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date: 22 September 2021

International Order in Theory and Practicefree

International Order in Theory and Practicefree

  • Kyle M. LascurettesKyle M. LascurettesInternational Affairs, Lewis & Clark College
  •  and Michael PoznanskyMichael PoznanskyStrategic and Operational Research Department, U.S. Naval War College


International relations scholars of all stripes have long been interested in the idea of “international order.” At the most general level, international order entails some level of regularity, predictability, and stability in the ways that actors interact with one another. At a level of higher specificity, however, international orders can vary along a number of dimensions (or fault lines). This includes whether order is thin or thick, premised on position or principles, regional or global in scope, and issue specific or multi-issue in nature.

When it comes to how orders emerge, the majority of existing explanations can be categorized according to two criteria and corresponding set of questions. First, are orders produced by a single actor or a select subset of actors that are privileged and powerful, or are they created by many actors that are roughly equal and undifferentiated in capabilities and status? Second, do orders come about from the purposive behavior of particular actors, or are they the aggregated result of many behaviors and interactions that produce an outcome that no single actor anticipated? The resulting typology yields four ideal types of order explanations: hegemonic (order is intentional, and power is concentrated), centralized (order is spontaneous, but power is concentrated), negotiated (order is intentional, but power is dispersed), and decentralized (order is spontaneous, and power is dispersed).

Finally, it is useful to think about the process by which order can transform or break down as a phenomenon that is at least sometimes distinct from how orders emerge in the first place. The main criterion in this respect is the rapidity with which orders transform or break down. More specifically, they can change or fall apart quickly through revolutionary processes or more gradually through evolutionary ones.


  • Diplomacy
  • International Law
  • Organization
  • International Relations Theory
  • Political Economy
  • Security Studies


The concept of international order is of enduring importance to students of world politics. The main objective of this article is to order the order debate, so to speak, by providing a framework for thinking about the wide varieties of international order that exist in theory and have existed in practice. Such an exercise is useful for helping scholars make sense of a deceptively complicated concept. Some of the most contentious debates among scholars of international relations (IR) center on whether there is even such a thing as order and, to the extent that there is, where it comes from, what sustains it, and how it changes and/or breaks down. In some cases, these debates track with familiar arguments between warring theoretical camps about the relative importance of factors like power, ideas, and institutions. In other cases, however, debates about the existence, scale, and scope of international order cross theoretical boundaries in surprising and unanticipated ways.

Better understanding the varieties of international order is also helpful for thinking about the implications of a range of pressing issues. For example, what does the rise of China mean for the so-called liberal international order created by the United States after World War II (Kang, 2007; Schweller & Pu, 2011)? How did the election of Donald Trump, and along with him an administration disdainful of major aspects of the liberal order, affect the United States’ willingness to continue underwriting its architecture (Lissner & Rapp-Hooper, 2018)? What might the global rise of populism, resurgent nationalism, or ever-burgeoning global inequality mean for the shape and stability of order moving forward (Colgan & Keohane, 2017)? Answers to these questions depend on one’s conceptualization of and underlying assumptions about international order.

This article proceeds in four steps. First, in “Defining International Orders,” it offers a baseline definition for the concept to set the stage for the more nuanced questions and considerations to come, and defends this baseline against a number of plausible alternatives. The remaining three sections engage less in argument and more in classification and clarification. “The Fault Lines and Varieties of International Order” identifies a number of prominent fault lines in the study of international order. Rather than adjudicating between different sides of these debates, these fault lines are used to clarify some of the dimensions along which actual orders can (or could) vary. Next, “The Origins and Maintenance of International Orders” uses two criteria to categorize the myriad accounts of orders’ origins into four ideal types of explanation. Finally, “The Transformation and Breakdown of International Orders” examines order change and breakdown, identifying and differentiating two distinct processes through which these related phenomena often appear to play out.

Defining International Orders

The first step in making sense of international order involves basic definitions.1 In his classic work, The Anarchical Society, Hedley Bull (2012, p. 3) writes, “To say of a number of things that together they display order is, in the simplest and most general sense of the term, to say that they are related to one another according to some pattern” or “discernible principle.” This is why, he notes, “a row of books on the shelf displays order whereas a heap of books on the floor does not.”

If this example is pushed further, however, it quickly becomes clear how complex “order” can be. Bookshelves can be alphabetized or organized by color or subject matter. Each instance provides a greater degree of order relative to a pile of books on the ground. But the character and quality of order vary greatly depending on how the units that populate it are arranged. Equally important, alphabetizing books on a shelf is not inherently more orderly than organizing them according to color or subject matter. They are simply different modes of ordering. The question of whether one pattern or principle is superior to another depends on the goals and purposes of the orderer (if indeed there is an orderer).

In many ways, the foregoing dynamics apply to the concept of international order.2 As such, this article begins by identifying a least common denominator definition before examining possible permutations. According to Shiping Tang (2016, p. 34), order “is the degree of predictability (or regularity) of what is going on within a social system, presumably because agents’ behavior, social interactions, and social outcomes within the social system have come under some kind of regulation,” and Bentley Allan (2018, p. 5) similarly sees orders as “stable patterns of behaviour and relations among states and other international associations.” Cooley and Nexon (2020, p. 31) define order as “relatively stable patterns of relations and practices in world politics,” and Lascurettes (2020, p. 16) likewise views the phenomenon as “a pattern of equilibrium-perpetuating behavior among the units of a system.”

Together, these definitions establish a useful baseline: order implies some level of regularity, leading to at least a basic sense of predictability (Bain, 2020, p. 1). Although Cooley and Nexon (2020, p. 32) point out that “there is no single international order” and that “international ordering varies across issue areas and specific relationships,” some measure of predictability and stability is likely a prerequisite for any variant. If a given area or relationship of international relations is devoid of even these basic attributes, one would not be discussing “order” in any meaningful sense, and might even be in the realm of “disorder” (McKeil, 2020).

