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International System and International Society Relations


When World War I ended, the goal of nations that were engaging in the war was to enhance international peace through the establishment of the League of Nations. Its principal objective was to thwart the appearance of battle by enhancing joint security through ‘disarmament and/or settling probable international disagreements via arbitration and negotiations’ (Adsera & Boix 2002, p. 231). The organisation was also charged with other tasks such as taking care of labour conditions, addressing issues of human trafficking, trafficking of military hardware, enhancing global health, and protecting the rights of the minorities. In this regard, the plan of any international organisation, and hence the goal of international relations, is to create an international order to foster the peaceful coexistence of states.

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Organisations that fall in the realm of the United Nations advance international relations. This system constitutes a collection of agencies, programmes, administration, forum, and legal frameworks in which states interact and work together. For instance, the World Bank and IMF form the apex of the world system of economic and financial politics and governance. The term international relation means collective interactions that exist between international communities. These communities include nations, individuals, and even states (Nau, 2008).

As such, international relations discourses can be approached from the system or societal theoretical perspectives. Consistent with these approaches, this paper responds to the query of whether people live in an international system or international society. It first explores the difference between the two perspectives before evaluating which of the two perspectives best explains the current international order from classical realism and English school theories.

Difference between International System and Intentional Society

The notion of international society has its roots anchored in the perspectives of international law and classical legal foundation. From this contextual foundation, international society constitutes communities that engage in the practices of international law (Buzan 1993). Within the international relations theories, various writers of the English school theory such as Martin Wright and Adam Watson developed the concept of international society (MacMillan & Hidemi 2006).

Buzan (2004) describes international society as a collection of states and independent communities with political motivations that do not necessarily constitute a system since the behaviour of one state amounts to a factor to be considered in the computation of the conduct of other political communities. States that form the international society also need to ‘have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations and recognise their common interest in maintaining these arrangements’ (Buzan 1993, p.329).

This definition implies that systems and societies have distinct characteristics. It suggests the existence of demarcation between them, although it largely fails to establish the location of the demarcation. This case provides an excellent opportunity to theorise international relations from different theoretical perspectives, such as classical realism and the English school of thought. A system constitutes several parts, which interact harmoniously. Harmonious interaction implies that different components of the system depend on each other so that without strong covalent bonds, the different entities will stand as lone entities. In contrast, society regulates itself. It is also self-conscious (MacMillan & Hidemi, 2006).

A system encompasses the fundamental idea of international relations since it can exist without necessarily the existence of international society. The converse is largely untrue. Cited by Buzan (1993), Bull (one of the English school’s authors), supports this assertion by adding that the rapid expansion of Europe from the 15th century led to the emergence of an international system prior to the birth of international society. The international system was born from the coming together of various isolated political communities and players in them (people) to foster their regular interactions through European power projections. In this sense, power is an important factor for binding isolated components that constitute a system.

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A system cannot exist without the existence of units, which constitute the states from international relations discourses. The units provide opportunities for significant interactions to occur (Dunne, Kukri & Smith 2010). They are arranged and/or structured according to a common principle. The principal determines the order that is maintained between the units (independent political states or communities) (Buzan 1993). The integration that exists between political communities, which operate independently, includes combat, resettlement, state of peacekeeping, trade, and even movement of principles. Bull claims that international society relates to the perceptions of the international order.

Buzan (1993) asserts that the order that is implied social life arrangements from Bull’s context aims at establishing and promoting specific values and goals. Synonymy of international society and order introduce a vast number of possibilities for different stages of development of societies. In the higher extreme end, the society may constitute a collection of states that are meshed within networks of institutions together with regimes that define their conducts. In the lower end, societies may potentially comprise groups of people or political communities that are guided by common norms against key issues such as seizures or murdering emissaries (Buzan 1993).

The vastness in the scope of defining an international society underlies the significance of setting a demarcation between society and the society-plus-system while determining whether the perceptions of international society or international systems drive the current world order. As revealed before, the international system precedes the existence of international society. Hence, the main challenge in differentiating the two rests in the process of determining when international systems become international societies.

This calls for understanding the Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft sociological classical conceptualisation of a society. Gemeinschaft looks at the society through the lenses of identity, the existence of common sentiments, and experiences. The implication here is that society is an organisation and consists of traditions (Buzan 1993). Gesellschaft has an opposing view. It sees society as essentially contractual and constructed as opposed to being sentimental and traditional. In this sense, society is organisational and can be developed via wilful people’s acts.

