within a decentralized system of authority and law (i.e., constitutional or legal hierarchies . . . situated within an anarchical order”) (Simpson, 2004, p. 64). Great powers are differentiated not only in terms of their respective material capabilities but “on the basis of their moral or political qualities” (Simpson, 2004, p. 64). What Simpson terms “Legalised Hegemony” represents:

the existence within an international society of a powerful elite of states whose superior status is recognized by minor powers as a political fact giving rise to the existence of certain constitutional privileges, rights and duties and whose relations with each other are defined by adherence to a rough principle of sovereign equality. (2004, p. 68)

Simpson shows how the international legal order was historically constituted by hierarchical assumptions about the “moral nature”—among other forms—of the units comprising it (p. 6). Indeed, Simpson quotes the English legal theorist John Westlake as arguing that a society of states consists of “persons interested in maintaining the rules of good breeding . . .” (Westlake, 1914, p. 6; Simpson, 2004, p. 5).

The moral emphasis on the nature of participants in a legal order is one that has had significant consequences for the legitimation of imperial forms of hierarchy. References to the “civitas gentium maxima” were significantly skewed in favor of “Europeans and Christians over others” (Kingsbury, 1998, p. 605). Later in the 19th century, international legal discourse emphasized the “standard of civilization” as a means of distinguishing those that were considered to possess status within the legal order. Siba Grovogui, in his Sovereigns, Quasi Sovereigns, and Africans, shows how the origins of public European law was an “ordering language rather than a set of neutral and unconnected principles and doctrines” (Grovogui, 1996, p. 15). This ordering language was necessarily authoritarian, fundamentally Eurocentric, and constituted a racialized relation of alterity that was necessarily hierarchical:

It is my contention that European perceptions of the self and their metaphysical representations have been crucial to the structure of international law. They have enabled Western Christendom (and, later, the West) to create juridical instruments with which to maintain exploitative relations with other continents within the presumed universal orders. In this context, sovereignty and self-determination have reflected the dominant European culture and functioned as a mediating ideology, reconciling the juridical means for attaining hegemony with the opposing need to project the rights and obligations created for the other as objectively derived from universal values.

(Grovogui, 1996, p. 16)

In contrast to Lake’s notion of consensual authority, Grovogui demonstrates how the historical conflicts of over the temporal boundaries of ecclesiastical authority ended up legitimizing dominion over non-European peoples. The Concordat of Worms enshrined a hierarchical “political universe” that necessarily placed the Pope and European monarchs at the top of this order (Grovogui, 1996, p. 18). Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Enlightenment formed “discursive classifications of peoples and cultures into distinct species and civilizations” (Grovogui, 1996, p. 25). Such a classification scheme “justified European domination of the world by claiming European cultural supremacy and a presumed racial superiority” (Grovogui, 1996, p. 18).

Imperialism may also be understood as reply upon discursive formations that are not necessarily a consequence of unequal material capabilities. Waltz, for example, recognizes the commonality of imperialism throughout history but asserts that it is mainly a function of efficient resource exploitation (Waltz, 1979, pp. 26–27). However, the actualization of imperialism works hand in hand with a discourse of racialized hierarchy that deeply fragments the world. Imperialism during the 19th century, as Inayatullah and Blaney argue, “operated according to a ‘theory of mankind’ that distinguished between peoples based on their capacity to govern themselves and participate as civilized states within a society of states” (2004, p. 88). Robert Vitalis demonstrates how the origins of American political science are deeply entwined with a history of colonization and empire building in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. As he writes, “The white social scientists that offered their expertise to the new imperial state, and the handful of critics of the new expansionist wave, all assumed the following: hierarchy was natural, it was biologically rooted, and it could be made sense of best by such concepts as higher and lower races, natural and historic races, savagery and civilization, and the like” (Vitalis, 2010, p. 929). This racialized vision of the world would reach its apogee in European fascism and Nazi totalitarianism. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt crucially demonstrated the importance of examining the imperial context of international politics for any genealogy of Nazi totalitarianism (1994). Arendt showed how Nazi totalitarian practices were derived from hierarchical conceptions of race developed in various colonial crucibles. This point was also stressed in Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Civilization (2001) and in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, where the latter remarks that “not long ago, Nazism transformed the whole of Europe into a genuine colony” (2004, p. 101). In this context of the hierarchicalization of Europe Mark Mazower examines in his Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century the extent to which human hierarchy was internalized as a natural feature of being. He quotes one French journalist in the 1930s as arguing the following: “There are different levels among men; there is a human hierarchy. . . . This is the absolute right of human civilization when the hour comes to impose itself upon barbarism” (2000, p. 73). Mazower goes on to discuss how Nazi Germany’s vision of international politics does not easily fit into an anarchical conception of international politics. While IR theorists tend to see continuities in German policy between Bismarck and Hitler (see, e.g., Mearsheimer, 2001), Mazower argues that Hitler’s ambition was not simply a restoration of Germany pre-1914; rather, Hitler’s “imperial programme flowed naturally from his broader vision of politics as racial struggle. Such a struggle—seen in Darwinian terms as an existential battle—implied a hierarchical vision of international (or, better, interracial) relations” (2000, p. 69).

