Anarchy: A Perennial Feature of World Politics or an Outdated Dogma of Realist International Relations Scholarship?

This short article will briefly seek to expose some flaws in the neorealist explanation of international system in terms of a perpetual state of anarchy which succeeds doing so by adopting a positivist epistemology, focusing on structure rather than process and drawing a strict dichotomy between domestic and international politics, suggesting the latter remains anarchical unless it becomes virtually synonymous with the former.


It will be argued that the concept of anarchy in International Relations is fundamentally unsuitable to explain the post-Hobbesian world politics since the structure of international politics has become more hierarchic and efficient at performing the tasks of government due to the emergence of non-state units as well as because of the evolved understanding of sovereignty and the principles of modern international law.


Hobbes’ Anarchy and the Domestic Analogy

Let us first define anarchy as it is understood in International Relations. Anarchy is a feature of the international system whereby no central authority exercises legitimate control over its subordinate units (i.e., states) as a result of state sovereignty (Griffiths et al., 2008). The concept is based on Hobbes’ contrasting exercise between the “state of nature”, wherein relations between humans are of “war of all against all”, and the state after the creation of Leviathan,an authority to which individuals surrender their absolute rights to a sovereign in return for protection thereby creating a social contract (Hobbes and Gaskin, 1998).

The relative lack of an ordered relationship in international politics as compared to the seemingly hierarchical relations present on the domestic political level is known as the “domestic analogy” (Bull, 2002). This lack of international order, or anarchy, has been accepted as the defining term of the structure of the international system by the majority of International Relations scholars (Wendt, 1992). This article will, however, be focusing on challenging Waltz’s neorealist account of anarchy which is particularly problematic as it exploits this Hobbesian notion of anarchy to base a theory on the contrast between domestic and international politics, which the present author believes is unpersuasive. It is worth noting that Waltz’s account is distinct from that of the classical realists, for example, who find the cause of power politics in endogenous factors such as human nature and therefore emphasize the resemblance of international and domestic politics while not concerned with anarchy per se (Morgenthau, 1948).


Waltz’s Theory: An Unfalsifiable Ideology?

According to Waltz, units interact exclusively at the level of units and thus in order to understand international politics, one needs a systems theory that would purposefully leave aside the behavior of units in order to avoid being reductionist (1979), the structure being the international system and units being the states. Anarchy would therefore indeed seem perennial in the light of this theory due to its underlying assumption that structures endure, while behavior varies(Waltz, 1979). This could be illustrated, as Ruggie has pointed out, by the fact that there are only two ways in which Waltz allows for change: first,through a within-system change produced by a shift in the configuration of capabilities and second, through a change of the system’s structure from anarchical to hierarchical while also concluding both are highly unlikely to take place (1983).

Indeed, this theory resembles an unfalsifiable ideology (Lebow, 2010), due to its dichotomous view of order and a positivist epistemology that “reduces the process to dynamics of behavioral interaction among exogenously constituted actors” (Wendt, 1992, p. 392). Consequently, the only way to answer Waltz’s question of how to conceive of an order without an ‘orderer’ and organizational structure (1979) is to adopt a constructivist view whereby the process and institutions are not being subordinated to structure (Wendt, 1992). Doing so would allow us to abandon the anarchy/hierarchy dichotomy and conceive of the structure of domestic and international politics as one that constantly moves on the continuum between these poles, which, as will be shown later, might better reflect the empirical reality.


Rethinking Hierarchy: Comparing Apples and Oranges

One of the main distinctions that Waltz draws between domestic and international political structures is that the former is ordered hierarchically, while the latter has an anarchical order due to its lack of centralized authority. He provides three distinguishing features of a domestic structure that the international one is lacking: ordering principle, differentiation of units, and distribution of capabilities across them (1979).

Regarding these features, it should be noted that while the units of international politics are states, it is unclear just what the units of domestic politics are. It could be individuals as well as branches of government or agencies, which, by definition, do indeed have different tasks and capabilities. However, the same cannot be said of the international structure where each state does not perform a different governing task. On the contrary, there is a differentiation of functions within each one resulting in the duplication of state activities, an argument Waltz uses to prove his point (1979).

Indeed, the only way we could perceive the international order to resemble the domestic one would be to think of one state acting as government: the suzerain-state system model presented by Wight which describes supremacy of one state over the rest, as used to be the case with the Roman Empire or Byzantium in relationship to their neighbors (1977), would seem to fit if it was not for its failure to not meet Waltz’s criteria for structure. Therefore, it would be more reasonable to abandon the perspective of states as units when referring to the international system and adopt one that makes room for states being governed by international organizations with specific tasks, which requires a modified understanding of sovereignty examined later in this article.


