International Society, Its Aspects and Components

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 11
Words: 2763
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: College


An international society can be explained to mean a group of autonomous states that have not only formed a system that ensures that the behaviour of each state is considered by others, but have also established a common dialogical agreement that ensures that the conduct of the members is governed by shared rules and institutions. The states also acknowledge their common roles in sustaining these arrangements (Buzan, 2004, p.9). The concept of international society has four views of departure. First, the global community cannot be comprehended as anarchy (Mullerson, 2000, p. 22). Secondly, international relations should not be conceptualized as a direct swapping of domestic phenomena regarding the government and order. Instead, the primary concern of the scholarly research should be on the idea of a society comprising independent states and the observation of order within it, based on unique instruments rather than domestic ones. This non-consideration of the domestic perspective enables one to appreciate a broader view of governance systems than those related to authority and enforcement based at one point.

The third fundamental point is that looking at it in terms of the society does not mean that associations among the states are necessarily peaceful, and stable. The question is whether and to what limits the conflicts take place against the framework of common institutions. Whether agreement on vital issues exists or not, it does not depend on the number or degree of these conflicts, but rather on what is fueling these conflicts, and if they are occurring within the context of agreed regulations. Therefore, to concur with the aspect of a common structure of rules and social practices does not mean that conflicts and power do not play a significant role in relations among many nations. Social practices are vital in understanding how the balance of power operates, and the dynamic nature of war (Nugent and Vincent, 2004, p. 216). In this same vein, they help in understanding the morality or law that governs relationships among nations. Therefore, international society does not result, as is usually misconceived to a simple liberal aspect concerned with the enforcement of law and morality.

The last view of departure was that a plausibly harmonious international society had historically originated from the classical European state system. Therefore, the primary duty was to comprehend the past aspects upon which the theory and practice of international order were based. The uniqueness of contemporary global society is historically exceptional and can only be conceptualized through a collection of experience from the Renaissance. Getting these historical basics required that theorists of international society comprehend both order and cooperation, with respect to how legal and moral norms function (Bull, Alderson and Hurrell, 2000, p. 5).

The international society rests on three components: power, shared interests, and shared values. Power is imperative in the institutions of global society (Kingsbury, 2002, p.3). These institutions entail the equilibrium of power, the duty of great powers, and how this should be managed and the organization of power. There is a crucial way in which the balance of power remains the most critical basis. Without it and without firm understanding between the great powers and how they should conduct relations affecting them all, then the crucial components of international relations such as law, organizations and shared values will not be attainable. One of the essential propositions about our contemporary experience of international relations is that the ability of independent states to exist together implies the existence of a balanced aspect of power in the sense of the way power is spread so that no single state is more powerful than others are. Therefore, international order is a reflection of common interests (Stivachtis, 2007, p.2).

States show cooperation because, despite differences in their values and controversies in their power relations, they can see the possibility of benefiting from forming a framework that enables them to have a common ground in numerous aspects. The international society is defined by its shared regulations, norms, and institutions. In contemporary international society, the element that sticks states together is the Westphalian ideology of independence, territorial integrity and the principle of non-intervention (Worth, 2005, p.18). In international society, states acknowledge the common need to maintain these social arrangements. Moreover, the structure of an international society is of hierarchical order, founded on western supremacy. For example, the permanent position of Africa in the global division of labour since independence shows that international society is of hierarchical makeup (Ojo, 1999, p.3).

International society can be comprehended from three conceptions: the pluralist versus solidaristic notion, the practical versus purposive associations and the Ottoman problem (Bellamy, 2005, p. 121).

Conceptions of international society

Pluralism and Solidarism perspectives

From the standpoint of pluralism, states are the sole barriers of rights and responsibilities within a law governing many nations; however, states consent only on some low principles like common recognition of independence and non-intervention. They have different perspectives of justice, their cumulative desire for order results to the creation of some fundamental rules. Solidarist standpoint places a significant emphasis on the implementation of international law. Since the international society ultimately comprises of individuals, a right and obligation to charitable involvement exist that the pluralists will not be ready to admit. Engaged in the concept of international society, we find the appreciation that states have legal duties that are implementable. However, the use of force is justifiable by the international society, even though the connection has been in a frequent changing association to the moral and lawful order (Anon., 2009, p.4). The international society concept, therefore, unfolds an apprehension on this question. This, nevertheless, could be perceived as a fruitful system for dealing with interesting issues like humanitarian intervention (Roberson, 2002, p. 104).