It is worth noting that there are other baseline definitions for order out there that merit consideration, though the discussion here is by no means exhaustive. Perhaps most prominently, Ikenberry (2001, p. 23), defines international order as “‘governing’ arrangements among a group of states, including its fundamental rules, principles, and institutions.”3 In a RAND report devoted to the concept, Mazarr et al. (2016, p. 7) define order as a “stable, structured pattern of relationships among states that involves some combination of parts, including emergent norms, rulemaking institutions, and international political organizations or regimes, among others.” Johnston (2019, p. 13) offers a similar conception, characterizing order as “an array of institutions, rules, and norms that more or less reflect the dominant state’s interests.” Bringing some of these threads together, Kocs (2019, p. 5) sees order as “the presence of rules and arrangements that enable actors to protect their interests” and treats a system as ordered “to the extent that those rules and arrangements are respected.”

These alternative and more detailed conceptualizations have their merits, but there are two main advantages to adopting a sparser definition as a baseline. First, although phenomena like rules, principles, and institutions are often central to many international orders, predictability and stable patterns of behavior among the relevant units of a system (the baseline definition used here) can occur without them. Second, restricting the definition of order to states, or noting that order is largely a function of a dominant state’s interests, smuggles in assumptions about who the relevant units are and where order comes from. Already, it does not allow for important possibilities such as spontaneous order formation or a role for nonstate actors in the production of order.

The Fault Lines and Varieties of International Order

With this baseline definition as a starting point, the next step is to think through the various forms international order can take. This section explores four dimensions along which orders can vary. Not coincidentally, these dimensions also represent some of the most important fault lines at which IR theorists of order disagree about its nature and content. Rather than viewing these fault lines as debates that must be definitively settled, the authors of this article prefer to treat them as dimensions along which orders can vary. There is, after all, almost always an empirical analog for each side of each fault line. Proceeding in this way allows one to embrace and incorporate the diverse ways in which order has been theorized while remaining true to the baseline definition introduced earlier.

Thin Versus Thick

A first distinction comes between what some have called “thin” and “thick” orders (e.g., Goddard et al., 2019, pp. 313–314). The former entails some measure of predictability in how actors behave (hence why it should be considered “ordered” in the first place) but with few if any common rules, norms, or institutions between them. The latter represents the opposite. Thick international orders are populated by dense networks of institutions, codified legal rules, and/or a variety of shared norms that govern members’ interactions, perhaps even specifying who qualifies as an order member in the first place (Arend, 1999, pp. 138–139).

Advocates of the thin perspective have a point in that not all orders necessarily have to contain formal institutions or codified rules. Practically speaking, one of the most common manifestations of thin international order is a balance of power system (Finnemore, 2003; Waltz, 1979). According to Randall Schweller, these systems do

not require explicit agreement on principles, rules, and institutions. Instead, order in the form of recurrent formations of balances of power among the great powers emerges as an unintended consequence of the coaction of states seeking predominant, not balanced, power.

(Schweller, 2001, p. 170)

Yet although it is clear that rules, norms, and institutions are not a necessary condition for order, the fact remains that many instances of ordered international systems are better characterized as thick. As Goddard (2018b, p. 19) describes it, “Most international systems contain a dominant social system, composed of ‘legitimating principles,’ core norms that establish what counts as acceptable behavior and allow states to adjudicate the legitimacy of competing claims.” This is the essence of thick orders.

The collection of rules and institutions often referred to as the liberal international order (LIO) falls on the thick side of this spectrum.4 Broadly speaking, the LIO refers to “order that is relatively open, rule-based, and progressive” and includes elements such as “open markets, international institutions, cooperative security, democratic community, progressive change, collective problem solving, shared sovereignty, [and] the rule of law” (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 2). There are many nuances and critiques associated with the theory and practice of the liberal order, some of which are explored in more detail below. As a first cut, however, it is sufficient to observe that the rules-based order that the term “LIO” refers to is much denser than a simple and thin balance of power. Both “thin” and “thick” labels thus have purchase as dimensions of international order more generally.

A key normative debate within the “English School” of IR theory—that between “pluralist” and “solidarist” conceptions of international society—also maps well onto the thin or thick fault line. In the words of Barry Buzan:

Pluralism and solidarism hinge on the question of the type and extent of norms, rules, and institutions that an international society can form without departing from the foundational rules of sovereignty and non-intervention that define it as a system of states.5

(Buzan, 2014, p. 16)

Pluralists normatively advocate for what is characterized here as thin order because they prioritize the stability that comes with order’s regularity over loftier pursuits of particular conceptions of justice. They adopt this position at least in part because they are skeptical that justice can be achieved without endangering their thin conception of order, premised as it is on little more than tacit agreements over basic coexistence and non-intervention (e.g., Bull, 1977; Jackson, 2000; Mayall, 2000). Solidarists, by contrast, tend to downplay the value of regularity and coexistence (through order) if they exist without a shared conception of justice over things like human rights and democratic regimes. As a result, solidarists advocate for a thicker conception of order characterized by rules, norms, and/or institutions that are reflective of cosmopolitan consensus over crucial moral issues (e.g., Linklater, 1998; Vincent, 1986; Wheeler, 2000).

Position Centered Versus Rule Centered

A second fault line, connected to but distinct from the first, concerns the principal organizing mechanism of an international order. If at its base “order” denotes regularity, then the organizing mechanism is the main content or substance which makes that regularity possible. The two most widely employed organizing mechanisms in scholarly discussions of orders are those premised on a certain positioning of the order’s actors relative to one another versus those that are based on a particular set of principles or rules.

Ikenberry (2001, pp. 22–37) gets at the heart of this divide when he distinguishes two out of his three types of order—balance-of-power and hegemonic orders, both of which are premised on position—from the third, constitutional order, which is premised on rules. To be sure, the fundamental source of stability in the first two are still distinct from one another—“equilibrium of power” versus “preponderance of power.” They remain, however, based on the same larger organizing mechanism, the distribution of power, a mechanism of position. And this is categorically different from the stability source of constitutional orders, “limits on the return to power,” which is a product not of power distribution (position), but of a legitimate set of institutions (rules) (Ikenberry, 2001, p. 24).