The “ordering language” that formed the crucial background for an imperial global politics of hierarchy further reveals a significant connection between norms, identity, and hierarchy. W.E.B. DuBois famously remarked in the early 20th century, for example, that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (quoted in Anievas, Manchanda, & Shilliam, 2014, p. 1). Seeing the division of the world in terms of race reveals a different type of political architecture than traditional representations based on anarchy (Hobson, 2012, p. 185ff). Here the history of the Western imperial project should be seen as a vital feature for understanding the contemporary world. On the one hand, postcolonial approaches to international relations theory that put forward the claim that “conquest, colonialism and empire are not a footnote or episode in a larger story, such as that of capitalism, modernity or the expansion of international society, but are in fact a central part of that story and are constitutive of it” (Seth, 2011, p. 174). Western imperialism was obviously possible because of significant material capabilities that allowed it to colonize much of the planet at its apogee in the late 19th century. Violence was at the heart of this imperial project—something that English School accounts of the emergence of a global society tend to neglect (Seth, 2011, p. 171).

On the other hand, postcolonial approaches to international relations recognize how such ideas (i.e., race) or come to justify, legitimize, and reproduce international hierarchical relations based on assumptions about the universality of the European/Western political experience. In its diverse ways postcolonial approaches to IR continue to illuminate not only how the political hierarchies crystalized through violence and characterize past and present but the enduring ways in which Eurocentric assumptions structures international thought (Hobson, 2012; Connell, 2007). As Gurminder Bhambra notes, Eurocentrism is “the belief, implicit, or otherwise in the world historical significance of events belied to have developed endogenously with the cultural-geographical sphere of Europe” (2009, p. 4; see also Quijano, 2000, p. 541). In other words, postcolonial approaches have sought to challenge the traditional view of Europe rise outside a global history of empire. Moreover, Eurocentric IR translates its assumptions about the universality of the West into a normative hierarchy. For example, Turan Kayaoglu, argued that much of the current literature on norm diffusion assumes that Western states represent the source of normative power whereas the rest of the world adopts the Western position. For Kayaoglu,

Western states produce norms, principles, and institutions of international society and non-Western states lack these until they are socialized into the norms, principles, and institutions of international society. In this perspective, international society is a normative hierarchy assumed to reflect the natural division of labor in international relations. (2010, p. 194)

Ann Towns’s work shows how this connection works when it comes to the normative status of women historically and in the 21st century. Towns’s framework for understanding the social hierarchicalization of international politics assumes that “norms are essentially about value, as they validate certain kinds of behavior for specific sorts of actors and devalue other sorts of behaviors” (Towns, 2010, p. 44). Norms then should also be understood as a set of “relational stratification processes” that defines the social arrangement of diverse actors. The constitutive and, importantly, regulative dimension of norms are then a measure of what is “normal and abnormal”; norms are thus always an historical fact in constituting social hierarchies. “Norms,” Towns states, “inevitably generate comparative judgment” among actors (Towns, 2010, p. 46). The process of constituting agency through norms should be understood as constituting stratification and hierarchy.

Practices of international hierarchy may constitute themselves beyond imbalances or asymmetries of material capabilities; nor are they necessarily reducible to particular social arrangements of authority. Hierarchy can also be grounded on what Grovogui called an “ordered language” (1996, p. 15) that renders the world intelligible. This order language is not based on a positivist representation of the world; rather, it has historically reflected what John Hobson refers to a parochial theoretical vantage point (Hobson, 2012, p. 18). Thus whether in terms of status, rank, or whether reflective of a wider discourse of “civilized” versus “uncivilized” (or the manner in which norms reify hierarchy) language becomes co-opted to make hierarchy appear natural.

