The International Society – World Society Distinction
Summary and Keywords
The English School, or society of states approach, is a threefold method for understanding how the world operates. According to English School logic, there are three distinct spheres at play in international politics, and two of these are international society and world society—the third being international system. On the one hand, international society (Hugo Grotius) is about the institutionalization of shared interest and identity amongst states, and rationalism puts the creation and maintenance of shared norms, rules, and institutions at the centre of international relations (IR) theory. This position has some parallels to regime theory, but is much deeper, having constitutive rather than merely instrumental implications. On the other hand, world society (Immanuel Kant) takes individuals, non-state organizations, and the global population as a whole as the focus of global societal identities and arrangements, and revolutionism puts transcendence of the state system at the centre of IR theory. Revolutionism is mostly about forms of universalist cosmopolitanism. This position has some parallels to transnationalism but carries a much more foundational link to normative political theory. International society has been the main focus of English School thinking, and the concept is quite well developed and relatively clear, whereas world society is the least well developed of the English School concepts and has not yet been clearly or systematically articulated.
The ideas of international society and world society are both essential elements of the English School approach to theorizing international relations (IR). Alongside the concept of international system they form the classic tripartite analytical framework that the English School deploys. While international system addresses a Hobbesian-style world of state-based power politics, international society and world society establish the English School as offering a distinctive sociological element to international relations theory (Krasner 1999:43). International society retains the state-based approach, but addresses the development, nature, and purpose of rules, institutions, and behavioral norms amongst states, typically focusing on the attainment of order understood not just as patterned and recurrent behavior, but also as a value (Bull 1977a). World society adds non-state actors such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to the subjects under consideration and offers a perspective focused on individual human beings and the idea of a global human community (Wight 1991). However, while the concept of international society is the school’s principal contribution to IR theory, and is the subject of extensive and detailed discussion (e.g., Roberson 1998; Buzan 2004; Bellamy 2005), world society is far less thoroughly investigated, with Buzan (2004) arguably providing the first effort at a comprehensive treatment.
Therefore, while there has been a degree of consensus about the meaning of international society and world society in English School theory and the relationship between the two, this has been dominated by a perspective that focuses on the international society side of the division. The exact meaning and content of the world society category has been comparatively vague and therefore an assessment of the divide between these two faces a challenge in knowing precisely what lies on one side of this boundary. There is a clearer sense of what world society is not, rather than what it is. While necessitating some definitional work, the rather blurred nature of the divide also offers positive potential for seeking to create a greater degree of clarity in debate, aiding the task of conceptual specification. Additionally, the idea of a divide may need to give way to the potential for connection between international society and world society (e.g., Clark 2007). The English School traditionally sees both as being in play in the theory and the practice of international relations, and therefore the a priori idea of a clear divide between the two threatens to prejudge an outcome that will be more nuanced and include notions of connection and interaction as well as division.
This essay will proceed by firstly looking at where there is agreement about the two concepts and their relationship to one another. This will focus on their roles within the overall theoretical schema of the English School, including the analytical and normative significance attached to each concept. Secondly, the major areas of contention will be considered, focusing on the extent to which one is analytically and/or normatively prior to the other. Thirdly, looking at current research stressing the growing significance of world society will clarify how and why it is that international society and world society are increasingly coming to be seen as connected, rather than divided, as a result of the range of empirical changes understood under the broad heading of globalization and through methodological reformulation within the English School.
International Society and World Society Within English School Theory: Consensus
The idea of an international society–world society distinction became most firmly established in English School theory via the work of Martin Wight (1991), who established the idea of three “traditions” in the 1950s. Wight’s tripartite structure has remained immensely influential within English School work and contributed in central ways to the development of the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics which provided the bedrock for the development of the English School from the 1950s to the mid-1980s (Dunne 1998; Vigezzi 2005). The basis of Wight’s distinction lay in two defining aspects of these concepts, one focused on actors, the second on the normative character of these different societal realms.
Wight (1991:1–2, 30–48), in common with almost all English School writers (e.g., Bull 1977a:8–20), describes international society as being dominated by states as the fundamental actors. International society is a society of states, rather than one of individual human beings or other sociologically significant groups, like nations, religions, or any other form of collectivity. As such, and in common with a shared English School account of the historical development and expansion of international society (Bull and Watson 1984; Watson 1992; Buzan and Little 2000), the origins of this society of states can be traced back to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe and in particular the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 that brought to an end the wars of religion that had decimated much of central Europe for the previous 30 years. The account of the expansion of international society provided by the English School is contentious, particularly in the way that the idea of a society of states as the centerpiece of post-1648 history downplays the diversity of political forms in the world throughout the great majority of this period, especially colonies and other hierarchical relationships (e.g., Keene 2002). Nevertheless, the globalization of the society of states embedded the primary and privileged position of states in the international order, focusing the English School on international society as the key analytical, explanatory, and normative category in its taxonomy of international system, international society, and world society.
The defining feature of international society is the extent and nature of the norms that both constitute and regulate the relationships between states. States exist as a result of shared agreements and understandings about the concept of sovereignty that establishes, via mutual recognition, the central defining features of statehood: territoriality, domestic supremacy, and international autonomy. The norm of sovereignty is thus constitutive of the central actors of international society – states – and defines them in ways that create the central problem that international society’s other regulative norms are designed to address: how to manage the problem of coexistence in the absence of overarching authority. The anarchy problem is thus understood in the English School in a sharply different way to that prevalent in most realist, and especially neorealist, accounts, where it is seen as a material feature of world politics derived from the existence of states and the uneven distribution of key resources (e.g., Waltz 1979). The English School’s sociological conception of anarchy thus marks it out from realism, of which it is occasionally, if erroneously, seen as a branch (e.g., Callahan 2004). This is emphasized in Bull and Watson’s (1984:1) classic definition of an international society as:
A group of states (or more generally a group of independent political communities) which not merely form a system, in the sense that the behaviour of each is a necessary factor in the calculations of the others, but also have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognise their common interest in maintaining these relations.
