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date: 06 December 2019

The Pluralist–Solidarist Debate in the English School

Summary and Keywords

In his 1966 essay, “The Grotian Conception of International Society,” Hedley Bull distinguishes between two conceptions of international society: pluralism and solidarism. The central assumption of solidarism is “the solidarity, or potential solidarity, of the states comprising international society, with respect to the enforcement of the law.” In contrast, pluralism claims that “states do not exhibit solidarity of this kind, but are capable of agreeing only for certain minimum purposes which fall short of that of the enforcement of the law.” Bull’s formulation of pluralism and solidarism, and the way he set the two concepts against one another, exerted a profound influence on subsequent English School scholarship and sparked the pluralist–solidarist debate. This debate revolves around theorizing different kinds of order, in particular international and world order. The English School used the language of “pluralism” and “solidarism” to address the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention. After the issue of humanitarian intervention was pushed down the list of scholarly priorities, pluralism and solidarism sparked renewed interest from scholars such as Barry Buzan, Andrew Linklater and Hidemi Suganami, William Bain, and Andrew Hurrell. Despite the debates triggered by the pluralist–solidarist debate, the vocabulary of pluralism and solidarism is a promising means of tackling questions and issues that are undertheorized or largely neglected in English School theory, including those relating to the place of sub- and supranational entities in international society, the meaning and scope of world order, and the significance of international political economy in theorizing different kinds of order.

Keywords: Hedley Bull, international society, pluralism, solidarism, English School, international order, world order, humanitarian intervention, Barry Buzan, Andrew Linklater


Pluralism and solidarism are possibly the most distinctive of English School categories, excepting perhaps only the master concept of order. The debate to which they give their names is concerned with theorizing different kinds of order, international and world order in particular. It is in this context that pluralism and solidarism have been deployed to serve three principal purposes: an empirical description of a specific kind of order; a normative framework within which to critique a conception of order; and a theory of change that explains transformation within a particular order, as well as the transition from one kind of order to another.

Origins of Debate

The classical account of pluralism and solidarism is given in an essay, “The Grotian Conception of International Society,” which Hedley Bull (1966) published as part of the influential collection of papers, Diplomatic Investigations. He begins with solidarism, the central assumption of which is “the solidarity, or potential solidarity, of the states comprising international society, with respect to the enforcement of the law.” Opposed to this “Grotian doctrine” is the underlying assumption of pluralism, namely “states do not exhibit solidarity of this kind, but are capable of agreeing only for certain minimum purposes which fall short of that of the enforcement of the law” (Bull 1966:52). Both positions accept the existence of a genuine international society, the law of which imposes binding obligations on its members; and they are united in rejecting both the “tradition” of realpolitik – that is, an international state of nature in which such obligations are absent – and “doctrines” of universal empire and cosmopolitan society that are given to the subversion of international society. But divergence rears its head when Bull (1966:52–3) considers the extent of agreement disclosed by pluralist and solidarist international societies, specifically as it pertains to the institution of war, sources of international law, and the status of individuals as against the claims of states.

Bull’s (1966) discussion of war is set within a just war frame, according to which solidarists agree that both the just cause (jus ad bellum) and the just conduct of war (jus in bello) fall within the purview of international law. Thus, war is conceived as a kind of police action; in other words, it is an act of law enforcement, the legitimacy of which is determined by benefits enjoyed by the society of states as a whole and, more importantly, the individuals residing in these states. In contrast, pluralists accept limitations on the just conduct of war while pulling up short of agreeing on the issue of just cause, at least so far as international law is concerned. In the pluralist view of things, the resort to war is a political rather than legal consideration, which is to say it is a prerogative right of states on which the law is silent (Bull 1966:54–7).