Although Ikenberry discusses both power-based and rules-based orders, it is clear that he is more concerned with the latter. Though a small number of accounts center order on both position and rules together (e.g., Allan et al., 2018; Kissinger, 2014), most scholarly conceptions are similar to Ikenberry’s in leaning in one direction or the other. Ikenberry’s distinction between balance and preponderance captures much of the typical diversity on the position-centered side. Traditional neorealists often seem reluctant to use the language of “international order” in the first place, yet nonetheless see the rough equality or balancing of power as the principal organizing mechanism available to a system of states (e.g., Mearsheimer, 2014; Schweller, 2001; Waltz, 1979). That said, many position-centered conceptions of order focus more on preponderance (in power terms) or hierarchy (in authority terms) as the positioning most likely to order an international system (e.g., Gilpin, 1981; Kupchan, 2014; Lake, 2009).

It is worth noting that position-centered accounts need not be focused on (or only on) material power positions. Constructivist scholars in particular have highlighted orders defined by actors’ “differentiation” from one another (Donnelly, 2009), be they “international pecking orders” of prestige and influence (Pouliot, 2016) or systems premised on an “established-outsider” social dynamic (Zarakol, 2010). Moreover, some accounts conceptualize orders as networks—or the patterns of social ties that vary along dimensions such as “the density and distribution of social interactions, the location and direction of super- and subordinate relationships, and so forth” (Nexon, 2009, p. 25)—which is a quintessential metric of position. When these accounts differentiate and categorize different orders according to their network properties, they are essentially arguing that position is the principal organizing mechanism of order (e.g., Goddard, 2018a; Nexon, 2009; Nexon & Wright, 2007).

By contrast, accounts that are rule-centered center less around actors’ relative positions and more around the content of whatever principles govern their relations. Order is constituted by rules, whether or not they are codified, that convey expectations over fundamental issues in international politics. Many English School accounts fit into this category. According to these scholars, an “international society”—basically the English School’s version of order (Alagappa, 2003; Friedner Parrat, 2017; Trachtenberg, 2006, pp. 208–209)—constitutes a group of units “which not merely form a system . . . but also have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognize their common interest in maintaining these arrangements” (Bull & Watson; 1984, p. 1). In The Anarchical Society, Bull (2012, p. 13) argues that actors explicitly or implicitly “regard themselves as bound by certain rules in their dealings with one another” that limit their menu of appropriate behaviors.

In practice, different English School or English School–influenced accounts of order focus on the importance of different kinds of rules. These include rules regulating conflict and war (Bull, 1977; Phillips, 2010; Vincent, 1974), rules establishing the parameters of actors’ sovereignty (Keene, 2002; Philpott, 2001; Reus-Smit, 1999; Teschke, 1998), rules identifying the appropriate boundaries of military interventions (Finnemore, 2003; Vincent, 1974), rules identifying which actors “count” as legitimate order members (Buzan, 2001; Lascurettes, 2020; Philpott, 2001), and even rules about what is to be considered “moral” and “good” in human relations in the first place (Phillips, 2010; Reus-Smit, 1999), to name but a few examples.

As with the thin versus thick fault line, there is little reason to necessarily favor either rule-centered or position-centered order conceptions over the other. In the real world, many orders contain at least some elements of both position and principle. At different times, the salience of one or the other element might be more or less important, depending on the details or issue at hand. As discussed more below, some assessments of the LIO today focus mostly on the fact that it is heavily institutionalized, thus highlighting rules. Other descriptions focus less on its institutions and more on the fact that the LIO is a hegemonic order led by the United States, a perspective that prioritizes position. The juxtaposition between rule-focused and position-focused elements of any given order allows one to take different slices of the same order cake and need not be adjudicated any further.

Regional Versus Global

A third distinction involves whether a given order is regional or global in scope (e.g., Mearsheimer, 2019, pp. 11–12). Regional orders are restricted to a subset of the international system in a coherent and definable way (geography, religion, culture, etc.).6 This includes orders confined to a particular hemisphere, or in some cases multiple regions, but that fall short of universal membership of the entire international system (Katzenstein, 2005). Global orders, by contrast, encompass all, or almost all, actors in the international system.7

This is the fault line where it is perhaps most obvious that there is little need for settling any debate, as both regional and global orders have existed in the actual world. For example, the Concert of Europe was a quintessential regional order (Cronin, 1999; Mitzen, 2013; Schroeder, 1994). It was formed among the five great powers of Europe—Prussia, Russia, Austria, Britain, and France—after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. At its core, the Concert order “was an agreement among the elite statesmen of Europe’s great powers to adhere to and enforce a particular set of principles in their relations with one another on the European continent” (Lascurettes, 2017, p. 3). One of its key principles pertained to the conditions under which military intervention was deemed appropriate (Finnemore, 2003, p. 118). Importantly, however, this arrangement was heavily circumscribed geographically and only meant to govern the behavior of European states. Other regions and actors were excluded from its purview.

Another example of regional order was the hierarchical relationship between the United States and the states of Central and South America in the late 19th century and early 20th century. According to Ahsan Butt (2013, p. 602 ), America in this period “behaved close to an ideal-type domestic government” and “nipped conflict in the bud” for smaller countries throughout the region. One of the results of American hierarchy, at least in this part of the world in this time period, was fewer wars between the states of South America.

The dueling Soviet- and American-led spheres of influence during the global Cold War also constituted regional orders. Although the American-led LIO eventually expanded to become the global order that is (arguably) still with us to this day, for at least the first decades of its architecture—which included the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Bretton Woods financial system—it was confined almost exclusively “the West” (Ikenberry, 2011; Lascurettes, 2020). The Soviet-led order in Eastern and Central Europe, characterized by Cominform, Comecon, and the Warsaw Pact, was comparatively even more geographically restricted (Crump & Godard, 2018).

Definitive and noncontroversial examples of global order are harder to pin down, in part because they have often existed alongside more recognizable and easily delineated regional orders. A global federation or “world state” would be the clearest instance of a true global order, though nothing approximating these things has yet existed in the real world (Arend, 1999, p. 171; Wendt, 2003). Even so, particular institutions and sets of common “rules of the road” have been explicitly created to apply to all states of the world.