Thus the idea of “international system” here is more closely aligned with the materially based and structurally induced pattern of security maximization associated with realism. However, as Buzan (2004:99–107) has recently made clear, following Alan James (1993), the existence of such systems is exceptionally rare and almost all historically existing patterns of interstate (or inter-independent political community) relations are constituted by some sort of norm-based recognition of the relative status of the protagonists and regulatory rules that limit acceptable conduct in certain ways. The basic purpose of these is to enable international society to generate the condition of order.
Within the English School, Bull (1977a:4–8) offers the classic account of which rules and norms are required and how we recognize the presence of order in interstate society:
[O]rder[…]is not any pattern or regularity in the relations of human individuals or groups, but a pattern that leads to a particular result, an arrangement of social life such that it promotes certain goals or values.[…][C]ertain of these goals stand out as elementary or primary, inasmuch as their fulfilment in some measure is a condition not merely of this or that social life, but of social life as such.[…][A]ll societies recognise these goals and embody arrangements that promote them. First all societies seek to ensure that life will be in some measure secure against violence resulting in death or bodily harm. Second all societies seek to ensure that promises, once made, will be kept or agreements, once undertaken, will be carried out. Third, all societies pursue the goal of ensuring that the possession of things will remain stable to some degree and will not be subject to challenges that are constant and without limit. By order in social life I mean a pattern of activity that sustains elementary, primary or universal goals of social life such as these.[…]By international order, I mean a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states, or international society.
This classic definition gives us a fairly clear idea of the sociological basis of the English School’s idea of international society and enables us to differentiate it from an international system in English School theory and the kind of materialist, structural accounts. It also holds out the potential for historical and comparative analysis looking at how different international societies have operated to help us understand the diversity of ways in which these “primary or universal” goals have been fulfilled and the distinctiveness of the society of states in comparison with societies of individual human beings (Watson 1992; Buzan and Little 2000). The analytical utility of the concept is not matched by predictive power, however. While the historical record suggests that international societies are almost ubiquitous, there is nothing in the English School concept that enables us to predict the form of rules that will operate within an international society or how durable such societies will be.
The principal partial exception to this is Adam Watson’s (1992) historically based idea of a “pendulum” theory in which world orders characterized by universal empire at one extreme and radically independent states at the other are typically unstable. He argues that across the span of the recorded history of international societies there is a tendency for the pendulum to swing away from these extremes and toward a middle position characterized as “hegemonial,” if closer to radical independence for the units, or “suzerain,” if closer to the imperial system of formal hierarchy. Watson’s account of international society is therefore important for asserting the significance of degrees of hierarchy, and for seeing the contemporary insistence of sovereign equality as an example of an unusual and unstable radical independence-type structure.
Ian Clark’s (2005) analysis of the concept of legitimacy in international society also offers some, if fairly scant, hope for those who see predictive power as a key theoretical virtue. His analysis of key historical transitions in the constitutive principles of international society – its legitimacy – highlights the dynamic nature of this process and the way in which a marked disparity between the formally stated principles and law of an international society and key social and political dynamics is a recipe for instability and likely to result, ultimately, in a reconstituting of the constellation of rules, principles, and norms that grant international society its legitimacy.
The extent of examination of international society in both historical and theoretical terms available within the English School is not matched by the examination given to world society. Bull (1977a:279) offers one of the very few self-conscious definitions of the concept to be found in classic English School literature:
By a world society we understand not merely a degree of interaction linking all parts of the human community to one another, but a sense of common interest and common values on the basis of which common rules and institutions may be built. The concept of world society, in this sense, stands to the totality of global social interaction as our concept of international society stands to the concept of the international system.
Again, the sociological, norm-governed and institutional dimensions of the English School approach to international relations are present and prominent. The principal distinction being drawn between international and world society, in analytical terms, at least, is the scale at which it exists. World society is based upon human beings, rather than states. The idea of “parts of the human community” holds the door open to consider other non-state actors and sociological and political scales, too, but, as we shall see, these have tended to be overshadowed by the focus on the universal community of humanity in most accounts. The legacy of Martin Wight (1991) is an important element of this, for in his classic discussion of three traditions of international system, international society, and world society, the last of these is principally discussed in terms of human beings and linked to a transformation of the present international society, underpinning his designation of this approach as “revolutionist” or “Kantian.”
This labeling shows Wight’s view of the unlikelihood of world politics developing in such a way that world society could become an accurate descriptive term. With the classic English School works of the British Committee (e.g., Butterfield and Wight 1966) and other participants in the English School outside of the British Committee (e.g., Manning 1962) being developed in the shadow of the Cold War, this is hardly surprising. Whatever rhetorical commitments might have been made to universals by both US- and Soviet-led sides, the era was hardly conducive to human-centric views of international politics. Indeed, many English School accounts, most strikingly Bull’s (1977a:38–40, 257–60, 315–17; Buzan 2004:212–17), portray the Cold War as a period when even the existence of international society was under threat because of the superpowers’ ideological hostility and potentially reckless commitment to a power-political perspective.