This contrast is drawn out in consideration of the source of law and the reasons law is regarded as being binding. Pluralists locate the source of law in custom and treaty, and it is binding to the extent that states have given their consent, explicit or tacit, which is to confine legal inquiry to an empirical investigation that tracks the ebb and flow of what states actually do. Solidarists take a rather more expansive approach, one which adds to the voluntary law of custom and treaty – the positive law of nations – a natural law against which the justice and therefore the validity of positive law is measured. The difference, then, is found in a pluralist international society united in the respect of certain minimum purposes secured in positive agreements and a solidarist international society in which right reason illuminates a unity that transcends whatever may be the subject of voluntary agreements underwritten by state consent (Bull 1966:66–8). Disagreement on the sources of laws also colors how Bull understands the status of individuals in international society. A pluralist world in which true law is that to which states have given their consent is also a world in which states are the only subjects of international law; hence individuals enjoy rights insofar as they are concessions granted by the will of the state. In contrast, the solidarist commitment to natural law, the rule and measure of positive law derived from the nature of man, designates individuals rather than states as the ultimate members of international society (Bull 1966:68).

Bull’s formulation of pluralism and solidarism, and the way he set the two concepts against one another, would prove to be enormously influential in subsequent English School scholarship. Of course, his conclusions are well known. He betrayed a pronounced worry that the solidarist conception of international society was premature; that it set aspiration before fact in burdening international law with a weight greater than it could reasonably bear (1966:72). That he evinced such a worry did not amount to a denial of movement toward the solidarist position during the latter part of the twentieth century; rather, it stemmed from his belief that the solidarist fixation with law sought to respond to international delinquency in ways that (perversely) weakened limitations on the use of force. Indeed, attempts to legalize what are in essence political questions – for example, the maintenance of the balance of power – threatened to fray the fabric of a minimal but nonetheless valuable international order. Better, then, Bull argued, to proceed on the basis of the “area of actual agreement between states,” an approach he described as being “superior to one which sets up the law over and against the facts” (Bull 1966:71–3).

At this point, it might seem as if Bull is an unalloyed spokesman on behalf of the pluralist cause; however, his initial exposition of pluralism and solidarism addresses several complex themes that admit a picture shaded by subtle gradations of color. Most important in this regard is his sensitivity to the status of individuals in international law and how much to make of the divisions that are said to narrow the scope of agreement to certain minimum purposes. Bull followed Lassa Oppenheim most of the way in defending international order in terms of the empirically ascertainable “area of actual agreement between states”; still he conceded that international society disclosed a solidarity so great and so fundamental that “it did not occur” to an archetypical pluralist like Oppenheim “to call it in question” (Bull 1966:73). Indeed, he never resolved what would come to be seen as a deep-seated tension between what states actually do and the rather more searching claims of this fundamental solidarity. For example, in The Anarchical Society Bull (1977:83) acknowledges the solidarity represented by human rights only to see them as being subversive of international society; for, once human rights are emancipated from the “conspiracy of silence entered into by governments,” they pose a threat to the (pluralist) compact of coexistence between states which is grounded in respect for state sovereignty. Elsewhere, he alludes to a fundamental solidarity, in what John Vincent (1990:43) once described as a “tantalizingly brief passage,” when he writes: “[o]rder among mankind as a whole is something wider than order among states; something more fundamental and primordial than it; and also I should argue, something morally prior to it” (Bull 1977:22).

Bull (1984a) amplified this tension when, in the Hagey Lectures, he notes that the rights and duties of individuals have taken a place alongside those of states, which is tangible evidence of a profound and relatively recent change in international society. Here again, he warns of “danger,” the subversion of coexistence among states, in promoting human rights globally when there is disagreement as to their meaning and content; and yet he maintains in the face of this danger that there is a “responsibility” to extend the idea of human rights (1984a:12–13). The problem, then, lay in a determination of priorities that would reconcile the claims of order and justice, albeit a determination that did not end up setting either a pluralist preference for order or a solidarist preference for justice above the other. In the end, Bull voiced a preference for a middle way, as is characteristic of English School scholarship, which charted a course between the “conservative” prioritization of order and the “revolutionary” prioritization of justice; for it was a course that rejected a necessary antagonism between order and justice, and, in doing so, sought refuge in the liberal belief that “order in international relations is best preserved by meeting demands for justice, and that justice is best realised in a context of order” (1984a:18). But, even then, he (1984a:18) found it difficult to loosen himself from a deeply entrenched skepticism, as he went on to concede, in what might have been a moment of resignation, that sometimes a reconciliation of order and justice may be impossible, at which point “terrible choices have sometimes to be made.”

