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Reading Room: The Anarchical Society at 40

17 Dec 2017
Reviewed by Dr Linda Quayle

The Anarchical Society, undoubtedly Hedley Bull’s most famous work, turned 40 in 2017. The Anarchical Society at 40: Contemporary Challenges and Prospects attempts a stocktake after four decades.

The title of Hedley Bull’s original work encapsulates its central paradox: juridically equal states exist in an international anarchy (with no ‘boss’ to impart central direction) and yet have created a social milieu that enables some degree of international order and cooperation.

The editors of The Anarchical Society at 40 are to be much commended for ensuring a tight and tidy structure. Overview chapters bookend the collection, previewing and synthesising the themes. Part One repackages and reviews Bull’s key arguments, enabling readers not familiar with the original work to engage with the rest of the essays.

Part Two deals with “three foundational critiques”: the unacknowledged Christian roots of Bull’s conception of international society and his failure to fully appreciate either the transformational politics of human rights or the canker that colonialism permanently implanted in international society.

The chapters of Part Three map eight areas of contemporary politics—ranging from global violence and cyberspace to indigenous peoples and patriarchy—assessing in each the degree to which Bull’s ideas are still valid or are in need of updating. In the area of security, it is argued, many of Bull’s expectations have been borne out, but in underestimating the role of transnational and subnational forces—the “wider world political system” that Bull identified but did not really engage with—he created an incomplete picture 40 years ago and the gulf has only widened since.

Part Four presents three major ways in which The Anarchical Society could be augmented: by taking more seriously the role of political economy, by acknowledging that other parts of the world see international society very differently and by exploring the implications of processes of cultural convergence and divergence on the ongoing development of international society. A chapter on Chinese stances, to complement the one on Russia, would have been a useful addition.

The compilation contains many reminders that the society of states “seems structurally incapable of overcoming the gap between what is feasible (politics as the art of the possible) and what is necessary (protecting the peoples of the world against various forms of catastrophic harm)”. This is the central dilemma that Bull explored. Our international arrangements are clearly not satisfactory, but how—in a world of marked and enduring diversity—can we arrive at something better? How, in Bull’s terms, can we ensure that ‘solidarism’ is based on genuine solidarity?

Heikki Patomäki imagines asking Bull, “Why was the post-Cold War moment of cooperation, shared values, and solidarity so short-lived?” Patomäki argues that the answer lies at least partially in the dynamics of the global political economy. While not disagreeing with this, we might also consider whether Bull’s answer might have been that the actual levels of post-Cold War cooperation, shared values and solidarity were drastically over-estimated in some quarters, leading to chains of unwise actions and unforeseen reactions.

Such considerations do not mean we are stuck with inertia, however. The volume’s contributors sketch a number of springboards for change that cannot be analysed through the relatively narrow lens of the international society of states. These include ongoing contestations over human rights, which help to shape states and ultimately the international order; the variegated coalitions of non-state actors leading the charge against climate change; the opportunity offered by indigenous peoples to reconceptualise ideas of sovereignty; and the emergence of “the political capacity to govern global economic and financial risks”.

The ultimate compatibility of such processes raises further questions and we are reminded—in the discussions of the Islamic State, patriarchal push-back and resurgent nationalism—that progress is non-linear. Nevertheless, all these shifts speak to potential sites where failures of interstate cooperation might be remedied and alternative possibilities for world order and justice might be explored.

Both in charting future directions and injecting appropriate cautions, this book is an immensely valuable addition to the literature.

Hidemi Suganami, Madeline Carr and Adam Humphreys (Eds), The Anarchical Society at 40: Contemporary Challenges & Prospects, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. ISBN13: 9780198805144

Dr Linda Quayle is a lecturer in the School of Politics, History, and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.