English school of international relations theory

English school of international relations theory

The 'English School' of international relations theory, also known as Liberal Realism, Rationalism or the British institutionalists, maintains that there is a 'society of states' at the international level, despite the condition of 'anarchy' (literally the lack of a ruler or world state). The English School is a fundamentally constructivist theory, emphasizing the non-deterministic nature of anarchy in international affairs. However, it also draws heavily from functionalism and realism.


"International Society"

International relations, the English School argues, represents a society of states. This international society can be detected, it is argued, in the ideas that animate the key institutions that regulate international relations: war, the great powers, diplomacy, the balance of power, and international law, especially in the mutual recognition of sovereignty by states.

There are differing accounts, within the school, concerning the evolution of those ideas, some (like Martin Wight) arguing their origins can be found in the remnants of medieval conceptions of societas Christiana, and others such as Hedley Bull, to the concerns of sovereign states to safeguard and promote basic goals, especially their survival. Most English School understandings of international society blend these two together, maintaining that the contemporary society of states is partly the product of a common civilization - the Christian world of medieval Europe, and before that, the Roman Empire - and partly that of a kind of Lockean contract.

Reexamination of traditional approaches

A great deal of the English School of thought concerns itself with the examination of traditional international theory, casting it--as Martin Wight did in his 1950s-era lectures at the London School of Economics--into three divisions (called by Buzan as the English School's triad):
# Realist or Hobbesian (after Thomas Hobbes)
# Rationalist (or Grotian, after Hugo Grotius)
# Revolutionist (or Kantian, after Immanuel Kant).

In broad terms, the English School itself has supported the rationalist or Grotian tradition, seeking a middle way (or via media) between the 'power politics' of realism and the 'utopianism' of revolutionism.

Later Wight changed his triad into a four part division by adding Mazzini (see: Martin Wight, Four Seminal Thinkers in International Theory: Machiavelli, Grotius, Kant, and Mazzini).

Internal divisions

The English School is often understood to be split into two main wings, named after two categories described by Hedley Bull:
* The pluralists argue that the diversity of humankind - their differing political and religious views, ethnic and linguistic traditions, and so on - is best contained within a society that allows for the greatest possible independence for states, which can, in their forms of government, express those differing conceptions of the 'good life'. This position is expressed most forcefully by the Canadian academic Robert H. Jackson, especially in "The Global Covenant" (2001).
* The solidarists, by contrast, argue that the society of states should do more to promote the causes of human rights and, perhaps, emancipation - as opposed to the rights of states to political independence and non-intervention in their internal affairs. This position may be located in the work on humanitarian intervention by, amongst others, Nicholas Wheeler, in "Saving Strangers" (2000).

There are, however, further divisions within the school. The most obvious is that between those who argue that the school's approach should be historical and normative (such as Robert Jackson or Tim Dunne) and those who think it can be methodologically 'pluralist', making use of 'positivist' approaches to the field (like Barry Buzan and Richard Little).

In general, however, the English school stands for the conviction that ideas, rather than simply material capabilities, shape the conduct of international politics, and therefore deserve analysis and critique.

Affinities to others

The English School does have affinities:
* The pluralists have drawn from the classical 'political realism' of Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr
* The solidarist have drawn from realist writers, such as Stanley Hoffman.

Contemporary English School writers draw from a variety of sources:
* from structural 'neorealism' of Kenneth Waltz, in the case of Barry Buzan;
* from social constructivism of Alexander Wendt, in that of Tim Dunne;
* from 'critical theorists', in that of Andrew Linklater; and
* even from the 'post-structuralism' of Michel Foucault, in the case of James Der Derian.


The 'English-ness' of the school is questionable - many of its most prominent members are not English - and its intellectual origins are disputed. One view (that of Hidemi Suganami) is that its roots lie in the work of pioneering inter-war scholars like the South African Charles Manning, the founding professor of the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Others (especially Tim Dunne and Brunello Vigezzi) have located them in the work of the British Committee on the Theory of International Politics, a group created in 1959 under the chairmanship of the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, with financial aid from the Rockefeller Foundation. Both positions acknowledge the central role played by the theorists Martin Wight, Hedley Bull (an Australian teaching at the Australian National University) and John Vincent.

The name 'English School' was first coined by Roy Jones in an article published in the Review of International Studies in 1981 which presented what Jones called a 'case for [its] closure'. Some other descriptions - notably that of 'British institutionalists' (Hidemi Suganami) - have been suggested, but are not generally used.

Key works

* Hedley Bull, "The Anarchical Society" (1977).
* Herbert Butterfield, Martin Wight (eds), "Diplomatic Investigations" (1966).
* Martin Wight, "Four seminal thinkers in international theory : Machiavelli, Grotius, Kant, and Mazzini" (2005)
* Martin Wight, "Systems of States" (1977)
* Martin Wight, "Power Politics" (1978)
* Martin Wight, "International Theory" (1991)

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