Purpose, Procedure, and Humanitarian Intervention

Some English School scholars, Nicholas Wheeler and Timothy Dunne (Wheeler 1992; Wheeler and Dunne 1996; 1998) foremost among them, have seized on this tension in an attempt to shift Bull from the pluralist to the solidarist camp. They argue that through Bull’s pronounced skepticism – his dismissal of natural rights, his distrust of cosmopolitan universalism, and his contempt for those who would set themselves up as the spokesmen of all humankind – the point of greatest consequence is his justification of international society in terms of individual welfare as implied, enigmatically, in The Anarchical Society (1977) and stated plainly in the Hagey Lectures (1984a). Thus, the conclusion of immediate interest, at least to the student of English School theory, is that Bull was an “ethical universalist” who is rightly regarded as a solidarist (Wheeler 1992; Wheeler and Dunne 1996; 1998).

Of more enduring significance is the extent to which Bull’s odyssey toward solidarism foreshadowed a second major period of thinking about pluralism and solidarism. The superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union instilled in Bull a sense of disillusionment as he came to doubt their ability to moderate parochial interests for the sake of the common good. Indeed, both had shown themselves as having little claim to the title “great responsibles,” much less that of “nuclear trustees for mankind” (Bull 1979:447). No less important was the so-called “revolt against the west,” whereby Third World demands for political, economic, racial, and cultural liberation heralded the end of a Western dominated international order. Of course, Bull noted the “bitter ironies” of decolonization, among them the fact that many newly independent states had become islands of tyranny; still he insisted that Western countries have an “overriding interest […] to seek to accommodate the demands of the Third World countries for change” (1984a:32–4; 1984b).

This sense of disillusionment was also met with a particular kind of change, John Vincent’s book (1986) on human rights being an important marker as to its direction, both in English School scholarship and in the real world of the late 1980s. The language of “pluralism” and “solidarism” figures sparingly in Vincent’s book, but they lurk in the background, providing an unarticulated backdrop to the argument that human rights augur, not the subversion of international society, but its consolidation and enhanced legitimacy. Here again, disagreement over the status of individuals in international society shows its face; however, in this instance, Vincent looks away from a pluralist arrangement of coexistence to embrace a theory that starts with a solidarist commitment to human rights. Such a shift radically qualifies the conditions of membership in international society, so that “[t]he failure of a government of a state to provide for its citizens’ basic rights might now be taken as a reason for considering it illegitimate” (Vincent 1986:123–8). Indeed, it is precisely this manner of thinking that gained traction in the twilight years of the Cold War as superpower rivalry gave way to a “new world order,” an order in which sunny optimism soon collided with the reality that an arrangement of coexistence sustained unviable or collapsed states as well as paralyzed collective responses to end mass starvation, ethnic cleansing, and genocide (Jackson 1990). In other words, the killing fields of Rwanda, for example, posed a most searching question, a question fed by waxing doubt that the pluralist conception of international society could sustain an order worth having at all.