What is most significant about the role of world society in the English School is not the analytical power of the idea as a way to understand the operation of world politics, however. The central element of Wight’s embedding of the idea in the English School’s theoretical perspective was that such ideas were always in play in world politics and influential in normative debates about the directions in which world politics ought to be moving. Thus, while the Cold War was a low point for world society’s influence, this perspective had not been knocked out of the game and arguments for human-focused politics, whether based on universal and individual rights or some other perspective, retained their purchase at the very least in normative terms. The power of visions of global political systems, and competition over the foundational bases of such systems, remained a feature of political and intellectual discourse and debate. Clark’s (2007) study of legitimacy in world society, a counterpart to his analysis of legitimacy in international society (2005), shows how other non-state-based political claims, including some of universal normative scope, entered into the rules and norms governing the behavior of states, affecting the constitutive principles of international society, and also how non-state actors maintained a role in monitoring compliance. His key examples include the abolition of the slave trade and notions of racial equality and human rights.
This idea of a constant interplay between international system, international society, and world society secures a role for a world society understood in terms of human-focused structures and processes in all international theory claiming the tag “English School.” One of the strengths of this approach has been the ability of English School theory to respond to political changes and developments that have propelled human-focused issues up the international political agenda since the end of the Cold War. The ideas of international society and world society provide a vocabulary and set of analytical concepts able to respond to changes in international politics. The ability to predict the timing and extent of such changes may elude the English School, but predictive power has never been a key theoretical claim made by the school (Bull 1969; Buzan 2004:24–7), to the chagrin of some critics (Copeland 2003), but this analytical inclusivity has seemed to many proponents of the English School to outweigh the problems posed by an inability to theorize change seen as bedeviling realism and other materialist theories of international relations.
Key examples of this ability include ways in which the development of debates over distributive justice, and demands by less developed states for a redistributive New International Economic Order in the 1970s and 1980s, pushed even those skeptical about the significance of world society in an era dominated by superpower stand-off to think seriously about the implications of a more cosmopolitan and global perspective for the ability of international society to deliver order (Bull 2000a). Others, led by John Vincent (1986), argued for the growing acceptance and significance of human rights as a way to stress the influence and importance of world society and the changing balance between an order-focused society of states and a conception of justice that could be best understood in relation to individual human beings. This points to a theoretical issue where the clarity of the distinction between international society and world society is lacking. For Vincent, world society appears to be ontologically distinctive from international society, because not only are different actors in the foreground, but also their identity is different – human rights matter because they establish the centrality of individuals qua individuals, rather than, for example, individuals only possessing political significance through their citizenship of states. This contrasts with an alternative account that sees global-level rules and practices as being the defining feature of world society, and while Bull’s definition, quoted above, suggests that he recognized the ontological claim of world society, his limited discussions of the application of the concept (2000a) point to his having had a greater interest in this more limited sense. The end of the Cold War and debates through the 1990s, in particular over humanitarian intervention, in part reflect this potential confusion. English School scholars were prominent in debates over humanitarian intervention (e.g., Wheeler 2000) and close similarities between their work and major international policy statements (e.g., ICISS 2001) are striking. It is also apparent in both, however, that there is a tension between a potentially radical ontological recharacterization of world society and a desire to identify rules and practices that would not make impossible political demands on the dominant international society.
Much of this work has, nevertheless, stressed both the growing significance of world society and its ethically cosmopolitan nature, exemplified by work on human rights and humanitarian intervention (Dunne and Wheeler 1999; Wheeler 2000). This has reinforced what has come to be seen as a central distinction to be drawn between international society and world society and one that leads directly to the normative dimensions of the two concepts, a key element of English School theory as a whole. The pluralist–solidarist debate has come to be tied tightly to the ideas of international society and world society respectively (Buzan 2004:45–61). Pluralists (e.g., Bull 1977a; Jackson 2000; Mayall 2000) stress the lack of consensus on moral and ethical questions in international relations, seeing the society of states as enabling not only the generation of order in conditions of anarchy, but also order in conditions of ethical diversity. The lack of consensus on even basic questions about the moral standing of human beings, let alone complex questions of justice, means that efforts to promote particular understandings of justice involve imposition and coercion. In the absence of sufficiently convincing grounds for asserting the superiority of one ethical schema over another, the only acceptable way forward is to agree to disagree. International society operates as a modus vivendi between diverse states. Actions, such as intervention in defense of human rights, disrupt this agreement and potentially threaten the basis of order amongst states by challenging sovereignty as the constitutive norm of international society. Pluralists offer different reasons for their pluralism, ranging from a philosophically based moral skepticism, especially toward natural law and natural rights, on the part of Hedley Bull (1962:20–1; 2000a:12; Jeffery 2008) through to more historical and empirically argued accounts (Jackson 2000; Mayall 2000), but this normative argument has come to be seen as closely tied to the more constitutive and regulatory aspects of pluralism. Moral skepticism, or at least skepticism about universal moralities, is a necessary conclusion in light of the empirical reality of ethical diversity in the world and its durability.