Solidarist and pluralist approaches have been criticized by Hedley Bull, who was once a professor of international relations before his death in 1985 (Bull, n.d (b)). He blames solidarism for two reasons. He claims solidarism creates a sense of false solidarity that may undermine international society instead of strengthening it (Bull, n.d. (a). Second, is the moral scepticism due to multiplicity of ethical perspectives by various nations, thus it is hard to find a common morality between countries as implied by the solidarist view (Anon, n.d.). Later, Bull grew disillusioned with the pluralism because it failed to provide or bring order among nations. Hence, it could not provide order in the international or broader society.

Practical versus Purposive Associations

In purposive associations, states work together to enhance mutual relations such as commerce and shared security while in practical associations, states are defined by shared rules. Whereas the latter is argued to carry obligations, the former has the authority and rules pegged on the resulting benefits; and the connection represented by norms can place a set of laws and responsibilities as binding as such. The practical association is in some way compatible with pluralism, but the purposive association requires the uniformity of its members that cannot be achieved or pleasant. Those who criticize this line of thought, usually emphasize on the impartiality and totality that has to be attributed to the basic traditions of international society such as independence, non-interference and the European form of state. This perspective can further be demarcated in two different ways. First, being the connection between states and the actions they engage in together with persons who attempt to engage in politics with one another. Even though the state as a system can be conceptualized in its own terms, it is often intertwined with politics at some other points. Therefore, people-oriented politics and morality create unique dynamics compared to politics within the state system. The politics within the state system poses a threat to the organization of international society and promises to provide a stronger political and social structure to the international society (Roberson, 2002, p. 104).

Common identities of the autonomous states are what demarcates an international society from an international system. The depiction of a state’s identity determines how other states will handle and recognize it within international society. For instance, the counterinsurgency policy between the United States and the Philippines in the 1950s was primarily shaped by the representation of Filipinos- the inhabitants or people of Philippines (Ojo, 1999, p. 5). The state identities determine how they interpret themselves and their surroundings. It also helps to define the measures of activities that suit a given state.

The Ottoman Problem

While the units of states formed complex inter-state societies with regard to the structure of culture, there is need for a regulatory mechanism in terms of a system’s orderliness that transcends a particular culture (Vojcanin and Dorsey, 1990, p. 234). The Ottomans did not constitute the European international society and were unwilling to apply the latter’s regulations and institutions. However, their powerful nature made them be considered by the European system significant powers. The empire was necessary for the English-French alliance which united against Russia. The powerful European states did not want the Ottomans to join with Russia because this would undermine Britain’s power in the Middle East (Kayaoglu, 2010, p. 110). In this case, types of engagement were obtained by deriving from the Ottoman Capitulation that was later on altered and transformed into a tremendous European instrument for dealing with those outside their international society (Roberson, 2002, p. 105). The Europeans states also signed an agreement that none would try to increase its influence over the Ottoman Empire.

Moreover, the ottoman was included in the European system for strategic reasons rather than cultural concerns. Some urged that the empire had not yet reached the level of civilization required. Hence, the empire was admitted as an unequal partner, and it had to make reforms to achieve the European standards (Kayaoglu, p. 112). Even after its inclusion into the European system, the Ottoman Empire continued to be seen as an outsider among the international society.

International Society Challenges the Idea of International Anarchy

Anarchy is a crucial idea in the school of international relations called realism. It does not necessarily refer to chaos in this context, but rather, to the absence of world government or generally political authority above or amid nation-states (Lake, 2009, p.1). Therefore, anarchy simply connotes the lack of a world government. Structural realists view anarchy in this vein as the core aspect of the international system; it is what differentiates local from international politics. Without the existence of a global government to implement international tranquillity, states dwell in a state of anxiety without there being dependence on each other for defence. They will tend to overestimate the security machinery of others. They will tend to take initiatives to beef up their own security systems such as investing more in their military expenses. An example is a recent strain on the U.S – Iran ties concerning the latter’s development of nuclear weaponry (Sidlaw and Henschen, 2008, p.378). This leads to a security dilemma where states attempt to buttress their security systems, raising tension among their counterparts who see their own defence thwarted by those attempts. They then respond by improving their own defence mechanisms. The outcome in accordance with the supporters of offensive realism is unavoidable conflict.