In addressing this doubt, the language of “pluralism” and “solidarism” would be deployed to evaluate the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention. The standard-bearer of the solidarist argument is Nicholas Wheeler, who picked up on the “profound tension” in Bull’s Hagey Lectures (1984a) and the implications of Vincent’s (1986) position on state legitimacy to argue: “states that massively violate human rights should forfeit their right to be treated as legitimate sovereigns, thereby morally entitling other states to use force to stop the oppression” (Wheeler 2000:12–13; 1992:447; emphasis in original). This argument is grounded in what he describes as a moral transformation; namely, the growth of a human rights culture that is evidence of ever-expanding ties of a common humanity, which gives positive effect to the Grotian dictum that it is right to defend the innocent because the society of men is not severed by the institution of political society. The rights of individuals come before those of states. Thus, for Wheeler, humanitarian intervention is justified when it is undertaken to uphold minimum standards of humanity, in instances of “supreme humanitarian emergency,” and when it satisfies certain Just War principles: just cause, last resort, proportionality, and reasonable chance at success (2000:33–1). Fundamental to this argument is the distinctively solidarist claim that respect for sovereign jurisdiction is conditional, which is to say, as Grotius contemplated, that “[a] Prince who attacks the Life of an innocent Person, is ipso facto no more a Prince” (2005:II, ix.2; emphasis in original).

That Grotius ended up dismissing this proposition (which he attributed to Vasquez) as “absurd” and “dangerous” seems to undermine his status as the “father of solidarist international society theory,” as Wheeler describes him, and perhaps a great deal of what is justified in respect of his authority (Grotius 2005:II, ix.2; Wheeler 2000:45). Like many pluralists, who see in the preservation of particular states the preservation of international society as a whole, Grotius approves of the view expressed by Lucan: the life and safety of many nations might depend on the preservation of a particular king. Thus, Grotius (2005:II, viii–ix.1–2) denies that a thing is destroyed when the advantage of it ceases; in the same vein, “the Right of Sovereignty is not lost by an evil Action, unless it be decreed by some particular Law” (emphasis in original), a law which, in the context of humanitarian intervention, is fleeting, if it exists at all. No less problematic is the way in which Wheeler (2000:11–13, 27–8, 295) relates the categories of pluralism and solidarism to the “question of order versus justice,” as Bull (1977) described it, whereby the former responds with an answer of “irreconcilable conflict” and the latter with an answer of “mutual interdependence.” It is in this sense that Wheeler describes pluralism as standing for an order that is home to several different conceptions of justice, the implication being that the meaning and content of justice is solely a domestic rather than an international concern. In contrast, the nascent solidarism he wants to champion involves “deepening” international society’s commitment to justice; that is, a justice that transcends particular states and regions, and which mediates whatever value rules of sovereignty and nonintervention impart.

But what Wheeler (2000) mistakes as a contrast between “irreconcilable conflict” and “mutual interdependence” is better described as the difference between two different conceptions of order and justice, a difference that is drawn out in consideration of pluralist analyses of humanitarian intervention. The tenor of the pluralist approach is captured in the subtitle of James Mayall’s book (2000) World Politics: Progress and its Limits. Mayall accepts the common distinction between a minimalist pluralist order and a progressive solidarist order; that is, on the one hand, an order limited to the achievement of coexistence among states that subscribe to different interests and values, and, on the other hand, an order premised on common interests and values, immanent in humanity, which are to be self-consciously pursued and realized. So the one, pluralism, stands for a procedural arrangement in which states pursue their self-chosen and often disparate destinations; and the other, solidarism, presupposes a common destination at which states, or, better said, all men and women, might and should one day converge. But, when pushed to choose, Mayall (2000:14, 112) is clear: “the pluralists still hold the ascendancy.” In making this choice, he does not deny the authenticity of solidarist claims, either in terms of sincerity or in actual fact of existence; nor does he rule out the possibility of change so that international society might at some point in the future disclose a degree and kind of unity that it lacks at present. Instead, it is underwritten by an outlook that stresses the importance of continuity over change; that progressive aspirations are inevitably tempered by a sense of tragedy inherent in the human condition; and that a thoroughgoing modesty should curb impetuous moves to radical transformation. Indeed, Mayall steers away from the shoals of cynical pessimism, while avoiding the uncharted waters of unfounded optimism, to argue: “we have no realistic alternative than to approach the future with caution, but also with hope” (2000:149–57).