The order visions at the heart of the League of Nations Covenant and United Nations Charter, for instance, were designed to be global in scope, codifying norms like self-determination, non-intervention, sovereign equality, and basic collective security for the entire international system (Poznansky, 2020). Intent of universality, of course, does not necessarily mean that universality was achieved, and even the UN has had difficulties in inducing the observance of some of its core maxims. Yet in other areas it has had a more definite and consequential effect—the general prohibition on conquest, for example (Altman, 2020; Fazal, 2007; Maass, 2020)—thus implying that the UN system meets at least some minimal bar for fostering order on a global scale.

A more definitive example of global order can be found in the successful expansion of major aspects of the LIO from a regional order centered around the West in its earliest decades of existence to the rest of the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Ikenberry, 2020, pp. 255–285). Particularly striking has been the rapid growth of the LIO’s economic institutions, manifested most dramatically in the expansion of the Bretton Woods organizations and, especially, in the explosion of membership within and radical transformation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) into the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Lascurettes, 2020, pp. 208–227). In sum, examples abound of both regional and global orders throughout history as well as in contemporary times.

General Versus Issue-Specific

A final dimension along which orders can vary concerns whether they are general and multi-issue in nature or issue-specific. The former represents orders that govern a wide range of behaviors and issue areas at once. This may include particular rules and procedures for how problems should be addressed, yet without being anchored to any single issue in particular. Issue-specific orders fall on the other side of the spectrum. According to Johnston (2019, p. 24), “there are likely to be different, even contradictory, ‘issue-specific orders’ operating at the same time, in the same geographical spaces, and involving the same states” (see also Goddard et al., 2019, p. 314). The specific issues these orders are premised on can run the gamut from security to trade, human rights, finance, monetary policy, the environment, information sharing, and political development.

As with each of the previous fault lines, there is little need to treat general versus issue specific as anything other than an additional dimension along which orders can vary. Both types have existed and continue to exist. Examples of general orders include the Concert of Europe and United Nations orders. Whereas the former is regional in nature and the latter global, neither are limited to a particular issue area. Each similarly set(s) out particular procedures by which members resolve(d) issues on a broad range of topics. The UN, for example, empowers the Security Council to address matters spanning from the appropriate use of military force to the imposition of economic sanctions and the identification of threats to international peace and security (Voeten, 2005).

Issue-specific orders can cover any number of problems. On the security side, the presence of systemic norms about the appropriate way to structure alliances would constitute a kind of issue-specific order. In practice, alliance strategies can vary from bilateral and bare-bones hub-and-spoke arrangements to broad-based multilateral and institutionalized relationships (Leeds, 2003, Ruggie, 1992). At the most extreme end, states may form what Karl Deutsch (1957, p. 5) called “security-communities . . . in which there is a real assurance that the members of that community will not fight each other physically, but will settle their disputes in some other way.”8 Either way, convergence behind a single alliance strategy at a given time generates stable patterns of expected behavior in a particular issue area, thus meeting the baseline for an international order (Kuo, 2021). The laws of war represent another security-oriented example of what could be considered an issue-specific order (Fazal, 2018).

On the economic side, numerous kinds of arrangements structure how states trade with one another as well as how financial systems operate (Bauerle Danzman et al., 2017). Key examples include the underlying principles behind the GATT/WTO, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (Khanna & Winecoff, 2020; Norrlof, 2010). More generally, the dominance of “neoliberal” economic maxims in recent decades can be seen as a type of issue-specific economic order (Slobodian, 2018). And Chinese-led initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative or the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank that have emerged as potential counterweights to Western-led institutions have also been designed to structure particular aspects of economic relations between actors (Broz et al., 2020).

The Origins and Maintenance of International Orders

This section considers the origins of international orders, including what forces are most responsible for bringing a system of actors into a state of order in the first place as well as how those forces continue to sustain that order. The vast majority of existing explanations can be differentiated and categorized according to two fundamental criteria and corresponding sets of questions.

First, are orders produced by a single actor (or a very select subset of actors) who are particularly privileged and/or powerful? Or are they created by many actors that are roughly equal and undifferentiated in capabilities and status relative to one another? One major divide in order explanations comes between those who believe that power, influence, and authority must be imbalanced to generate order versus those who think that order requires an equality or balance of these things. The former can be called concentrated accounts and the latter, dispersed explanations.

Second, do orders come about from purposive behavior, meaning they are the product of at least one actor’s deliberate intent to create them? Or are they the aggregated result of many actors’ behaviors and interactions, producing an outcome that no single one of them intended or anticipated? This divide highlights disagreements between scholars who argue that order can only be generated with intention and purpose, and others who criticize that approach as reductionist and believe instead that order can be generated by unintentional “system effects” (Jervis, 1997). The former offer what we call intentional explanations, and the latter focus on the spontaneous emergence of international orders.

By bringing these two fundamental dimensions together, one can observe four ideal types of explanation for the origins and maintenance of international orders. These ideal types are depicted in the four quadrants of Figure 1.

Classifying Order Explanations

The most prominent type of international order explanations today are those in quadrant I of Figure 1 that combine the concentrated and intentional elements. These are labeled “hegemonic” accounts because they posit that it takes a dominant actor with both the capacity and the will (i.e., a true hegemon) to intentionally impose order over subordinates (Gilpin, 1981, pp. 72–80; Kindleberger, 1973). In most of these accounts, hegemonic-order theorists posit that a dominant actor builds and enforces a pattern of regularity that first and foremost serves its own interests, whether those interests are internationally or domestically derived (Cooley & Nexon, 2020, pp. 41–42; Kang, 2020; Kupchan, 2014; Lake, 2009; Lascurettes, 2020; Nexon & Neumann, 2018; Norrlof, 2010). To take but one example, David Lake’s (2009) study of “hierarchy” explores and defines that concept as the consciously created bargains that are often made between a superordinate actor and subordinate states.9

Yet even within this category and quadrant, variations can exist. Hegemonic orders can range from fairly benign “rule-through-rules” arrangements—where the dominant actor imposes order by establishing a set of universal principles for subordinates to follow, often through international institutions—to full-blown imperial projects. In the latter, the dominant actor rules by being at the center of a hub-and-spoke arrangement and imposes order with the threat or use of coercion to keep subordinates in line (Ikenberry, 2011, pp. 82–91; Nexon & Wright, 2007).10

Figure 1. Explanations for the origins of international orders.