Other theorists tend to dispute this by asserting that, a security dilemma is avoidable. In the absence of a world government, states may deem it fit to embrace the advantages of mutual aid as much of as of conflict. Anarchy explained in the context of lack of government may not mean total disorder. It is not very different from an international society that is autonomous and yet governed by shared regulations and institutions. Their existence is possible without there being any government to ensure that law and order have been adhered to.

The existence of international society with its own values and institutions influences the behaviour of states in the same way that the absence of a global government does. This raises doubt as to whether anarchy should be accorded the significance granted it by the realist theories. It is just among many other factors that affect states’ behaviour (Robinson, 2008, p.18). The international law operates within the anarchical order through a non-coercive order. Hedley Bull (1977, p. 140-141) says that the function of the international law is to identify as the highest principle in the mankind political organization where the idea of sovereign state operates. Therefore, it means that the state is the leading player in international law and consent is established via sources of law in accordance with the states’ responsibility towards the international society. The second function is stating the rules of coexistence which prescribe, for instance, the treaty rules, when to use force and defines rules that relate to independence and the sovereignty of states. Third, international law helps to mobilize the states to comply with the rules (Allain, n.d, p. 2; Stern, 2000, p. 76).


International society is a state of states. It comprises of different autonomous states that come together with common rules and institutions that govern the conduct of its members. Each state that encompasses this society has a specific role to play. In studying international society, there are four points of departure: International society is not anarchy, it is not a domestic exchange of ideas regarding the government and order, the societal picture does not necessarily imply stability and peace among the inter-state associations, and that the origin of a harmonious international society is the European state. The international society is established on three pillars: common interests, power, and shared values. In the current international society, states are glued together by the Westphalian ideology of independence, territorial integrity and the principle of non-intervention.

Three perspectives also help in understanding the concept of international society. In the pluralism and solidarism perspective, states form regulations regarding fundamental aspects, but they may differ on other complex issues. This is besides emphasizing on enforcement of the laws. In practical versus purposeful associations, states are defined by common rules as well as working jointly to promote joint relations. In the Ottoman problem, an orderly system should be enacted in international society to its cultural structure. Although some scholars view the concept of international society as a cause for anarchy (chaos), the reality is rather the opposite. Anarchy is an absence of political control that is above the states. This does not imply disorder. States within the international society have shared rules and norms, which govern their behaviour. The states in the international society are governed by the international law that defines how the states act, in respect to each other.

For instance, the law defines when states can use force towards another state that refuses to comply with the international society if its behaviour puts the other states at risk. The international law helps the states to behave in a responsible manner due to the rules of coexistence. When states put in mind the interests of the other states, there is a likelihood of the states coexisting in peace which is essential for development. The states that coexist can help each other in times of disaster as it happened during the Haiti earthquake disaster at the beginning of the year. Moreover, international society has helped to reduce conflicts among states. Most of the common conflicts are found within states even though international society intervenes to save the local citizens from the sufferings brought about by wars and conflicts. To sum up, the international society enables the states to govern themselves even without an international government, and this is important because states retain their territorial autonomy and at the same time follow the rules of the international society for the benefit of mankind.


First, vivid comprehension of contemporary international society requires a clear departure from some of the old concepts that blur its meaning. Secondly, in a situation where modern states find it difficult to coexist, they should learn to embrace common interests, power and shared values that should govern them. Thirdly, international conflict does not originate from international society if the latter has reciprocating mechanisms among its members, which glues them together.

The international society should be strengthened to increase international cooperation which will help to protect the global environment and lead to increased security via alliances. The collaboration will also help to bring about international financial security and stability. More importantly, international society should try and bring more states on board so that some states do not feel like the ‘other’ in the international arena. This can be done through tolerance and understanding of the different cultures because each state has its own unique culture. Consequently, countries can cooperate on a larger scale.

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