This same air of caution runs through Robert Jackson’s (2000:379–80) treatment of humanitarian intervention, which takes as its point of departure the question: “what shall take precedence when pluralist norms of state sovereignty come into conflict with solidarist norms of human rights?” His answer is framed in terms of the value imparted by a procedural association, adapted from Michael Oakeshott’s (1996) notion of practical association, which issues a response to those who would see international society as a “second best” arrangement that falls somewhat short of being genuinely desirable (Brown 1995:186–90). For Jackson, international society is intelligible in terms of a “global covenant” that is conducted in terms of two distinct but interrelated vocabularies, one concerning a procedural ethics of principle and the other a prudential ethics of virtue. Whereas the former establishes the constitutive rules of a game that Charles Manning (1975:132) once described as “[l]et’s play sovereign states,” the latter establishes purposive maxims according to which the game is played. Thus, Jackson (2000) conceives states as being associated in respect of procedural norms – equal sovereignty, noninterference, and territorial integrity – the justice of which is determined solely in terms of their authenticity; and these norms, being noninstrumental or moral in character, are to be distinguished from prudential norms; that is, rules of skill, according to which states pursue the satisfaction of substantive wants, desires, and ends.

The point of especial interest is not that Jackson comes out against humanitarian intervention, which he does; it is rather that his rejection of humanitarian intervention escapes the formulation put forward by Wheeler, according to which order and justice are torn asunder in a pluralist “irreconcilable conflict” or, alternatively, reconciled in solidarist “mutual interdependence.” The intelligibility of Jackson’s position comes into view once we consider the way in which the justice of law is determined in international life. In a procedural association, it matters little if law is either harmful or beneficial to the “common good,” if only because the value of the whole is not determined in respect of substantive ends to be achieved; and the merits of different interests, the distribution of goods, or claims of exclusive privilege are, equally, of little consequence. Moreover, the justice of law is not determined by consulting a higher law, a lex naturalis; nor is it informed by its correspondence with a supreme norm of justice embodied, for example, in a set of inviolable human rights or a list of fundamental human capabilities. Law is indifferent to each of the considerations, all one and the same (Oakeshott 1999:152–6). For considerations of justice in a procedural association are cast as a formal affair that asks no more, and demands no less, than persons (natural and legal) observe the authority of rules of law in pursuit of their self-chosen interests and wants. Thus, “the only ‘justice’ the rule of law can accommodate,” Oakeshott explains, “is faithfulness to the formal principles inherent in the character of lex: non-instrumentality, indifference to persons and interests, the exclusion of prive-lege and outlawry, and so on” (1999:173).

It is in this context that Jackson (2000) adopts an antipaternal ethics, the heart of which is the peremptory norm of noninterference, in characterizing intervention as a prima facie wrong, barring some justification granting special dispensation that does not yet exist. Indeed, his subordination of solidarist norms to pluralist norms is unequivocally clear: “the stability of international society, especially the unity of the great powers, is more important, indeed far more important, than minority rights and humanitarian protections in Yugoslavia or any other country – if we have to choose between those two sets of values” (2000:251–2, 291). This conclusion does not announce an indifference to human suffering; it does not deny the authenticity of human rights; and it does not forsake justice, as such, to the duress of necessitous choices, no matter how “terrible” they might seem. What it does rest upon is the claim that human rights and other solidarist values can and must be pursued within a pluralist framework, but only to a point. There is, then, no opposition of order and justice, that is, an “irreconcilable conflict” between an international order and many (domestic) conceptions of justice. Intervention is morally wrong in Jackson’s view because it violates (international) principles of justice that demand respect for procedural rules of mutual accommodation; and it is prudentially ill advised because it threatens to undermine international order, imperfect though it might be, because war is often “the greatest threat to human rights” (2000:291–3). For this conception of order and justice demands respect for diversity and difference as people go about pursuing their self-chosen ends, while counseling a policy of moderation and restraint in the event that injury is received.