Gemeinschaft’s perspective implies that the existence of cultural unity comprises an essential predetermining factor for converting international systems to international societies. Therefore, pursuing common goals, norms, and values between various independent political communities lead to the development of international societies (MacMillan & Hidemi 2006). The establishment of common goals, norms, and values leads to the development of institutions (intergovernmental or supranational bodies) to guide the conduct of various players in the international relations while also ensuring compliance with the set goals, norms, and values that are pursued by the states that form a system. The repercussion is the development of a common culture, which fosters the integration of different political entities so that international societies emerge.

Classical Realist Hypothesis

One of the important premises of studying global associations is the conventional pragmatist hypothesis, which holds that all nations are in a constant struggle to gain power. It suggests the nature of the international system, rather than that of political communities while at the same time determining power rivalries and struggles (Dunne, Kukri & Smith 2010).

This means that various nations behave in the manner they do in the international system to ensure that their power is protected to enhance peace within their borders. Wars and pursuit of self-interest among nations constitute an attempt to enhance the dominance of one state against another in an effort to gain the power of control. The classical theory supports this assertion by holding that one of the fundamental characteristics of people is a strong will for dominating through power (Morgenthau 2011). Thus, states are benevolent, competitive, and individualistic. During the interaction with other states, a state pursues only the goals that benefit it individually so that it can out power others in a bid to acquire the power to control them.

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The classical theory maintains that political communities in the international system focus on power accumulation in a bid to enhance their own security within an anarchic world. In this sense, power constitutes a vital resource that enables states to harm others (by fighting) in an effort to coerce them. It permits states to acquire something of national interest or prevent other states from taking something of national significance from a given nation (Booth 2010). From this theoretical perspective, the state is unitary and autonomous since it acts and talks with a unified voice. It comprises an independent political community. Under the classical theory, the power of states is vested in their military capabilities.

Classical realism holds that anarchy constitutes the only constraints for the international system. Hence, states and international authorities have mandates for developing their own ways of maintaining security. The theory suggests that the world order is shaped by states that operate in a system as opposed to society. Sovereign states act as the main actors of the system (Morgenthau 2011). A critical consideration is paid to states that possess huge amounts of power, which help them influence other players in the international system. Thus, international organisations such as multinationals and non-governmental organisations, which are theoretically developed to ensure an international society, have minimal intrinsic control. Consequently, the current world order can be theorised through international systems. Arguments and counterarguments against this position are considered in the section on the description of the current world order.

English School Theory

Alternatively termed as international society school or liberal realism, the English school holds that there exists ‘society of states’ at an international level in spite of the existence of anarchy. Opposed to systems, ideas shape and unite societies. Therefore, these ideas shape the conducts of various players in international politics contrary to material capabilities, which make the theory share commonalities with constructionist theory. MacMillan and Hidemi (2006) reckon that it has its roots anchored in political theory and international law. It constitutes cosmopolitan and realist views via media.

Bull, a proponent of the English viewpoints, posited that various countries have some certain objectives, which habitually entail running away from any unlimited aggression. The fears lead to the emergence of rules and regulations that guide the behaviour of interacting states. Policies and regulations are articulated through various organisations that aim at upholding normative configurations of a worldwide civilisation. The rules that relate to the balancing of power, enhancing diplomacy, control of the war and those that are established to protect the sovereignty of nations are codified to constitute the international law (Epp 1998).

Other issues that are regulated through a set of rules include nationalism, equality of people, territorial integrity, and conduct of states while participating in international markets. However, these rules may not bind various players. Thus, the replacement of the term ‘rule’ with norms sounds the most appropriate. States that comply with the established rules or norms make an international society. This observation suggests that the current world order can be interpreted from the perspective of international society, and hence, the applicability of the English school of thought while studying international relations (Brown 2009). This claim is only valid if all states interacting at an international level equally abide by the rules or norms that regulate their conduct while interacting with other states. Thus, their conduct needs not to reflect individualism and self-interest by using their power to coerce other parties. Otherwise, the international system remains the most appropriate discourse for studying international relations.

Description of the Current World Order

From the perspectives of classical realism, power is an important tool for maintaining peace within a unit of the political community. Thus, every nation ensures that potential threats across its borders are mitigated. In fact, this outcome is the goal of international relations. It is realised by putting in place sanctions to nations, which pose threats to other nations. To ensure that nations that pose threats to international peace, become ineffective in their plans, international organisations, including the World Bank limit or even totally cancel funding programmes that are aimed at boosting their economic development.

Through such a strategy, international organisations limit the power of nations. However, through the limitations, rivalry may emerge between nations. Interpretation of the interplay between international relations and conduct of international organisations this way explains the influence possessed by the US and the EU in the control of the production of weapons of mass destruction such as the case of North Korea. For international peace to prevail, this suggests that the primary conduct of international relations has been to ensure that power remains with certain nations. This claim emphasises the need for interpretation of the current world order from the perspectives of the international system.