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Rethinking Hierarchy: Comparing Oranges and Bananas

That prompts us to challenge the lack of hierarchical order, or super- and subordination within the international structures (Waltz, 1979), by questioning whether domestic structures are, in fact, perfectly hierarchical and centralized. Consider the United States as an example: is it the people, the states, the constitution, the Congress, or the Supreme Court that is the country’s highest authority (Milner, 1991)? Clearly, it is difficult to single out the highest authority in modern states due to the division of powers, which, through the application of checks and balances, is designed to serve this purpose exactly (Milner, 1991). Thus, the character of internal sovereignty within states has become increasingly decentralized; currently, there are only six absolute monarchies which is in stark contrast to Hobbes’ times when most of Europe was ruled by monarchs. This decentralization process is significant as it, together with that of international structures becoming more hierarchical as its counterpart, increasingly blurs the distinction between domestic and international structures the concept of anarchy is based upon.


Sovereignty Reinvented or Westphalia Was a Long Time Ago

Another distinguishing feature of Waltz’s theory is state sovereignty; he asserts that anarchy exists because of the absence of an overarching authority due to the sovereign equality of states (1979). However, for the implications of state sovereignty to be interpreted in the Hobbesian sense of anarchy, the concept of state sovereignty needs to be understood as traditional sovereignty, i.e., an absolute and supreme power over subjects that would not tolerate any other law-creating agent above it (Bodin, 1577). However, this definition can no longer describe the modern post-United Nations international system governed by international law. The virtually universal UN membership limits the notion of sovereignty as, by the virtue of their membership, states are bound by legally binding obligations imposed by the UN Charter which they shall fulfill in good faith(Article 2 para 2).


Focusing on a particular example of the European Union, EU Members have arguably given up even more of their sovereignty as they are bound by the direct applicability of acquis communautaire in their domestic legal systems. Politically, the governing character of the EU institutions (the European Parliament and the Council of the EU legislating; the European Commission executing laws; and the Court of Justice of the EU enforcing them) serves to support the relativity of the concept of sovereignty, if not the need for its replacement with the idea of public service as the function of government (Duguit, 1921) which the EU arguably performs. This differentiation of tasks together with the implication of hierarchical order which could be best represented by the European Council consisting of heads of member states who could be considered the highest unit in the chain of accountability of each state, counters Waltz’s definition of anarchy.


Furthermore, attention should be also paid to the process of units surrendering degrees of authority to form units of overarching authority, be it the historical formation of federations of states (e.g., Germany), or the contemporary formation of alliances (e.g., NATO) or regional unions (e.g., African Union), with security as one of the objectives –a process of conspicuous resemblance to Hobbes’ notion of social contract.


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States Cannot Simply Go to War Now

In the light of the arguments presented, it is no longer accurate to associate international order with the Hobbesian tradition, but rather with the Grotian one adopted by Bull who speaks of international society wherein states are bound by common rules created on the basis of common interests with institutions (balance of power; international law; diplomacy; great powers; war) “protecting” these rules (Bull, 2002). A similar phenomenon is “mature anarchy” according to which states recognize each other’s sovereignty and acknowledge that cooperation is more beneficial for their security (Buzan, 1991).

While the two scholars behind these explanations still recognize anarchy, they arguably undermine Waltz’s argument by considering the impact of international law. about the lack of state security. Waltz claims that there is a lack of state security due to the government having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force (1979) and the international system being permissive of war (1959). The first claim is itself is inaccurate as states cannot be regarded as the sole rightful users of force since individuals may also engage in the lawful use of force in situations of self-defense (an extreme case is the right to bear arms in the USA for that purpose(Milner, 1991)). Likewise, with respect to the permissiveness of war, the definition of permissiveness implies an absence of rules regulating the use of force ignoring the fact that the use of force between states is prohibited under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter as well as customary international law. Moreover, Chapter VII of the Charter provides for the possibility of legitimate use of force in the international system through the authorisation of collective security measures by the UN Security Council, thereby preventing the monopoly of states on legitimately using force (in situations where the wrongfulness of doing so would be precluded, e.g., in self-defence under Article 51 UN Charter).


What some critics seem to be concerned about though is the lack of enforcement of international law: a treaty, unlike a contract, does not have defined remedies in case a party breaches it (Bolton, 2000). Nevertheless, mechanisms of holding a party accountable for the breach of its obligations, including international courts or the UN Security Council which enjoys broad enforcement powers as its resolutions may create legally binding obligations, may use sanctions and other collective enforcement measures including the authorization of the use of force under its mandate, are arguably sufficient to undermine Waltz’s notion of anarchy. Ultimately, the law cannot prevent all use of force internationally, but expecting it to be able to do so would be unreasonably demanding as this task is impossible on the domestic level as well (we do have murders…). Still, the law is effective when the majority of the population abides by it and the evidence of the recent demise of interstate wars could suggest this is the case internationally (Buhaug et al., 2007).


To conclude, I have argued against Waltz’s account of anarchy that contrasts domestic and international structures and sees the latter as inherently anarchical by adopting a non-positivist view of the anarchy/hierarchy dichotomy and suggesting the need to redefine parts of his argument regarding units, sovereignty and rules to account for change of the system at present which does not satisfy his definition of anarchy.



Lucia Jamrichova
Leiden University, Netherland




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