Theorizing World Order

The English School focus on humanitarian intervention has to some extent been overtaken by events: interest in terrorism, preventive war, and empire are among the issues that have pushed humanitarian intervention down the list of scholarly priorities. But this transition has created space for renewed interest in pluralism and solidarism, albeit in a wider context that considers notions of world society and global order, as well as ways that pluralism and solidarism might be related to one another in an ordered and coherent manner. One of the most ambitious contributions in this regard is Barry Buzan’s (2004) social structural reworking of English School theory in which a critique of pluralism and solidarism is a prelude to articulating a theory of world society. He sees in contending accounts of solidarism ample room for confusion, for it is unclear if solidarism refers to normative agreement among the (state) members of international society or if it refers to a community of rights bearing individuals that is independent of the society of states. In the case of the former, we might look to Vincent (1986), who argues that agreement on human rights provides evidence of a progressive solidarism that transcends the minimalist egg-box of international society but which falls short of the destructive omelet of cosmopolitan morality. Regarding the latter, we might look to Bull, who early in his career defended the society of states against an “immanent community of mankind” (1966:73) that was destined to destroy arrangements of coexistence and cooperation, and substitute in their place the “true faith” of a cosmopolitan morality (1977:25–6). Buzan is scarcely more satisfied with the way in which pluralism is conceptualized, although he concedes that its greater coherence is attributable to an unambiguously statist orientation. Still, he worries (2004:50) that sharply contrasting pluralism and solidarism simply reproduces within an English School frame the all too familiar contest between realist statism and liberal individualism.

Buzan attempts to move beyond this conceptual confusion by conceiving pluralism and solidarism as two ends of a spectrum that describe different types of international societies with reference to the “thinness” and “thickness” of shared norms, rules, and institutions. The chief advantage of this approach is found in the space it creates for consideration of shared values that do not fit well into the liberal frame which he sees as dominating most international society thinking. Once we move beyond this frame, Buzan argues, it is possible to imagine international societies or regional groupings of states as solidarist communities constituted, for example, by “communist ‘peoples republics’, or Islamic states, or monarchies, or any other form of ideological standardisation” – that is, solidarist international societies that might be illiberal (2004:139–47). Crucially, Buzan severs what is often taken to be a necessary link between solidarism and cosmopolitan values; and, in doing so, solidarism is no longer reduced to human rights as Vincent and advocates of humanitarian intervention, such as Wheeler, seem to do. Thus, a spectrum defined by pluralism and solidarism provides a way of describing different types of international society; it describes the types of values they share as well as the depth with which they are shared; and, consequently, it highlights the way in which coercion, calculation, and belief sustain these values. A key aspect of this argument is that solidarism builds on pluralism, so that a move from pluralism toward solidarism involves adding to characteristically pluralist values of survival and self-interest (Buzan 2004:152–60). Buzan is then in a position to describe differences that separate international societies as well as to make sense of the change that takes place within them.

Buzan’s approach to theorizing pluralism and solidarism is motivated by his dissatisfaction with the “normative stand” of English School theory (the distinction is his) which, he argues, “often flounders in conceptual confusion” (2004:229). There have been few self-conscious responses to this charge of confusion, but scholars identified with a putative normative wing have continued to theorize various kind of order in terms of pluralism and solidarism. For example, Andrew Linklater and Hidemi Suganami (2006) pick up on Bull’s writings on the relation between international order and world order to explore what they describe as the growth of civility in international society, an idea, or rather a kind of social learning, that points the way to “progressive possibilities” in world politics. Unlike some English School theorists, who identify solidarism with a progressive outlook, they do not subsume pluralism to an anti-progressive narrative of coexistence. A pluralist international society admits a “qualified progressive interpretation,” they argue, in that it places mutually recognized limits on the use of force, which is an advance over what would be expected in a system of states (2006:120–31). But this progressive interpretation is limited by three problems, or what Linklater and Suganami call “moral deficits”: lack of respect for the rights of small powers and indigenous peoples, and inadequate measures designed to protect human rights. And it is in light of the contradictions posed by these deficits that they explore new forms of political organization and action, namely those which “reduce or overcome tensions between civility and uncivility” (2006:131–5). So, whereas a pluralist international society stands for a limited degree of civility between independent political communities, a solidarist international society is the result of a growth in civility between these communities as well as between ordinary men and woman.