Perhaps the next most prominent category of order explanation combines intentionality with the dispersion of capability and influence rather than its concentration (quadrant IV). These can be called “negotiated” accounts because they emphasize the importance of numerous actors coming together to agree on common expectations for regularity (e.g., Phillips, 2010, p. 36). Many constructivist explanations for the emergence of international orders fit here. Those who might be called “consensus constructivists” focus on the emergence of order agreements in and through diplomacy itself, attempting to pinpoint where and how a particular concurrence is born in multilateral negotiations between elites and diplomats. Particularly in the peace conferences that follow major wars, these scholars argue, states and statesmen come to mutual understandings about the new standards and expectations they must implement and obey to foster a new international order (Clark, 2005; Holsti, 1991; Osiander, 1994). The European Concert order that was the product of the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815 is often held up as a key historical exemplar of this approach (e.g., Kissinger, 1957; Lascurettes, 2017; Mitzen, 2013; Schroeder, 1994). Accounts that emphasize how international law acts as a mechanism for fostering order might also fall into this category. The recognition of other actors’ sovereignty, for example, are intentional but collective actions that have a profound effect on those actors’ relationships and future interactions (e.g., Krasner, 1999; Lauterpacht, 1947).11

On the opposite end of the spectrum from hegemonic accounts are those positing that orders come about via dispersed and spontaneous elements (quadrant III). These are labeled “decentralized” order explanations because they depend neither on actor intentionality nor on the concentration of power or authority. Traditional neorealist accounts of order formation fit here. In a world without a higher authority or central orderer, neorealists argue, the only condition conducive to order is a rough equality of capabilities between rival actors or coalitions, more commonly known as a balance of power. Conversely, writes Kenneth Waltz (1979, p. 132), “An imbalance of power, by feeding the ambition of some states to extend their control, may tempt” them to engage in dangerous and destabilizing behaviors. “Safety for all states” in such a world, he concludes, “depends on the maintenance of a balance among them.” But balance does not require the presence of a purposive balancer. Instead, balances of power often emerge as the collective and unanticipated outcome of actors actually competing rather than cooperating with one another (Schweller, 2001, pp. 69–173; Waltz, 1979, pp. 119–121).

Also situated in quadrant III is a second flavor of constructivist argument. Whereas consensus constructivists posit that agreements across states produce order, “bottom-up constructivists” focus on the domestic origins of orders within the internal processes of particular polities. More specifically, changes that take place within particular actors later aggregate up into new preferences for that actor at the international level, pressuring or inspiring elites to advocate for new order properties that better reflect their own shifting priorities or identities. For example, Bukovansky (2002) has chronicled how changes in domestic conceptions of political “legitimacy” stemming from the American and French revolutions led to new, unanticipated coalitions of domestic interests between and across states that eventually transformed the ways in which nation-states interacted on the world stage. In many of these types of accounts, similar bottom-up processes take place within and across numerous polities at once, leading to a convergence of preferences at the international level as each domestic movement or set of internal developments exercises similar influence on elite perceptions or decision making in the same era (e.g., Barkin & Cronin, 1994; Cronin, 1999; Gong, 1984; Hall, 1999; Philpott, 2001; Reus-Smit, 1999).

Quadrant III also captures arguments about global governance that seek to move beyond the state-centric focus of much of IR theory to include a broad range of nontraditional and nonstate actors (Green; 2014; Keck & Sikkink; 1998). As Avant et al. (2010, p. 1) argue, “The global policy arena is filled with a wide variety of actors—international organizations, corporations, professional associations, advocacy groups, and the like—all seeking to ‘govern’ activity in issue areas they care about.” Solidarist English School narratives that emphasize a growing role for various actors beyond the state in contemporary international society also fit here (e.g., Buzan, 2004, pp. 91–97; Hurrell, 2007, chap. 4). In any of these accounts, the actors seeking to carve out authority and influence in a particular policy space may not consciously seek to forge an order. In the aggregate, however, their efforts often result in the emergence of stable and regular patterns of activity, whether in a particular issue area or in a specific part of the world, resulting in what one prominent order theorist has called a “multiplex” variant of international order (Acharya, 2018).

Finally, perhaps the least populated quadrant of order explanation combines the concentrated and spontaneous or unintentional elements (quadrant II). These “centralized” orders are derived from and premised on the concentration of power or influence in a privileged actor or small set of actors. Whatever disproportionate influence these actors have, however, they do not exercise it out of a conscious desire to establish or sustain the resulting order (Donnelly, 2006, p. 144) in the way that such actors do in the hegemonic quadrant (I). Situated in this quadrant are those neorealists who argue that it is not a balance, but a preponderance of power that fosters the stability associated with order. Under the power distribution of unipolarity in particular, it is the systemic imbalance of power itself—rather than the intentions or behaviors of the unipole—that generates and sustains the resulting order (Gilpin, 1981; Monteiro, 2014; Wohlforth, 1999).

Also fitting in quadrant II are non-realist accounts of dominant actors unconsciously and inadvertently shaping important characteristics of international relations that often meet the bar for “ordered” systems. For example, Gunitsky (2017) demonstrates how the domestic regime type of a particular great power is reproduced and adopted across the world when that actor is viewed as the system’s ascendant hegemon, and Kuo (2021) posits that the dominant great power’s alliance choices are mimicked by a majority of subordinate actors around the world. In neither account is the preponderant actor consciously acting to impose its own choices as some new international standard. Precisely because of the gravitational pull of their disproportionate influence, however, they become the inadvertent orderers of their respective systems.