Direction of Future Research

The good news in recent years is the increasing turn of scholarly attention to the concept of hierarchy in international relations theory. Stanley Hoffmann’s original lament about the lack of theoretical attention placed on hierarchical forms of international social arrangements is being addressed. In part, this attention placed on hierarchy should be seen as the product of a potentially enduring unipolar moment in global politics. Nonetheless, the concern with hierarchy should not be seen as simply reducible to contemporary times. A greater awareness has emerged of the hierarchical forms that global politics has taken in previous periods because of its imperial nature (Osterhammel, 2014, chapter 8). As a result, new theoretical avenues of research on hierarchy have emerged to make it a vibrant domain.

Alexander Cooley’s The Logic of Hierarchy: The Organization of Empires, States, and Military Occupations integrates insights from organizational theory in management studies to theorize hierarchy (2005). Cooley defines hierarchy, following David Lake, “as a condition of relational power in which the dominant polity ‘possess the right to make residual decisions while the other party—the subordinate member—lacks this right’” (2005, p. 5; see also Lake, 1996, p. 7). However, Cooley advances this understanding of hierarchy based on authority by distinguishing between its “unitary form” and its “multidivisional form.” On the one hand, a “unitary form” of hierarchy reflects the standard representation of hierarchy of a centralized power to organize its subordinate or peripheral elements. On the other, the multilevel form creates an organizational structure that is more decentralized (a “hub-and-spoke” system), which is more characteristic of imperial administration (Cooley, 2005, p. 26). One merit of Cooley’s approach is to systematize the study of hierarchy into testable propositions that will push the empirical analysis of hierarchy but also as far as what happens to political institutions once hierarchy is dismantled.

Another early-21st-century approach of theorizing hierarchy is from Daniel Nexon. In his book The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires and International Change, Nexon showed how early modern Europe does not adequately fit the realist conception of states under anarchy; rather, early modern Europe instead resembled “star-shaped networks,” which implies a form of political organization that was hierarchical but disjointed (2009, p. 99). What is interesting in Nexon’s theoretical framework is this emphasis on network as a key theoretical move in defining social arrangements. For Nexon, networks are essentially “patterns of ties,” and such patterns have different attributes “such as the density and distribution of social interactions, the location and direction of super and subordinate relationships, and so forth” (2009, p. 25). There is, therefore, an important conceptual relationship between networks and hierarchy especially as it pertains to understanding the functionality and hierarchy of empire. Imperial historians have fruitfully utilized the concept of network to discuss core-periphery patterns of relations but also relations between different peripheries (Ward, 2009; Lester, 2001; Crosbie, 2011; for a critique of social network theory and its application to history see Mulich, 2013). Nexon (with co-author Thomas Wright), advances this way of examining imperial networks and attributes in their essay “What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate.” Here Nexon and Wright use the idea of “network structures,” which reflect “pattern[s] of symbolic and material transactions (“ties”) between actors” to redefine the conceptual relationship hierarchy and anarchy (Nexon & Wright, 2007, p. 255). Nexon and Wright move beyond notions of material capabilities to examine what constitutes social ties of imperial orders. Given that their main focus is on elucidating the network structure of imperial order, Nexon and Wright demonstrate how the imperial ideal type constituted by informal rule and of divide and rule between peripheral agents precludes balancing coalitions from emerging. Imperial orders thus constitute a structuring principle of international politics that is, importantly, distinct from anarchy in its scope but especially in its social relations (see also Nexon, 2009).

Lastly, Nick Onuf’s tripartite conceptualization of rule may be a fruitful area of further research on international hierarchy. In his World of Our Making, Onuf develops the relationship between a notion of rules—as instruction rules, directive rules, and commitment-rules—which constitute in particular types of rule (1989, p. 206ff). Instruction rules, which are designed to enable agents to possess status, can be conceptualized as one type of hierarchical social arrangement (i.e., hegemony). Directive rules define offices and thus an organization. Directive rules are more commonly associated with the workings of a hierarchical organization, particularly when they are given legal force. Finally, commitment rules define the roles that agents play. Commitment rules define a “voluntary” performance and hence reflect a horizontal equality among agents (Onuf, 1989, p. 70). Onuf associated heteronomy with the capacity to act under conditions of restraint (i.e., action is already contingent upon the recognition of other actors, as opposed to autonomous agency). Nonetheless, Onuf argues that commitment rules are also important insofar as “formal commitment-rules mostly seem to reinforce formal hierarchy. They do so by granting officers well- defined powers to help them issue orders and carry them out, and by granting agents well-defined rights to help protect them from officers abusing their powers” (Onuf, 1989, p. 76). One way of better theorizing the relationships between formal hierarchy, authority, and the social roles assumed in these conditions may be through explicating the myriad of commitment rules that agents subscribe to and act upon.


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