It is against this backdrop that Linklater and Suganami (2006) attempt to bridge the ideas of international order and world order with so-called “cosmopolitan harm conventions” that shift the emphasis from protecting states to non-sovereign communities and individuals. These harm conventions are tangible evidence of social learning, an idea, they hasten to point out, that has been largely neglected by English School theorists. And this concern with harm stems not from a desire to align the present world with some abstract conception with which it ought to conform, but from the reality that limiting injurious action is an enduring feature of international life (Linklater and Suganami 2006:176–88). Thus, the road leading away from pluralism and its attendant moral deficits is that traveled by the “good international citizen” and it is signposted by four (main) principles: (1) restraint in the pursuit of national objectives; (2) respect for the principle of reciprocity; (3) recognition of the unintended consequences that often accompany the security dilemma; and (4) a fair balance between national security and the insecurity experienced by others. In other words, the notion of good international citizenship, informed by cosmopolitan harm conventions, asks that care be exercised in an attempt to avoid mental and bodily harm; and it announces an injunction against indifference to the suffering of others (Linklater and Suganami 2006:237–8). The important point, indeed, the point of originality, is that Linklater and Suganami escape the destructive antinomies of a premature cosmopolitan order and an already existing, albeit imperfect, international order. Indeed, theirs is not an argument stipulated from outside international society; it is one about immanent potential whereby the “emphasis […] is on duties to avoid harm which are already recognizable features of international society and of the overwhelming majority of its constituent parts” (2006:256).

An alternative to the conventionalist argument given by Linklater and Suganami (2006) is one that discloses both naturalist and conventionalist elements, which is implicit in the historical narrative English School theorists want to tell about the expansion of international society. For William Bain (2007), pluralism and solidarism are best understood in terms of an ordered relationship whereby the one cannot be separated from the other. It is then possible to make sense of international society, that is, the society of states, as well as a community of all humankind without having to confront that familiar confrontation of a human community threatening the minimalist and imperfect order achieved in an association of states. An argument of this sort also relieves the pressure of having to choose between solidarist and pluralist values as do the likes of Wheeler (2000) and Jackson (2000) in the context of humanitarian intervention. Both end up making a choice in favor of one set of values, thereby subordinating the one to the other, while distorting the full moral claim of both. Indeed, international society has never been tolerant in the way that pluralists suggest, and it cannot be unified in the way that solidarists want; and yet the voices of pluralism and solidarism have always been fully audible throughout the history of international society, in spite of the popular (though incorrect) view that solidarist discourses of individual rights and human sympathy were fleeting prior to the emergence of a human rights culture in the twentieth century (Bain 2003; 2007:573).

The task, then, is not to describe international society as being on balance more or less pluralist (or solidarist); it is to theorize the relationship that obtains between pluralism and solidarism. Bain (2007) understands this relationship in terms of two distinct modes of association – one expressed by a (solidarist) law of reason and the other by a (pluralist) law of will – that reconciles the coexistence of pluralism and the unity of solidarism in a single, intellectually coherent argument. In other words, it joins the purposive “oneness of humanity” implied by human community and the practical “social cooperation” implied by the society of states as distinct yet inseparable parts of a whole. Thus, there is no tension between competing conceptions of pluralist and solidarist order; rather, there is a single order conducted with reference to two kinds of law. Indeed, it is on this footing that Bain is able to push Vincent’s attempt to found international society on human rights further, for the progressive alignment of “man” and “citizen” in terms of these two kinds of law also entails a world of a particular sort: “a world in which the law of reason that expresses human community is held out as the rule and measure of a law of will that expresses the society of states” (Bain 2007:559, 570). This approach also holds out an answer, which is different in kind from that offered by either Linklater and Suganami (2006) or Wheeler and Dunne (Wheeler 1992; Wheeler and Dunne 1996; 1998), to the unresolved tension in Bull’s (1977) justification of international order in terms of its contribution to world order; namely, human community and international society are the names of distinct but inseparable parts of a whole that is world order (Bain 2007:575).