Complicating the Classification

As is often the case with classification schemes, some of the most interesting approaches, ambiguities, and arguments are found along the borders and boundaries of these categories. Eclectic explanations for order formation self-consciously bridge multiple quadrants of Figure 1. For instance, when Kissinger (2014, p. 9) defines order as “a set of commonly accepted rules that define the limits of permissible action and a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down, preventing one political unit from subjugating all others,” he is actually arguing that causal factors from quadrants III and IV are individually necessary for order but only jointly sufficient for producing it. Similarly, Allan et al. (2018) focus on a hegemonic actor’s ideology as the core source of order (quadrant I), yet argue that it will only become a sustainable order to the extent that the masses in non-hegemonic states agree with and buy into that ideology (quadrant IV). Likewise, Oatley et al. (2013, pp. 135–136) demonstrate that although the modern financial system is hegemonic (quadrant I) it allows for “multiple agents interact[ing] without guidance provided by a central controller and produc[ing] a structured and persistent collective outcome” (quadrant IV).

Whether Marxist accounts of order formation better fit into quadrant I or quadrant II depends on the particular account’s nuances and details. Marxists of all stripes hold that wealth and power under capitalism become disproportionately concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, which is ultimately what produces a capitalist world system (the type of order Marxists are most likely to focus on) in the first place (e.g., Lenin, 1947; Wallerstein, 1974). All such approaches therefore belong above Figure 1’s horizontal axis, in quadrant I or II. Yet Marxists have sometimes disagreed among themselves over the intentionality of the privileged actor(s) in bringing about and perpetuating such an order. “Instrumental Marxists” posit that these dominant actors understand what they are doing and act with purpose to support and sustain orders of inequity (quadrant I). By contrast, “Structural Marxists” predict the same results yet argue that it is the nature of capitalism itself, rather than any single actor’s intentional behavior, that brings about and stabilizes orders characterized by structural inequality (quadrant II) (Arrighi, 1994; Overbeek, 1990; Rupert, 1995).12

A similar dynamic may apply to feminist scholarship’s conception of international order. In such accounts, there is agreement on the pervasiveness of what is often called the “hegemonic masculinity” norm, thus positioning them above Figure 1’s horizontal axis. Yet questions remain as to whether this norm is the product of intentional diffusion or unintentional system effects (Jones, 1996; Tickner, 1992).13

In much the same way, the question of intentionality is at the heart of disagreements over whether English School “socialization of states” accounts better belong in quadrant I or III. These accounts focus on the development of a truly global order as particular standards of legitimacy and civilization were expanded from a core group of European states to the rest of the (formerly dependent) world in the latter half of the 20th century (e.g., Gong, 1984; Keene, 2002; Watson, 1992). Although the role of preponderant states in setting the global agenda is a core feature, what often remains unclear—perhaps intentionally so—is the degree to which these actors consciously intended to establish the resulting global order(s). Keene’s account is indeed centered on this ambiguity and the tensions it creates in the contemporary system. “We now live in a world where we have a singular political and legal framework that is schizophrenically trying to realize two different purposes at the same time,” he writes (Keene, 2002, p. 122): the commitment to toleration for separate and diverse societies that comes from recognizing sovereign equality, and the justification for gross violations of sovereignty (via imperial projects) that follows from recognizing a singular notion of what societal attributes are seen as “civilized” and thus universally necessary for order. On the one hand, preponderant actors consciously advocated for each of these principles, thus suggesting the hegemonic order story of quadrant I. On the other hand, they also advocated for the imposition of these principles in separate realms, in isolation—rather than together—and the unintentional contradictions produced via their collision in the contemporary global order seems more at home with the other concentrated accounts of quadrant II.

Finally, it may be instructive to think about aspects of the LIO debate as a disagreement over where in Figure 1 its origins and maintenance story belongs. LIO theorists of all stripes appear to agree that the American-led liberal order was erected with intentionality, thus positioning it to the right of Figure 1’s vertical axis (quadrant I or IV). What they disagree on is the centrality of American hegemony in generating and sustaining it. For the hegemonic-order theorists of quadrant I, it is the American-led liberal order that is key. To the extent that the LIO represents a sea change from orders of the past, its distinctiveness is a product of its exceptional founder and principal benefactor, the United States of America (e.g., Ikenberry, 2011; Patrick, 2016). America’s exceptionalism as an orderer stems from its unique domestic properties and distinct historical experiences (e.g., Deudney, 2007; Kupchan, 2014; Nye, 2017; Ruggie, 1997).

Others more comfortable in quadrant IV emphasize that it is the American-led liberal order that is most important. Its distinctiveness stems less from American leadership and more from its institutionalized nature or its normative content. For liberal institutionalists, the formalization and legalization of international interactions via mutually beneficial institutions is both what sets the liberal order apart from its predecessors and what sustains its continuing popularity and success (Barnett & Finnemore, 2005; Ikenberry, 2001; Keohane, 1984; Martin, 1999). For consensus constructivists, however, it is the liberal content of the order’s normative principles—centered on the rights of the individual as well as particular political and economic liberties—that makes the order distinct and unprecedented in history (e.g., Reus-Smit, 2013a, 2013b). In spite of their differences, these quadrant IV theorists would agree—contra the hegemonic-order view—that a central component of the LIO is its distinct lack of hierarchy and the absence of differential treatment of different actors according to their relative capability (Adler-Nissen & Zarakol, 2021). The LIO may have been founded under the shadow of American hegemony, they argue, but that is not sufficient (nor perhaps even necessary) for explaining its origins and endurance.

Indicative of this debate’s subtleties is the fact that John Ikenberry himself has seemingly shifted from one side to the other. In After Victory, Ikenberry (2001) draws a clear line between hegemonic and constitutional orders (chap. 2) and then distinguishes the contemporary LIO from all prior orders by its “constitutional characteristics.” Although U.S. power was certainly important for establishing the order, he argues that “it is not the preponderance of American power that keeps the system intact” but instead the system’s “array of institutions that establish restraint and commitment” (Ikenberry, 2001, pp. 210, 270). Yet in revisiting the subject in Liberal Leviathan (Ikenberry, 2011) and A World Safe for Democracy (Ikenberry, 2020) one and two decades later, the centrality of American hegemony looms much larger. In these updated accounts, Ikenberry describes the postwar system not as constitutional, but as a “liberal hegemonic order” and “a hierarchical order with liberal characteristics,” no longer premised above all on its institutions but instead “built around a set of American political, economic, and security bargains with countries in Europe and East Asia” (Ikenberry, 2011, pp. 160–169). In sum, even the liberal order’s most prominent theorist has subtly shifted from straddling the boundary between quadrants I and IV to more comfortably settling down in quadrant I.

