Anarchy as the founding principle of International Relations

A theoretical overview

Essay, 2007

8 Pages, Grade: C


IRPG 841 Theory of International Relations

Sebastian Plappert

Anarchy as the founding principle of International Relations

In general understanding, anarchy may be defined as orderless chaos, the absence or inefficiency of a higher authority and the constant struggle or threat of war (Oxford University Press 1971, p. 301). This corresponds well to the Hobbesian analogy of the state of nature, where every man is enemy to every man (Hobbes 1969, p. 143), but the definition is still too broad. In the domain of IR, anarchy is a more precise term, which refers to the lack of an overarching political authority governing the international system, while leaving room for order and patterns of behaviour for its actors (Gilpin 1981, p. 28). Although, it is claimed that anarchy is the founding principle of IR, this essay will argue that anarchy is indeed an important characteristic, but certainly not the basic premise of international relations as a discipline. To support this, the papers first section will be a brief examination of the relevance and application of anarchy in different theoretical approaches. Starting with those strongly based on anarchy, the paper will progress to approaches which do not concentrate on anarchy. These theories will be limited only to those closely linked to the neorealist line of thought. Finally the paper will present and evaluate critical approaches to the perception of anarchy as the founding principle of IR.

The subject of IR originates mainly in studying the concept of anarchy in inter-state relations as juxtaposition to the hierarchical intrastate system. International politics lacks a central authority, hence, it deals with a different branch of politics. Whereas "domestic systems are centralized and hierarchic”, "international systems are decentralized and anarchic” (Waltz 1979, p. 88). Waltz (1979, p. 88). characterises these ordering principles as "distinctly different, indeed, contrary to each other”. International politics focuses on relationships existing in an international arena where no super ordinate government exercises ruling power (Dunn 1948, p. 144). This being the commonly accepted definition of anarchy, it identifies the realm of international relations and emphasises the strong coherency of IR and the concept of anarchy (Wight 1978, p. 102). That determines anarchy as the fundamental term that establishes IR as a discipline concentrating on transnational politics.

In fact, there are several unique approaches to the field of IR which all attempt to create a coherent picture of world politics, using the concept of anarchy. Structural Realism claims anarchy to be "the principal force shaping the motives and actions of states” (Grieco 1988, p. 488). The obvious absence of a super ordinate authority internationally sets the conditions for interacting agents because it creates a "self-help system” (Waltz 1979, p. 105). These agents, namely states, are concerned with their very survival and will all act equally. "In anarchical realms, like units coact, … they are functionally similar and tend to remain so” (Waltz 1979, p. 104). Moreover, because of their basic likeness, constant anarchy defines and limits all possible conduct of states in the same way, as the capitalistic marketplace forces all kinds of companies to adopt specific strategies (Waltz 1979, pp. 105-106). In short, for Kenneth Waltz (1979, p. 88), the agent's behaviour is entirely determined by the fixed structure. Following the neorealist legacy, any understanding of international politics derives from the fact that anarchy is a precondition and a constitutional principle of IR (Art & Jervis 1986, p. 7), since it provides the conditional framework for any further theorisation. However, this is a very rigid perception of anarchy and its consequences may be exaggerated.

Various modified versions of Liberalism take this anarchical structure for granted but, in contrast to the neorealist approach, the same conditions result in different consequences which render the structure more flexible (Art & Jervis 1986, p. 1). "Despite the reality of anarchy, beneficial forms of international cooperation can be promoted” because profit comes within the interest of states (Axelrod & Keohane 1985, p. 254). Anarchy itself implies not a war of states against each other; it just constrains cooperation by means of absolute gains versus relative gains (Powell 1994, pp. 335-338). International Institutions, created by the states themselves for their own benefit, are able to control cooperation either directly by sanctioning defects, or indirectly by diminishing the dissenters profit in the long run (Keohane 1984, p. 77). By conceiving the anarchical structure as less static, ongoing cooperation and regime building could alter the system (Ruggie 1983, pp. 283-285). "Thus, anarchy, while perhaps a necessary condition, is certainly not sufficient to explain any of the variation in international politics” according to the neoliberal view (Powell 1994, p. 332). Anarchy is a founding principle, but there must be more to correctly explain international relations.

Another theory about international politics presupposes anarchy, but it dismisses the logical deduction from anarchy to a state of war by emphasizing historical facts. States are held together by the social nature of humans and the same is valid for the international sphere (Dunne 1998, p. 9, p. 59). In the understanding of the English School, agents in the international realm perceive themselves as part of the system. Furthermore, if “a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values forms a society … they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relation with one another” (Bull 1977, p. 13). Describing an arrangement of related items according to a particular pattern reflects the very existence of order (Bull 1977, p. 3). Even in the face of an anarchical structure, international order is a fact, because several values and interests such as sovereignty are obviously shared and negotiated (Harris 1993, p. 727) The only consequence of anarchy equals its definition as the lack of an international authority and not its prevention of a social order as a structural limitation of a states behaviour. Rather the opposite is the case. However, anarchy is still strongly assumed in the first place and therfore the most important principle of IR.


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Anarchy as the founding principle of International Relations
A theoretical overview
Macquarie University
IRPG 841 Theory of International Relations
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
374 KB
6 pages text, 2 pages sources, no index
Anarchy, International, Relations
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Sebastian Plappert (Author), 2007, Anarchy as the founding principle of International Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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