World society has, on the other hand, come to be associated with moral cosmopolitanism. Within the English School, the label “solidarism” has increasingly come to be used in this context, too, although its original usage (Bull 2000b) emphasized a commitment by states to enforce international law as the defining feature of solidarism, making solidarism an aspect of international society. Cosmopolitan or solidarist accounts, such as Vincent (1986) or Wheeler (2000), have emphasized the significance of human rights, appealing to both the ethical power of such claims and also the evidence of their growing importance and acceptance within international relations via the extent and significance of human rights declarations and the expansion of international humanitarian law. This does not rule out support for the original, more limited, account, of course, with Wheeler (2000) clearly interested in the enforcement of human rights laws by states, for example. Clark (2007) shows that the ability of world society to influence international society in ethically cosmopolitan directions is not only a recent phenomenon, with anti-slavery standing as an earlier example. Other cosmopolitans, most notably Andrew Linklater (Linklater 1998; Linklater and Suganami 2006:155–88) have deployed alternative cosmopolitan notions, such as discourse ethics and sociological notions of harm, as a way to ground universal ethics and to highlight the distinction between world society as ethically superior to international society. Again, we see here the blending of historical and comparative analysis and a normative agenda that is characteristic of English School theory, with solidarists not just assessing the existence and influence of these developments but actively advocating for them as desirable and progressive.
The agreement over the assignment of pluralism as the normative character of international society and solidarism as the normative character of world society is not without its critics (e.g., Williams 2002; 2005), and the quality of normative theory within the English School has also been far from immune from criticism (e.g., Rengger 2000; 2006), but it does represent an area of general agreement about how we can understand the division between international society and world society. The ability to argue powerfully for a normative division between these two concepts, and the widespread agreement on this characterization, in addition to the analytical distinction drawn in terms of actors, highlights how the idea of separation is the characteristic representation of the relationship between these two concepts. However, consideration of their connection enables us to address one of the key areas of dispute in debates about international society and world society, moving us to the next section of this essay.
International Society and World Society within English School Theory: Disagreement
Bull’s (1977a) seminal account of international society is also important for the way that it aims to break, or at least dramatically downgrade, one of the ways in which Wight had established a connection between international society and world society. This creates arguably the key divide in English School theory about the relationship between the two: whether or not world society is prior to international society or vice versa, or if they exist, at least analytically, independently of one another.
For Wight (1977:33–4), the existence of an international society required a degree of common culture or civilization upon which the shared rules and norms could be developed and which would grant to international society the basis for shared values. This serves to render international society at least in part dependent on world society. However, Wight notes (1977:34) that what he calls a “common code” amongst states may develop at a different rate from “common assumptions of a deeper kind, religious or ideological” that underpins common culture or civilization. Bull’s (1977a:21, 38–9, 280; 2000a:213–27) more structurally focused account of international society downplays this claim considerably. Indeed, he was skeptical as to the existence of any meaningful element of world society in the post-World War II world. The onset of decolonization in particular had so expanded the range of cultures represented, even if imperfectly in many cases, within international society that he saw the post-1945 international society as being almost acivilizational and detached from a deeply weakened notion of shared civilization that had established important buttresses for the European international society that had been globalized via colonialism and decolonization.
Instead, international society had become largely detached from what Buzan (2004:120 passim) has described as the “inter-human” realm that was so important to the definition of world society that Bull deployed. International society is a “second-order” (Buzan 2004:25–6, 188–90) society in the sense that its members are collectives, in this case states, rather than individuals, who remain objects, but not subjects, of international society. This helps to explain the, on the face of it, highly unusual list of institutions of international society that Bull sets out in detail in The Anarchical Society (1977a:101–232). War, the balance of power, diplomacy, international law, and the responsibilities of the great powers not only stand out for their understanding of the concept of institutions – they are established bodies of practice as opposed to formalized bureaucratic organizations like the United Nations or International Monetary Fund – but also as challenges to what would typically be regarded as normatively progressive. Certainly Bull’s list stands against a UN Charter predicated upon the doctrine of sovereign equality and a mission to, in the words of the Preamble, “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Yet Bull was unashamed in his defense of the need for these institutions to deliver order amongst states, and that this would have to take priority over justice for individuals (Bull 1971; 1977a:77–100). Bull offers a few, often commented upon, hints that he sees world society as in some sense morally prior, if not analytically prior, to international society (Bull 1977a:22; 2000a:222, 225; Wheeler and Dunne 1996) but the general sense of his position is that he is deeply skeptical about the plausibility, or even possibility, of moral claims providing foundations for theorizing (Bull 1965:20–1; 2000a:11–13; Jeffery 2008).
Contemporary pluralists like Robert Jackson (2000) restate this position and in general without the ambiguity detectable in Bull. It is a mistake, they argue, to confuse the international society of (and for) states with a world society predicated upon universal claims about human beings. To act as though the latter existed in the face of overwhelming, in their eyes, evidence that it does not is foolhardy in the extreme. So, for example, Jackson (2000:249–93) opposes the solidarist cause célèbre of the 1990s – a limited right to humanitarian intervention – because it imperils the existence of the international society that provides the bedrock of order in international relations, threatening to bring about the collapse of the rules that protect us from the unfettered effects of an anarchic international system in the name of a partial (in both senses) claim about justice for individuals.
This emphasis on division between international and world society reinforces two of the areas of consensus: firstly the idea of a distinction between the historical/comparative analytical element of the English School and the normative agenda; and, secondly, the connection of international society with order and world society with justice. However, it is important not to forget Martin Wight’s (1991) emphasis upon the ever-present interplay of world society with international society and international system and the way in which he argues for at least some degree of world society being a necessary prerequisite for the existence of international society (Wight 1977). Wight’s approach, with its more historical and sociological emphasis, compared with Bull’s structural bias, has arguably lost a good deal of its influence in recent years, in part in response to the dominance of structural approaches to theorizing international relations as a whole. Nevertheless, Wight’s work does hold influence not just in the development of the English School but also in more contemporary theorizing which has, most notably via Andrew Linklater’s recent work (Linklater and Suganami 2006) made significant use of historical sociology to push forward arguments in favor of the embedded significance of culture and civilization in understanding the normative potential of the English School. The status of world society is thus once again under debate and its role in relation to international society contested.
