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The British Committee and International Society: History and Theory  

Brunello Vigezzi

The British Committee on the Theory of International Politics is generally considered the original core of the “English School.” Equally often, scholars have identified as one of its characteristic elements the importance it attributed to “international society” as a force aimed at enlivening and regulating, as far as possible, power relations between states. The attention it paid to international society is also seen as consistent with the importance the authors of the British Committee attributed to “history” and in particular to the “history of international society” as a means to understand and reconstruct international life in the past and the present. However, the internal history of the British Committee is all too often neglected. Studies concerned with the orientations of the English School have mainly sought to analyze the thinking of this or that author without considering the work of the British Committee as a whole. In other words, scholars have tended to pay little attention to the moment when the British Committee began to examine “international society” and the manner in which it did so. In particular, the achievement of the British Committee discussions during 1961–1962 was important, and it was the beginning of a development of great interest. The various texts, the debates, do not limit themselves to a sort of rich and varied list of the component parts of an “international society.” Instead, they paint an overall picture, and they guarantee an interconnection between the reflections of the individuals and the overall orientation of the Committee. Moreover, they are the critical point of departure for the future development of theory.


The International System–International Society Distinction  

Tim Dunne and Richard Little

The central feature of the English School is now usually considered to be its commitment to the proposition that international relations (IR) take place within an international society of shared norms and some shared values. However, an exclusive focus on norms has the effect of denuding the school of the more pluralistic dimensions that were advocated by some of the founding members of the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics. Hedley Bull, in particular, stressed that to account for international order it is necessary to view IR from three divergent perspectives: the international system, the international society, and world society. The early British Committee discussions, directed toward delineating the “fundamentals” of international theory, used the terms international society, international system, and states system interchangeably. But the idea of a states system was distinctive to the emerging English School. A distinguishing marker of the English School is the claim that not only is there a need to accommodate societal norms in theoretical accounts of world politics, but that there is also a systemic logic, and that these analytics together have explanatory power in considering how the world hangs together. The essential elements of the school’s thinking were most fully and effectively realized in The Expansion of the International Society, the central work where the international system–international society distinction is employed. This grand narrative represents a crucial contribution to the field of IR but one that has been very generally underappreciated across the discipline. To generate a deeper understanding of the two concepts, it is clear that much more research needs to be carried out on international societies and systems around the world.


Three Traditions of International Theory  

Edward Keene

The English School conceived “international theory” as a way to approach the political philosophy and political speculation by examining historical traditions of international relations. The starting point for this line of inquiry was to organize the wide range of material contained in the history of ideas about international politics into a much simpler, and thus more intelligible, scheme, in the event comprising three traditions. Martin Wight called them realism, rationalism, and revolutionism, but they are also known as Hobbesianism (or Machiavellianism), Grotianism, and Kantianism. The fundamental difference between the three traditions is that each represents an idea of what international society is, from which they derive various propositions about more specific topics such as how to deal with peoples from different cultures, how to conduct diplomacy and wage war, or what obligations under international law are. For realists, international society is the state of nature, and since they see the state of nature as a state of war, the answer to the question “What is international society?” is “nothing.” Rationalists agree that international society is the state of nature, but for them it is a state of “goodwill, mutual assistance and preservation,” and so “international society is a true society, but institutionally deficient; lacking a common superior or judiciary.” Revolutionists, by contrast, reject the analogy with the state of nature. Instead, they have an immanent conception of international society, in the sense that they look beyond the apparent or present reality of a society of sovereign states and see behind it a true international society in the form of a community of mankind. Ultimately, these three traditions has exercised a profound influence on the ways in which international relations scholars think about the history of ideas.


Anarchy in International Relations  

Silviya Lechner

The concept of anarchy is seen as the cardinal organizing category of the discipline of International Relations (IR), which differentiates it from cognate disciplines such as Political Science and Political Philosophy. It is important to distinguish between concepts of anarchy and theories where anarchy operates as a central premise. The concept of anarchy can mean (a) a lack of a common superior in an interaction domain; (b) chaos or disorder; or (c) a horizontal relation between nominally equal entities sovereign states. The first and the third senses of “anarchy” are central to IR as a field, and figure as premises within three broad families of IR theory: (a) realism and neorealism, (b) English School theory (international society approach), and (c) Kant’s republican peace. Despite normative and conceptual differences otherwise, all three bodies of theory are ultimately based on Hobbes’s argument for a “state of nature,” and on an understanding that the key actors in international relations are sovereign states. The major challengers to the discourse of international anarchy are theories of international politics that rely on the methodology of economics as well as cognate approaches that prioritize the “global” over the “international” such as theories of globalization, global hierarchy, and global governance.


