The Internet Encyclopedia of International Relations

James C. Roberts
Towson University
    Hedley Bull, a British scholar of international relations, stated that anarchy was "the central fact of the international system and the starting place for theorizing about it." (Bull 1966: 35)   No international legislature makes laws to regulate the relations between states and no supreme executive stands ready to inhibit the actions of a single state when those actions oppose the common will.  No authority exists to which one state can turn for justice in its affairs with its neighbors.  It is due to this absence of a central governing body that the international system is often described as an anarchical system.  Anarchy is, therefore, simply the absence of a higher governing authority.  Sovereign states are autonomous and independent.  Because of this autonomy there is no world government. 1/
United Nations General Assembly in session.
    The roots of of the word anarchy literally mean "without a leader."  The word combines the Greek prefix "an-" which means without, with the Indo-European root "arkh" which means "begin" or "take the lead."   Historically, being without a leader signified the absence of a political ruler (Shipley 1984, 18-19).  In common usage anarchy has come to signify both the absence of a ruler and the disorder that is bound up with the absence of a ruler.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives its first definition of anarchy as "absence of government; the state of lawlessness due to the absence or inefficiency of the supreme power; political disorder." (Oxford University Press 1971, 301).   Although wars and conflict dominate the image of international relations, anarchy does not mean disorder.  It simply means that among sovereigns, there is no ruler, no superior authority, and thus no world government.  In fact, recent theory of international relations attempts to understand why so much of  international relations is well ordered and peaceful in the absence of a supreme ruler. 2/
  Literally, anarchy refers to the absence of a ruler.  More generally, political anarchy is the condition of any polity that is lacking in formal institutions of government at the system level, that is highly decentralized with respect to the distribution of authority and power.  Defined in this way, anarchy is by no means synonymous with disorder or chaos.  There is no a priori reason to conclude that the emergence of effective systems of rights and rules is infeasible in polities characterized by a high degree of decentralization with respect to the distribution of authority and power.
(Young 1978, 272)
Flags of the sovereign nation-states at United Nations Plaza in New York.  Hedley Bull's claim about the importance of anarchy is derived from neorealist theories of international relations.  Neorealism asserts that the nation-state is the primary actor in international relations and that each sovereign state has national interests which drive its foreign policy and often stand in opposition to other nation states.  Kenneth Waltz, an American political scientist, described the nature of neorealist international relations as a "self-help" system.
"With many sovereign states, with no system of law enforceable among them, with each state judging its grievances and ambitions according to the dictates of its own reason or desire - conflict, sometimes leading to war, is bound to occur.  To achieve a favorable outcome from such a conflict, a state has to rely on its own devices, the relative efficiency  of which must be its constant concern."  (Waltz 1959: 159)
From this view, anarchy means that nation-states must be constantly aware of the motives and capabilities of their neighbors.  Power is measured in relative terms.  That is, states need not be the most powerful, merely more powerful than their potential enemies.   Cooperation with others should be done cautiously to avoid dependency.  Orderly international relations emerge from the uneasy standoff of a balance-of-power where equally powerful states avoid conflict out of uncertainty and fear of the outcome.
 Bargaining among independent consumers creates the ordered structure of the market
    There are many critics of this view.  Neoliberal critics see the anarchy of international relations much like the anarchy of the marketplace.  That is, sovereign nation-states are like the independent, autonomous consumer in a free market system.  In such a system, self-interest drives the actors to cooperate and create system wide institutions.  Order in the system is the result more of cooperation than of a conflictual standoff.
    Constructivist theory recently has questioned the significance of anarchy in defining the conditions of international relations.  Constructivists, such as Nicholas Onuf (1989) and Alexander Wendt (1992), claim that anarchy is what we make of it.  That is, it does not exist separate from the activities of the nation-states.  It is not some externally created constraint.  It is created by the commonly accepted rules of practice in international affairs.  Constructivists also note that the nation-state itself is a product of the social and legal systems that permit sovereignty to exist. Constructivism is based on an idea that social institutions are not external objects handed down by some unknown power.  These institutions, like the state or the international system, are socially constructed by the rules and practices of human life. They are the result of a historical process that is constantly in flux.  Thus, the state and the international system are not constant and theories and understandings of international relations must also be contextual.
    Feminist critics such as J. Ann Tickner (1988), or V. Spike Peterson (1992) claim that these socially constructed institutions have been too heavily influenced by masculine ideals of power, control, and independence.  While they do not deny that anarchy exists, they question the meaning of the nation state and sovereignty in everyday life.  They also point out that defining anarchy using these masculine ideals focuses policy too much on conflictual and military solutions and excludes cooperative alternatives.
     The study of anarchy is not unique to international relations.  Social contract theorists of domestic government have explored the theoretical importance of anarchy in creating and justifying government..  Thomas Hobbes, a British political philosopher of the 17th century, posited that in the absence of government, humans existed in a "state of nature" where
     . . . if one plant, sow, build, or possesse a convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty.  And the invader again is in the like danger of another.
    And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him. (Hobbes, 1964:83)
Hobbes posited that because of this anarchical state of nature, humans naturally and inevitably devise government to mediate the disorder.  Without government, there can be no commerce, no property, and no order.  Sovereign individuals willingly surrender some of their autonomy to obtain these benefits.  So, why does the anarchy of the international system not generate a world government in the same manner?  Hedley Bull called this question the domestic analogy. He claimed that there are characteristics of the nation-state that preclude a similar process at the international level.  Among these characteristics are the state's self-sufficiency and the ability of individuals in a state to bond together for common defense.
    This, then, establishes the uniqueness of international relations among the social sciences.  Where political science is concerned with social relationships within a government, international relations studies social relationships in the absence of government.  Anarchy, derived from the formal autonomy of sovereign states, defines the essence of international relations.  Critics may correctly question the nature of that anarchy or its long-lived importance in a world where states themselves are in flux, but in a world of sovereign states, international relations occur in the absence of world government and thus occur in anarchy.


    1.   Although the UN represents a major step forward in collaborative international relations, it is not to be confused with a world government.  The UN can only pursue those issues which its collective membership agrees to and has little enforcement powers. Return to the Text

    2. Hedley Bull recognized this when he stated  "The salient fact is taken to be not that of conflict among states within the international anarchy . . . but cooperation among states in a society without government." (Bull 1966, 38)  Return to the Text