The Transformation and Breakdown of International Orders

To a large extent, one can derive from any explanation for order formation a corresponding explanation for order breakdown simply by taking its logical inverse. For instance, for those realists who see a balance of power as the key criterion for order formation (quadrant III), one can deduce that disruption of that balance is what will ultimately lead to order breakdown. For those who instead see the concentration of power as a key ingredient of order formation (quadrants I and IV), order breakdown presumably follows from power’s de-concentration or, in the case of hegemonic explanations, from the displacement of one hegemonic actor for another.

That said, a close examination of international order scholarship reveals an additional and novel criterion for classifying how orders can transform or break down: the rapidity at which transformation or breakdown occurs.14 More specifically, orders can transform or fall apart through processes of either revolutionary or evolutionary change.15

Revolutionary Change

Revolutionary order change follows the “punctuated equilibrium” model of evolution whereby systemic conditions “of relative tranquility are interrupted by sudden and dramatic changes. Such broad exogenous change—punctuation—will lead to a flurry of radically new” possibilities (Spruyt, 1994, p. 24). Put more plainly, international orders in revolutionary accounts transform only sporadically. When they do, however, they shift or break apart rapidly and dramatically. Short periods of radical upheaval are often preceded and followed by much longer periods of stasis and stability.16 Accounts in this camp depict orders as significantly changing or breaking down when there is some massive shock to or displacement in the system, or what Gilpin (1981, p. 46) calls “critical moments” at which what is contested “is the nature and governance of the system itself.”

The most common type of shock identified by order theorists is a major war involving most or all of a system’s great powers. According to Ikenberry (2001), major wars constitute critical junctures at which “newly powerful states have been given extraordinary opportunities to shape world politics” and establish “new rules and principles of international relations” that have the effect of “remak[ing] international order.” Major wars can drastically shift the balance of power while sometimes even eliminating major actors (Copeland, 2001; Lascurettes, 2020; Waltz, 1979), bringing down empires (Phillips, 2010), and rapidly accelerating the replacement of old hierarchies of influence with new ones (Gilpin, 1981; Gunitsky, 2017). Beyond these material effects, such shocks often “dislodge settled expectations and ways of thinking” so that a “window of legitimacy” is opened for various actors to pursue more significant and far-reaching changes to the very fabric of order in their aftermath (Lascurettes, 2020, p. 31). These critical periods are sometimes referred to as “constitutional moments” (Clark, 2005; Holsti, 1991; Ikenberry, 1998, 2001; Kocs, 2019, pp. 10–12; Osiander, 1994).

Major wars are not the only kind of systemic shock that can fundamentally alter or end international orders in revolutionary accounts. In the realm of political economy, global financial crises can play a similar role in bringing about a sudden sweeping away of important patterns or deeply held assumptions (Khanna & Winecoff, 2020). Shocks within polities—particularly if those polities are especially powerful or otherwise influential actors in their respective environments—can also prove quickly destabilizing for existing orders. Numerous scholars have highlighted how major political or social revolutions within states have served as catalysts for systemic transformations that perhaps extend to foundational elements of international orders (Haas, 2005; Halliday, 1999; Owen, 2010; Walt, 1996). Legro (2005) in particular has argued that foreign policy revolutions—periods where great powers have fundamentally rethought and revised their relationships with the wider international community—have served as larger order-redefining events. Finally, perhaps even global pandemics could result in revolutionary changes. Although it is too early to say for certain, a number of scholars have begun questioning whether the United States’ failure to mount a robust response to COVID-19 in 2020 might induce rapid transformations in, or even the collapse of, the American-led liberal order (Brands & Gavin, 2020).

Evolutionary Change

In contrast to revolutionary accounts, a second camp highlights more gradual and evolutionary processes of order transformation, or what Gilpin (1981, p. 45) describes as “continuous incremental adjustments within the framework of the existing system” (see also Jabko & Sheingate, 2018). International orders in evolutionary accounts continuously evolve and change over time, yet do so in minute and often even imperceptible ways. These accounts focus on slower moving forces and more granular processes that accumulate over time, inducing more consistent but subtle changes (in the case of order transformation) or more gradual erosion and decay (in the case of order collapse). To take but one example as an illustration, Carnegie and Carson (2018) have shown how the increasing publicization of various transgressions of a given order’s rules can, over time, aggregate to undermine actors’ faith in the rate of compliance with that order. This development slowly raises incentives across the system to conceal noncompliant behavior in a way that nonetheless erodes the order’s broader effectiveness.

Many constructivist treatments of order fit more comfortably in this evolutionary camp. When international orders are premised on deeply held beliefs or assumptions that permeate within and across societies, the processes by which such forces change is typically incremental. Small anomalies to dominant orthodoxies begin to percolate and grow within some polities earlier than in others and will only later begin spreading internationally and across societies. Where order is premised on assumptions as deep and well rooted as the “moral purpose” for organizing world politics into separate societies in the first place (Reus-Smit, 1999), or the foundational scientific assumptions about time, space, and the cosmos (Allan, 2018), the processes by which these things are questioned, challenged, dismantled, and replaced will necessarily be very slow moving.17

In practice, evolutionary accounts highlight an even wider variety of order change factors in the real world than do revolutionary ones. In the study of the LIO, for instance, different accounts identify an array of slower-moving processes—rising dissatisfaction with the order among the semi-peripheral subordinate states (Adler-Nissen & Zarakol, 2021; Colgan & Keohane, 2017; Nexon & Cooley, 2020) as well as growing dominant-state hubris and strategic overextension (Butt, 2013; Ikenberry, 2011)—that are consistent with the evolutionary approach. In studies of the LIO’s economic components in particular, scholars have highlighted gradual changes to America’s borrowing patterns (Bauerle Danzman et al., 2017), as well as the emergence of alternative trading markets and currencies (Norrlof, 2010), as evolutionary processes that gradually contribute to the order’s transformation or collapse.