There is much of significance in this dispute over whether or not world society is prior to international society or if the latter can exist largely independent of almost any element of the former. A “Wightian” position would enable the English School to make a contribution to the sorts of “civilizational” debates sparked by the still influential position of Samuel Huntington (1996) on the nature of contemporary international order. The idea of a “clash of civilizations” producing ultimately irreconcilable conflicts that may present threats to the very existence of such groups clearly stands against the development of world society and with it the possibility of lasting and durable order amongst states via international society. The conflictual nature of international relations posited by realism is confirmed, although the English School’s explanations for it are markedly different, stemming not from weaknesses in human nature, ideological conflict, or the power- and security-maximizing imperatives of anarchy (Waltz 1959), but instead from an absence of shared values amongst societies. Again, Wight’s sociological and historical interests, combined with his pessimistic assessment of international relations, deeply influenced by a Christian faith that stressed notions of the Fall and of the sinfulness of human beings (Bull 1977b:3–5, 11–15), grant us perspective on such arguments.
The “Realist” strand of English School theory can thus also be read as contributing to the recent turn to the idea of tragedy in reconsiderations of classical Realist theory (Lebow 2003). Wight’s (1966) famous analysis of the poverty of international theory, in comparison to the richness of theorizing politics within the political community, rested on a claim about the “recurrence and repetition” of the international arena rooted in a tragic inability to break a cycle of violence and insecurity. This is not for want of trying, but the means available, particularly the tendency for international societies to succumb to efforts at creating universal empires (Wight 1977:43–5), produce counterproductive results. Sociological bases and a moral voice in both Wight and Bull that has been characterized as “anti-Pelagian” (Bull 1977b:11; Rengger 2006) – opposed to the idea that by trying our best and meaning well things will tend to come right – ensures that ambitions for radical remakings of the world are fraught with danger.
In relation to the prior nature of world society to international society, therefore, the arguments led by Wight in favor of this claim do not necessarily result in optimism about the future. The analytical approach again clashes with the normative in the sense that analysis of the historical record produces assertions about recurrence and repetition of the tragic pattern of international relations, while the normative tells us that we need an element of shared civilization if we are to escape the worst excesses of international politics via international society and if we are to maintain our hopes of a universal future in which the cycle of tragedy can be broken.
The diversity of values in different human societies therefore becomes a profound normative challenge, and one that Wight was generally fairly pessimistic about the chances of overcoming. Without the solidity of common culture, civilization and values underpinning efforts by states to find means of attaining order in their relations, the prospects of entrenching a durable set of rules and norms is greatly reduced. Wight’s Christian pessimism (Bull 1977b:3–5, 11–15), along with the politics of the Cold War, might in part account for this, but contemporary solidarists have used Wight’s analysis of the necessarily prior nature of an element of world society as part of an argument in favor of normatively driven change in international relations.
This has necessitated a break with his “recurrence and repetition” reading of history, but not with Wight’s normative argument for the necessary and prior nature of world society. Pushing forward a line importantly indebted to John Vincent (1986), contemporary solidarists have emphasized the connections between order and justice, on the basis that a stable and durable international order amongst states is impossible in the absence of a degree of justice for human beings. Where there is gross injustice, principally in the form of massive human rights violations by brutal and repressive governments, then justice demands that the protection of sovereignty, and its corollary of non-intervention, is suspended.
This kind of liberal account of world society, privileging human rights, has many appeals and attractions, as well as inevitably being subject to a range of critiques, but the main issue at stake in the debate within the English School is not the defensibility of its ethical theory. Instead, what these moves do is to reconnect world society to international society by emphasizing a particular understanding of the moral nature and purpose of the state (Reus-Smit 1999), putting the idea of the “good state” back at the heart of theorizing international relations, and seeing such activity as inevitably and inherently possessing moral significance derived from values that underpin such societies, picking up another Wightian theme (Bull 1977b:17).
The contemporary solidarist stress on the moral primacy of individual human beings reduces the significance of the state as the principal actor in international relations. Its purpose becomes the protection and promotion of the interests of its citizens, and where it fails to fulfill this goal, or where it is actively preventing the attainment of such goals, then its claim to authority falls into doubt (Wheeler 2000:33–52). Clearly, therefore, the fundamental constitutive norm of international society – a largely unqualified notion of the sovereignty of states – loses its status as the bedrock for normative theory about international relations. Sovereign states and the international society that they form remain important, but they have to be judged against more fundamental principles rooted in the value of individual human beings and thus the creation of order cannot be defended should it result in intolerable injustice.
World society on this perspective is clearly of a different degree of normative importance to the pluralist portrayal of it as a highly improbable aspiration whose attainment is subject to the needs of an international society of sovereign states. The historically prior claim for world society of Wight is augmented by a normatively prior claim. This clearly challenges the logic of those accounts that stress international society and see no necessary requirement for a significant element of world society before international society can exist. Incremental and tentative progress toward recognizing and protecting the status of individuals may be possible, mainly via the development of international humanitarian law and other legal initiatives, such as the International Criminal Court, should such initiatives prove able to attract consensus and the involvement of the major powers. The role of international law and an interest in actors other than states is a characteristic of English School theory (e.g., Hurrell 2007; Clark 2007).