Diplomacy and Revolution  

Noé Cornago

The relationship between diplomacy and revolution is often intertwined with the broader issue of the international dimensions of revolution. Diplomacy can offer important insights into both the historical evolution of world order and its evolving functional and normative needs. In other words, the most important dimension of diplomacy, beyond its concrete symbolic and pragmatic operational value, is its very existence as raison de système. A number of scholarly works that explore the link between revolution and the international arena have given rise to a minority subfield of scholarly research and debate which is particularly vibrant and plural. Three basic lines of research can be identified: case studies undertaken by historians and area studies scholars that focus on the international dimensions surrounding particular revolutions; comparative political studies that address the international implications of revolutions by departing from a more comprehensive theoretical framework but still based in comprehensive case studies; and more theoretically comprehensive literature which, in addition to careful case studies, aims to provide a general and far-reaching explanatory theoretical framework on the relationship between revolution and long-term historical change from different perspectives: English school international theory, neorealism, world systems analysis, postmarxism, or constructivism. In a context of growing inequality and global exploitation, the international dimension of revolutions is receiving renewed attention from scholars using innovative critical theoretical approaches.


Normative Theory in the English School  

Molly Cochran

Normative thinking permeates the work of the English School and has done so since its start as the British Committee for International Politics. Ethics, or, more precisely, the tension between ethics and power or interests, was one of the original concerns of the founding members of the Committee. It was an aim of the Committee to combine ethical reflection with the historical analysis of states systems. The approach in first-generation, or classical, English School scholarship to ethical questions primarily involved the identification of traditions of political and moral speculation about international relations (IR). Another significant feature of classical English School thought was moral skepticism, which seriously challenged what could be said about ethical choices within the forms of international interaction it charted. However, keen interest in what normative agendas can be supported within international or world society—basic subsistence rights, international criminal justice, and humanitarian intervention—does not necessarily amount to a normative theory. As such, order versus justice is a more productive starting point for normative theorizing within the English School. Meanwhile, there are two modes of normative thought in postclassical English School: practical and moral–philosophical arguments. The English School is grounded in the practical, in the real-world tussle of power and interests, while at the same time it works through what it is possible to say about the nature of obligation and moral responsibility among international actors. This is where ethics and practical interest meet, and it represents the unique contribution of the English School to contemporary normative IR theory.


Great Power Leadership  

Wesley B. O'Dell

The notion that Great Powers fulfill a leadership role in international politics is old, influential, and contested. As the actors in the international system with the greatest capacity for taking action, Great Powers are assumed to think both further ahead and in broader, more systemic terms than other states; they then use their preeminent positions to organize others to promote public goods, reaping benefits along the way thanks to their direction of events. At the core of this understanding is the assumption that Great Power actions are, or ought to be, inspired by something more than simple self-interest and the pursuit of short-term gains. As an organic creation of international practice, Great Power leadership was traditionally the domain of historians and international legists; early students of the topic utilized inductive reasoning to derive general precepts of Great Power sociology from the landmark settlements of the 18th and 19th centuries. The framing of Great Powers as a leadership caste originated in the struggle against Louis XIV, was given tentative institutional form through settlements such as the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), and deepened considerably in both institutionalization and sophistication in the 19th century Concert of Europe. The return of France to full Great Power status, the Congress (1878) and Conference (1884) of Berlin, and the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) all demonstrated the willingness and ability of the Powers to cooperate in the management of international change. In the early 20th century, the leadership of the Great Powers was both challenged as an unjust agent of catastrophe as well as increasingly formalized through recognition in new international institutions such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Theorists of international relations began to formulate theories based on Great Power management at the time of the discipline’s beginnings in the early 20th century. Realists and liberals frequently utilize Great Power concepts to explain processes of equilibrium, hegemonic competition, and institution building, while approaches influenced by constructivism focus on the role of ideas, statuses, and roles in the formulation of Great Power identities and policies. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a 21st-century manifestation of the application of Great Power leadership to international problems; though hailed by some as the future of Great Power management, it provokes controversy among both theorists and practitioners. Similarly, extensive scholarly attention has been devoted to the management and accommodation of “rising powers.” These are states that appear likely to obtain the status of Great Power, and there is extensive debate over their orientation toward and potential management of international order. Finally, the position of Russia and China within this literature has provoked deep reflection on the nature of Great Power, the responsibilities of rising and established powers, and the place of Great Power management amidst the globalized challenges of the 21st century.


The British Committee on the Theory of International Politics and Central Figures in the English School  

Roger Epp

Considerations of the English School and of its central concept—international society—have all too often neglected the most logical starting point: the internal history of the British Committee. The British Committee on the Theory of International Politics was a group of scholars created in 1959 under the chairmanship of the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield that met periodically in Cambridge, Oxford, London, and Brighton to discuss the principal problems and a range of aspects of the theory and history of international relations. The British Committee stands out as a remarkable and unusual intellectual project. A product of its place and time and of a particular academic culture, it did not pretend to represent the full range of British thinking. Its membership intentionally omitted such major figures as E.H. Carr and C.A.W. Manning. Whatever direct influence it had on contemporary British scholarship in international relations can be attributed partly to bonds of friendship, across generations, and to the performances of individual members in the lecture hall. Though the Committee incubated a good deal of its members’ work, sometimes published posthumously, its collaborative output was never prolific. Only two collective works can be attributed to it: Diplomatic Investigations (1966) and The Expansion of International Society (1984). However, the Committee developed a thorough study of international society and the nature of world politics, which has had an important impact that continues in the present day.