The concept of power is important in the operations of all international organisations. The UN comprises 192 member states, which theoretically have equal voices in the organisation. The organisation enacted the universal declaration of human rights in 1948. The declaration established the rights of all people in the world. The body formed the fundamentals of international human rights law (Brown, 2009). Recently, it enacted the millennium development goals with the main intention of putting in place mechanisms of poverty eradication and equality by 2015.

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The achievements of the UN are important in fostering international understanding as encapsulated in the international relations theoretical paradigms, which suggest its capacity in the creation of international society. However, the organisation faces some criticisms akin to its mode of operations. The main question that is posed by global political analysts is whether the operations of the UN are based on its influence from nations that possess high powers, as manifested through military capability such as the US and countries that belong to the EU.

For instance, the organisation did nothing to curtail the occurrence of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Gold (2004) asserts that one of the likely reasons for the failure of the UN to intervene in preventing the deaths of 800, 000 people was because the concern failed to align with the USA and France’s strategic interest. The two parties were permanent players in the UN Security Council. Although this claim is inappropriate in making generalisations on the influence of powerful nations in the work of international organisations such as the UN in enhancing international relations, it sounds imperative to assert that power has effects in the operations of international organisations and their roles in enhancing international relations in a bid to shape the current world order.

While pushing for the global development agenda, international organisations such as the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) exist. The two organisations were established in 1944 to help in shaping the financial and economic order. However, Blake (2009) claims that the current functions and modalities serve the interest of the parties that advocate for neoliberalism. The main goal of establishing the WB was to loan money to the western nations that were involved in the war in the effort of aiding them to rebuild their post-war nations. However, in subsequent years, WB shifted its attention of lending money to nations that are located in the developing world. Mansfield, Milner, and Rosendorff (2002, p. 479) assert that the IMF was formed to ‘regulate currency exchange rates to facilitate orderly international trade to be a lender of last resort when a member country experiences balance of payment difficulties and/or is unable to borrow money from other sources.’ Both WB and IMF were established in such a manner that their operations would be neutral.

Unfortunately, their practices serve the stakes of the western nations. For instance, in both institutions, the powers of voting for different nations are not determined by the population sizes of the member states, which subvert the principle of equality that is explored by the English school theory.

Voting powers are functions of political powers that nations reflect on global platforms and the number of capital contributions. The G7 nations play the most significant roles in policy development. While the US, Japan, France, Great Britain, and Germany have one director each, 19 other directors are elected from about 150 member states. The tradition for the appointment of the MD for WB is essentially to fix an American figure while that of the IMF is to fix a European figure. In the case of the IMF, the G7 voting power is 46 per cent (Gretchen 2012). The aim of international relation is to advocate for political, economic, and social equity. With the dominance of the most powerful nations in the management and set of policies in the international organisations, the question that emerges is whether indeed international society, as suggested by the English school, can precisely explain the interactions of states in the current world order.

Many nations view the exploration of weapons of mass destruction as a disguised attempt to disregard the international peace treaty that is presumed to constitute general rules that bind the international societies. The need to protect the territorial integrity of a given nation from foreign superpowers in the endeavour to protect statutory individualistic ideologies, which are opposed to the international community’s collective interests, triggers this attempt (Gretchen 2012).

Nationalist interests incredibly hike the chances of initiation of war between two or more nations (Robert, Ross & Zhu 2008), which classical realism perceives as regrettable, but an unfortunate outcome in the discourse of international relations. This situation is perhaps exemplified by the Iraq and Iran war in which the two nations fought over supremacy of their nations. The war was instigated by nationalistic interest to control the Gulf region. Such individualistic interests undermine the interdependence of nations as a fundamental principle on which the international relations discourse rests. Hence, the current world order is best interpreted from the international system approach in that states are self-centric, especially in matters of protection of their territorial integrity through their power to offset the interest of other states.


Various states that interact at an international level shape the current world order. Global organisations such as the UN and its affiliated organisations establish rules and regulations that seek to ensure equality, international peace, and free and fair interaction in trade, among other concerns. While this move encompasses a major stride towards the conversion of the prevailing international systems to international societies, the rules and guidelines are developed through unequal participation of all players in the international relations. For instance, the G8 nations have significant power in making the UN policies. Positive international relations depend on the nature of nationalist ideologies that people adopt in a political community. Inequalities dominate international political and economic interactions. Hence, as developed through the perspective of international systems and/or advanced by classical realist theory of international relations, the power struggle among states reveals the current world order.


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