Finally, it is worth noting that in practice, and as with the origins of order, these revolutionary and evolutionary change categories need not always be mutually exclusive. As Gilpin (1981, p. 45) plainly puts it, “In an international system both types of changes take place.” It is therefore also possible for accounts of order change to contain both revolutionary and evolutionary processes. Indeed, some scholars have consciously sought to bridge this divide. Phillips (2010, pp. 34–36) argues that although orders ultimately collapse in the midst of a massive punctuation like a major war, this shock is preceded by evolutionary challenges that are ultimately necessary for making such a fateful revolutionary disruption possible.


Recent years have seen a renaissance in the study of international order, driven in part by a wide variety of systemic developments and disturbances that include the rise of China, Britain’s exit from the European Union, the unexpected election of Donald Trump in the hegemonic United States, skyrocketing populism, and a global pandemic. This article has sought to take stock of the disorderly literature on international order by providing a baseline definition of the concept, identifying the main fault lines along which orders might be categorized and compared, and discussing the dimensions along which orders emerge, persist, change, and ultimately break down.

Although the article has tried to highlight a diverse range of perspectives and approaches, it is worth noting that existing studies of international order have disproportionately focused on the West and the 20th century, particularly the post–World War II era. An increasing number of scholars have begun to call out the biases and blind spots this focus engenders, while also demonstrating how the study of order can benefit from consideration of a wider array of order case studies off the beaten path (Acharya, 2009; Acharya & Buzan, 2007; Chowdhury, 2018; Grovogui, 2002; Hui, 2005; Kang, 2020; Phillips & Sharman, 2015; Spruyt, 2020; Wohlforth et al., 2007). Continued exploration of non-Western cases of and approaches to order in particular would be fruitful, not only for the empirical and historical study of international order but also for refining the very concept at the heart of this article itself.

Another interesting avenue for future research involves more thoroughly exploring the intersections of the various categories and classifications highlighted here. For example, although many scholars acknowledge that multiple orders exist simultaneously, existing work tends to focus on one particular order at a time. It would be useful, however, to investigate how different kinds or layers of order coexist and interact. This is an especially important exercise since some actors—especially the system’s great powers—often hold membership in several orders simultaneously at any given time. Exploring whether an actor’s behavior in one order has ripple effects in another, or how actors navigate multiple order memberships at a time—particularly when the maxims of one are in tension with those of another—is a worthwhile pathway for future research. Moreover, examining the interactions and connections of different orders would also contribute to the noble cause of continuing to break down the silos between security studies, international political economy, and area studies to forge new connections, perhaps bringing more clarity—and, dare we say, more order—to the study of international affairs more generally.


The opinions expressed herein are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of the US Naval War College, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

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  • 1. On the intellectual history of international order from a theological perspective, see Bain (2020).

  • 2. Many of these dynamics also apply to domestic orders (see Lebow, 2018).

  • 3. For a thorough treatment of the variety of rules in international relations, see Arend (1999).

  • 4. For critiques of the LIO as a concept and an actual phenomenon in the world, see Glaser (2019) and Porter (2020).

  • 5. On the pluralist-solidarist debate, see Williams (2005) and Weinert (2011).

  • 6. As Hurrell (2007, p. 241) reminds us, “regions” are always socially constructed. “There are no ‘natural’ regions,” he writes, “and definitions of ‘region’ and indicators of ‘regionness’ vary according to the particular problem or question under investigation.”

  • 7. Saying “almost all” here leaves open the possibility that there may be cases in which a given set of stable patterns of relations applies to most states, while leaving room for the exceptions of a few deviant actors who intentionally set themselves apart or go against the grain (Adler-Nissen, 2014).

  • 8. See also Adler (2008) and Adler and Barnett (1998).

  • 9. For more on hierarchy, see Zarakol (2017).

  • 10. For an empirical test of the hegemonic stability thesis during several prominent economic crises, see Norrlof and Reich (2015).

  • 11. On the topic of international legal approaches to order, Chimni’s (2017) “Integrated Marxist Approach” to international law is also worth considering, as it draws on Marxism, socialist feminism, and postcolonial theory to critically assess and interrogate mainstream legal approaches to order.

  • 12. On this terminology and distinction of different Marxist arguments, see Krasner (1978, pp. 20–26).

  • 13. Other relevant feminist scholarship highlights an “ethics of care” norm as an alternative (or additional) ordering principle for international relations (Held, 2006; Robinson, 1999).

  • 14. One alternative framework for order change that this article does not engage with distinguishes between change that is “efficient” and predictable given the external environment and that which is “inefficient” and unpredictable (March & Olsen, 1998).

  • 15. Although the authors of this article find the labels “evolutionary” and “revolutionary” helpful and instructive in describing the pattern and rapidity of order transformation and change, these terms have very different meanings in different contexts. Their use in these separate contexts thus should not necessarily imply those accounts’ conformity with the revolutionary and evolutionary camps identified in this section. For instance, although many English School order accounts build on Wight’s (1991, pp. 8–12) conception of a “Revolutionist tradition,” this idea is centered more on order content than the nature and speed of order breakdown and change. Similarly, although the title of Armstrong’s (1993) monograph is Revolution and World Order, his narrative actually supports what has been identified here as the evolutionary perspective whereby order transformations are typically gradual and slow-moving processes.

  • 16. Peter Katzenstein (1989, p. 296) usefully refers to these moments of punctuation as “a sequence of irregular big bangs.”

  • 17. Underscoring the fact that not every constructivist account of order change is necessarily evolutionary, however, Philpott (2001) explicitly argues that changes in the foundational assumptions about sovereignty have come at more revolutionary speeds than evolutionary ones.