For pluralists, the transformation in the underpinning constitutive norms of sovereignty, non-intervention, and territoriality identified and pursued by solidarists is truly revolutionary, recalling Wight’s labeling, and likely to result in such a destabilizing of international society as to pitch international relations into the kind of general, system-wide war that international society specifically exists to try to avoid. Catastrophic breakdowns in international order cannot be countenanced in the name of an idea of justice that is contested and specific. As a result, the normative status of world society must remain weak and cannot be considered as providing justification for radical innovations in international law or practice. World society is thus secondary to, even derivative from, a prior and necessary international society predicated upon the delivery of order as both an analytical description of a pattern of behavior and a normative proposition (Williams 2006).
This position, principally indebted to Hedley Bull, is stated starkly here for the purposes of highlighting the contrast with the alternative outlined above. There is a shading and uncertainty in Bull about the relationship between shared cultural and civilizational values and the possibility of international society (e.g., Alderson and Hurrell 2000:4, 6–7) but his focus on analyzing and exploring the international society of the Cold War and of the era of decolonization leads him to stress the radical decline of civilizational homogeneity that had characterized the nineteenth-century European society of states to the point whereby any claims to universal human values were verging on the empirically spurious. Therefore, the focus is on the autonomy of international society in the face of well-developed ideological and power-political hostility between the superpowers and enormous diversity in the values proclaimed by the various nations and societies represented in the society of states. This inevitably results in a stress on the distinctiveness of the rules, norms, and institutions that both constitute and regulate international society, separating it from alternative visions of order predicated on individual humans. Thus institutions such as war and the balance of power are not examples of the moral inferiority of international society, but of its moral separateness. States are not people, the individual analogy holds only weakly, if at all, and while the historical record may suggest that the most durable and successful international societies have been built on comparatively strong civilizational bases, this does not have to be the case. Shared interests can induce powerful drives to cooperate, as liberal institutionalism argues, but, more than this, the very idea of an international society rests on shared constitutive rules and norms that engender such interests. This does not mean that international society necessarily accepts the moral standing of individual human beings as the basis upon which shared interests and values rest. States as corporate moral agents provide a perfectly viable alternative perspective and one which is particularly suited to a culturally diverse, ideologically splintered and strategically strained environment.
This idea of the contested nature of the relationship between international society and world society rests on a statist approach to international relations, with historical analysis such as Clark’s (2007) stressing the necessity of normative initiative arising from world society gaining purchase on state practice if they are to become influential. The principal players involved are states, and the institutions and organizations that are considered are also state-based. It has become something of a commonplace to criticize English School theory for its lack of interest in economic matters and Barry Buzan (2004:15–23, 207–11) has added to this by emphasizing a lack of regional perspective, as well. Given the inescapable debates about the nature and significance of globalization it is striking that even relatively recent contributions, such as Jackson’s major study (2000), should neglect the concept almost entirely. We have already seen how solidarist advocates of the growing importance of world society have deployed ethically cosmopolitan notions in order to make the case for the growing constitutive, analytical, and normative significance of universal human rights as a global phenomenon. This leads toward the final section of this review, looking at how English School theory has used the concepts of international society and world society to respond, or not as the case may be, to globalization and the effects this has had on the idea of a divide between the two.
International Society and World Society under Conditions of Globalization
The challenge of globalization has been met with a wide range of responses, from the enthusiastic to the skeptical and hostile. In terms of English School theory and the concepts of international society and world society the principal discussion has been by Barry Buzan in From International to World Society? (2004). Buzan’s major study, arguably the most significant work of English School theory since Bull’s The Anarchical Society (1977a), engages in a major rewrite of many elements and concepts in an attempt to establish English School theory as a far more rigorous and structurally focused theory. Deploying a modified version of the kind of social constructivist theory associated with Alexander Wendt (1999), Buzan aims to enable the English School to participate directly in analysis of globalization, extending the ability of English School theory to engage with political economy at both global and regional levels.
Buzan’s approach aims to place the concept of world society at the forefront of future directions of English School theorizing, decrying its status in much previous work as “an analytical dustbin” (Buzan 2004:44): a receptacle for things that theorists were not keen to consider (Buzan 2004:28). In relation to the kind of social-structural theory that Buzan pursues, this claim has considerable merit and, as already discussed, world society has certainly suffered neglect in comparison with the extensive and focused attention paid to international society. Buzan’s comparative lack of interest in the explicitly normative dimensions of English School theory reinforce a sense of world society as the weak point of the classic English School triad of international system, international society, and world society. However, as this survey has aimed to establish, it is in terms of normative theory that the significance of world society has been principally debated amongst English School theorists in the past. Where Buzan (2004:3) is correct in his argument, though, is that the complex set of dynamics – economic, political, social, cultural, and intellectual – that constitutes the phenomenon of globalization demands that the relationship between international and world society is reconsidered in constitutive and regulatory terms. There is a very real need to get to grips with an empirical phenomenon that is potentially recasting the dynamics of global politics. For a theory that has always prided itself on a historical and comparative approach to thinking about the patterns, structures, and norms of international relations, it would be deeply ironic were the English School to fail to grasp the historical significance of the transformation of world politics seen by many as arising from globalization.