The most recent entry into the field is Andrew Hurrell’s (2007) On Global Order, which takes the assertion that there can be no retreat to pluralism as its starting point. In short, increasing economic and human interconnectedness, as well as the ties of transnational or global civil society, have undermined the case for pluralism, just as ecological crisis and changing security threats have highlighted the inability of pluralist arrangements of coexistence to cope with truly global problems. Add to this the moral failings of pluralist international society, specifically the absence of adequate protections against even the most egregious human rights abuses, not to mention the glaring disparities of global inequality, and Hurrell is convinced that “there is no acceptable or viable way of reasserting a pluralist view of international society” (2007:57, 292–6). There is simply no path on which to beat a retreat. Instead, Hurrell argues that global conditions are such that there is little alternative to striving for ever more extensive forms of collaboration and cooperation. For he sees, like Linklater and Suganami (2006), the gradual emergence and consolidation of a truly global order that is reflected in the convergence of shared practices, shared understandings, and a growing (global) moral consciousness. This development is intelligible in the entrenchment of liberal solidarist norms, the “density, scope, and complexity” of which “provide some basis for positing a community of interest or an agreed set of purposes and values against which new substantive norms may be judged – the idea of an objective community interest or of the common interest of global society” (Hurrell 2007:299–304). And this global society is conducted in respect of processes which, again in the same vein as Linklater and Suganami (2006), seek to secure greater legitimacy through acceptance of equality of status, respect, and consideration, as well as acceptance of reciprocity and autonomous decision making (Hurrell 2007:315–16).

The Vocabulary of Debate

An intellectual history of the “pluralist–solidarist debate” suggests less a tightly focused, self-conscious debate than a vocabulary in terms of which English School theorists have engaged a range of disputations that coalesce loosely around different ways of theorizing different kinds of order in international life. The purposes of engagement are many. Bull initially used pluralism and solidarism as a way of conveying an empirical description of international society; or, as Suganami (2002:13) puts it, “pluralism and solidarism, as defined by Bull, are in essence differing judgments about the extent of solidarity or potential solidarity present in the existing international society” (emphasis in original). In later writings, Bull deployed the vocabulary of pluralism and solidarism to explain the transformation of international society brought about by the “revolt against the west,” a change that also provoked reflection on the normative justification of international society as such. This same mix of empirical description, transformative explanation, and normative evaluation is evident in most attempts to theorize international society in terms of pluralism and solidarism. For example, Jackson (2000) describes the world as being mainly pluralist in character before providing a sustained normative defense of a pluralist global covenant. Hurrell (2007) argues precisely the opposite: palpable change in the direction of solidarist interconnectedness makes a return to pluralism impossible, thereby opening the door to a solidarist (normative) justification of international order (2007:65).

It is this plasticity of meaning and usage that situates pluralism and solidarism at the heart of the English School theoretical enterprise. As a vocabulary, rather than a precisely defined debate, they are given to the analysis of questions that Bull did not address and perhaps did not anticipate. Traditional questions pertaining to the institution of war, the sources of international law, and the status of individuals in international society now share the intellectual stage with questions that explore the character of regional international societies, to give but one example. Of course, there should be little doubt that ever-changing circumstances in a fluid and dynamic world will invest newfound importance in perennial English School questions, such as the conditions of membership in the society of states or the patterns of interaction that are distinctive of interstate relations. However, there is every reason to believe that the vocabulary of pluralism and solidarism can be adapted to address questions and issues that are undertheorized or largely neglected in English School theory, including those relating to the place of sub- and supranational entities in international society, the meaning and scope of world order, and the significance of international political economy in theorizing different kinds of order. Indeed, a vocabulary of pluralism and solidarism, plastic in meaning and adaptable to circumstance, is most likely to enjoy a prominent place in future English School scholarship.


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