The international society–world society division therefore poses serious questions at a whole range of levels for English School theory and how it thinks about its analytical and normative accounts of international relations, the methodological tools for doing so, and the way that it deploys these concepts to assist with these tasks. The comparative historical sociological dimensions of English School theory offer the potential for assessment of the depth and significance of the transformations under way in terms of the balance between a society of states and a world society conceived of in terms of non-state actors. Buzan’s (2004:45–61, 139–60) removal of the normative commitment to cosmopolitanism from world society and his focusing upon these non-state actors and the opportunity to look at different regional dimensions of world society provide one mechanism for doing this. His argument in favor of a more specific concept of world society is controversial, as it establishes clear delineation between an international society of states and an “inter-human” society focused on civil-society-type activity and a “transnational” sector incorporating global market-based political economy. The relative balance between these three sectors enables a wide range of different constellations of global politics to be accommodated, but breaks the tendency seen in most solidarist accounts of world society to see it as being an all-encompassing category that subsumes international society within an overall picture of global politics. The virtue of this approach is that it stresses the interconnectedness of international and world society, as we have seen in arguments for the derivative nature of international society, and contributes to normative assessment by establishing a progressive agenda. Buzan, however, is normatively agnostic. His account of world society could include all kinds of “uncivil” societies – transnational criminal activity, global terrorists, and so on – and does not necessarily favor certain normative directions of travel toward world society.
Whether or not Buzan’s take on world society gains widespread purchase within English School debates remains to be seen (Dunne 2005). Even if the details of his revision are a turn little taken by others working with the tradition, it challenges the way in which the divide between international and world society responds to the challenge of globalization. In particular, it asks questions about just how globalization impacts upon the constitutive norms dominant within most English School theory and thus how globalization plays through into the regulative norms and rules of international and world society and how these should be judged normatively.
Buzan sees the social structure of globalization (the book’s subtitle) as posing some fundamental questions for English School theory. A tendency discernible in classic pluralist work is to see globalization as, basically, parasitical on an international society of states that delivers the fundamental value of order without which widespread economic activity would be impossible. As such, the society of states remains the bedrock of global politics and the willingness and ability of states to deliver a functioning international society is the key to the extent, nature, and success of globalization. The constitutive norms of sovereignty, territoriality, and diversity remain paramount and statist regulatory patterns of norms and rules enshrined in institutions such as war, balance of power, nationalism, international law, diplomacy, and so on have yet to be superseded by global alternatives appealing to some other set of constitutive norms legitimizing the market, human rights, transnational law, pacifism, and other potential candidates for institutional status. Even within the most heavily integrated and organizationally dense parts of the world – the European Union is the prominent example – transcendence of the state has not taken place and states retain the ability to direct, slow, or even reverse the processes that have created the EU as it is today.
World society thus remains an aspiration on this reading, but such an account seems to downplay the significance of globalization to too great an extent and the concern with seeking historical perspective and stressing the continuities of international relations – the recurrence and repetition argument – results in an unwillingness to engage with arguments for the significance of current trends and transformations. It also reinforces the downplaying of normative argument within international society and the consignment of this to an inherently cosmopolitan account of world society. Moral skepticism, relativism, and conservatism about the attainability of normative progress characterize international society understood in these terms.
The regional and the global levels are therefore sidelined, in contrast with Buzan’s approach which aims to enable an analysis that incorporates these perspectives and assesses their significance in terms of how they shift the balance between the three sectors he develops. This assists with functional analysis that can enable the English School to grapple with a variety of empirical developments in the conduct of politics while retaining its theoretical integrity. This fits well with some of the English School’s well-established interests in areas such as international law and offers a means whereby legal developments that promote a global perspective, like the International Criminal Court (ICC), can be explored (Ralph 2007). The tensions that surround a body like the ICC and the reluctance of states like the US and China to become involved can be related to the international society leg of Buzan’s triad, whereas the power of the Chief Prosecutor to initiate inquiries falls within the transnational society sector, as does the significant role played by NGOs in pressing for such a power. The overall perspective of individual criminal responsibility fits into an inter-human perspective and thus developments like the ICC and the controversies and tensions that they embody become comprehensible via their straddling of different sectors.
The English School remains short of work on political economy, but, again, this kind of perspective on world society can contribute to the historical and comparative analysis of the impact of global-level activity, globally based justificatory strategies and global institutional innovations. International society as the inter-state sector is connected to world society’s inter-human and transnational elements as an analytical framework in a way that, arguably, adds richness and historical perspective to the kind of utility-maximization-based accounts preferred in neoliberal institutionalism. In particular, while Buzan does not develop the normative angle of his approach in detail, the resources available within English School theory enable the normative potentiality that a constructivist-based account sees within social action to be addressed alongside the more functional elements. The tension between pluralism and solidarism can be moved away from an overly rigid account that associates the former with international society and the latter with world society to recognize that transnational and inter-human developments can appeal to particularistic ethical frameworks, and that interstate behavior can take a global ethical perspective as the ICC example suggests.
The extensive attention given to the methodology of the English School in recent years has played an important role in developing its ability to respond to the challenge of conceptualizing and understanding globalization (Dunne 1995; Little 2000; Buzan 2004). The use of social constructivism (e.g., Wendt 1999) in particular has been significant, with a more wide-ranging and critical post-positivism (Linklater 1998) adding to the normative dynamics. What Hedley Bull (1969) famously defended as the “classical” approach, based on history, philosophy, and law, and reiterated by Jackson (2000:44–96), has slowly given way to constructivism. This has helped to maintain the English School’s distinctiveness in comparison with other theories looking at institutions and cooperation, such as neoliberal institutionalism, while adding a degree of social theoretical and methodological sophistication. This has not gone all the way toward satisfying critics of the English School who have seen its methodology as fundamentally at odds with a properly social scientific approach (Jones 1981; Finnemore 2001; Copeland 2003), but, as Buzan (2004:24) notes, the kind of predictive theory that North American international relations in particular has aspired to may not be attainable and does not exhaust the gamut of “proper” theory in any case.
Certainly an engagement with the globalization debate has taxed the “classical” approach to methodology and its ability to assess the significance of change. The increased use of constructivist methodologies in English School theorizing has resulted in greater specificity about the concept of world society and the role that it plays within the overall theoretical schema. This has far from resolved the debates over world society and its relationship with international society, though. Buzan’s use of constructivism has highlighted questions about how it is that world society is brought about and maintained, recognizing the possibility that this may be via coercion by the great powers or by calculation on the part of states that see material advantage in going along with world society agendas, rather than accepting and internalizing the global values that are so important to the Wightian account of the concept. Constructivism can encompass this axis of coercion, calculation, and belief and gives access to additional elements of comparative perspective that the English School has tended to lack. Historical examples of world societies can be critically engaged along this access, enabling clearer differentiation and comparisons to be drawn, and we are also able to contrast contemporary elements of world society with international society, where, at least amongst the states that are its principal members, the key constitutive norms are internalized even to the point of reification (e.g., Ruggie 1998:873). Additionally, within instances of international and world societies, regional variations in modes of internalization can be considered, adding to the depth of analysis via an appreciation for the different social dynamics that hold social structures in place in different locations. This kind of methodological reformulation in the face of globalization enables world society to be more clearly related to international society, and the mode of transition from one to another and their respective influence on the overall pattern of international politics at any given historical point can be better understood.
From the perspective of those stressing the normative aspect of world society and who see it as an overarching category for assessing the global totality of international relations, subsuming international society as one element, constructivism offers access to the inherent normativity of social activity via its identification of the embedded nature of values in social action. Globalization is a normative phenomenon as well as a social, economic, and political one, and the opportunity that it presents for embedding global and individualist values is one that ought to be promoted. Moving away from a state-centric world order has the potential to move away as well from many of the compromises, second-best solutions, and morally dubious aspects of international society’s rejection of the moral centrality of individual human beings to international relations. Constructivist methodologies, especially those that move toward critical theory and elements of poststructuralism, help to reveal the inescapable normative content of ostensibly material or immutable realties of international relations and highlight the element of social choice and power in the construction of the rules, practices, and principles of international politics. Challenging ideas of materiality and immutability becomes a necessary part of theorizing, and thus the path to the promotion of a cosmopolitan world society is eased and the necessity of accepting and assessing the normative significance of action is established.
Therefore, contemporary research within the English School into the relationship between international society and world society continues to revolve around aspects stressing division and connection, consensus and dispute. The empirical aspect of these debates – whether it is meaningful to talk of a really existing world society or not – has taken on more life than during the days of the Cold War, when the answer to many was a fairly self-evident “No.” Globalization and humanitarian intervention in particular have played a key role in driving forward claims about the growing significance of world society as an empirical phenomenon and thus a concept in need of greater attention if the English School is to maintain its ability to offer an analytical framework sensitive and receptive to historical changes in the practice of international politics. Whether this requires theoretical reformulation of the English School understanding of the concepts of international and world society remains unresolved.
As we have seen, debates continue about whether world society is a concept that includes international society as one, decreasingly important, element, or whether it is best to think of international society as a distinct form of activity and world society consisting of non-state sectors. Whether the primary task of the concept of world society is to enhance comparative and historical perspective or to identify and support normative progress also remains unresolved, and what has arguably been the key area of dispute about world society endures within contemporary theory as it aims to grasp the nature and significance of putative transformations in the structure of an increasingly global politics. Is this about a shifting structural balance between state and non-state realms of activity, or is it about the creation of a global politics characterized by its universal normative tenor reflecting prior and shared values that underpin the possibility of society, whether international or world?
The contested issue of the prior nature of world society has shifted ground, though, as a result of the methodological reformulation of the English School along increasingly constructivist lines. The historical question of whether or not an international society could exist without shared cultural underpinnings is not one that fits easily into the kind of constructivist approach that has been pioneered by Wendt and is stressed by Buzan, as we have seen. Equally, the normative focus since the end of the Cold War has been on the emergence of powerful solidarist trends driving change in the balance between interstate order and inter-human justice. The question of the prior or subsequent nature of universal values matters in terms of the broadly liberal theory of human rights that characterizes most contemporary solidarism, but this does not support conclusions that the eventual triumph of world society is ensured. It will have to be worked for, and occasionally fought for, over a very long period of time.
The debates within the English School over the international society–world society divide are thus in flux as attention increasingly moves toward the concept of world society. The outcome of these debates is unlikely to be conclusive, however, because resolution requires settlement of some deep-seated debates about the relative importance of structural and analytical theorizing on the one hand and normative theorizing on the other. These need not be separate and incommensurable aspects of any social theory, of course, and even the most rigorously structural and analytical theory of recent years (Buzan 2004) consciously invites normative responses and inclusion. Nevertheless, with the challenge of conceptualizing and incorporating globalization within English School theory alongside a methodological reformulation along constructivist grounds ongoing, the prospects for near-term resolution of the enduring debates over the normative character of world society and its relationship to international society in historical, analytical, and normative terms are not bright. This need not be seen as a fundamental problem, however, as the interplay of the contrasting elements of international system, international society, and world society is one of the key insights of the English School and one of the reasons for its attractiveness as a theory. Exploring the international society–world society divide continues to provide potential for enhancing conceptual clarity in relation to both elements, of enhancing the methodological specificity of the English School and the rigor of its theorization of key contemporary political dynamics. Alongside these intellectual benefits, however, sits the key task of also enhancing our historical, comparative, and normative understanding of the nature and significance of the social structures of international relations and the ways in which they operate to help create, re-create, and offer paths to change, the world in which we live.
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