Hedley Bull - the Anarchical Society

Hedley Bull wrote the Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics thirty years ago; that was nearly twenty-five years before the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. brought down the World Trade Center and changed the political climate worldwide. Nevertheless, what he wrote in this book in 1977 - and in other books and articles - is considered highly germane and pertinent to today's world order. The scholars who have written about Bull's work have provided a variety of approaches to the value and tone of Bull's offering. This paper will review and summarize Bull's book, and provide insights from scholars who always seem to have heady comments and analysis when it comes to commenting on Bull's research and narrative.

In his Introduction, Bull notes that his book approaches three "basic questions." One, what is order in world politics? Two, how is that order maintained "within the present system of sovereign states?" And three, does the system of sovereign states continue to provide a "viable path to world order?" In his opening narrative Bull takes great pains to emphasize that his book is about "world order" not necessarily world politics or world power leaders, nor is it about "enduring issues of human political structure or institutions" (Bull xiii). He ends his Introduction by making it clear that this is not an objective book at all. "I am no more capable than anyone else of being detached about a subject such as this," he writes (Bull xv).

Bull is the kind of intellect and author who likes to break subjects down into categories; and albeit not all of his categories are neat little compartments, he does try to bring his reader to a point of understanding through a king of grouping and common sense explanations. On page 16 he brings his first chapter to a close - after discussing what he means by states, society of states and system of states - by setting out the three goals that societies are seeking to meet (or should be seeking to obtain) and sustain in this international order he describes. This is always instructive to the reader, as being able to anticipate what the author is tackling alerts a head's up consciousness. That first goal of a society, he says, is "the goal of preservation of the system and society of states itself" (Bull 16). Modern states have traditionally been united "in the belief that they are the principal actors in world politics and chief bearers of rights and duties within it," he writes. The second goal he sets out is the process of maintaining "the independence or external sovereignty of individual states" (Bull 17). What each state "chiefly hopes to gain" in the world order is "recognition of its independence of outside authority," and it's "supreme jurisdiction over its subjects and territory" (Bull 17). The main price to pay in this regard, Bull continues, is the recognition of "like rights" of the independence and sovereignty of all other states.

And the third goal is logical and important: the goal of peace, the "maintenance of peace in the sense of the absence of war" with other states (Bull 18).

The remaining 13 chapters are broken down into three parts; the nature of order in world politics; order in the contemporary international system; and alternative paths to world order.

His last section is perhaps most compelling in terms of his overriding philosophy - which is that of an advocate for disarmament and cooperation among nations. On page 235 he notes that there are always objects to "total disarmament" because "...the physical capacity for organized violence is inherent in human society" and cannot possibly be "abolished by treaty" (Bull 235). Still, he believes that a world organization along the lines of the United Nations, along with a kind of "ideological homogeneity" (Bull 243) are possible, and desirable.

Stanley Hoffmann is professor of European Studies at Harvard University; he has written an essay in the journal International Affairs in which he admits at the outset to being "...an admirer of the extraordinary sweep of Hedley Bull's mind." Hoffman mentions that Bull was a realist in the sense that he rejected "all forms of utopianism" in the Anarchical Society, and he "disposed decisively" of "world government, a new medievalism," regional reconstruction of the world and "revolutionary schemes for change" (Hoffman 180). Given that Bull was so bright, literate and renowned for his worldview, it is interesting that Bull never showed "great enthusiasm" for offering policy advice to political leaders. Although he did provide advice and counsel to the British government on matters of arms control, Bull showed "more tolerance than enthusiasm" for the task of advising politicians (Hoffman 180).

Hoffman is impressed that Bull rejected the "scientific approach" to world order and international relations. Bull eschewed the scientific approach because he believed it kept its "practitioners from asking what were, according to him, the essential questions about international relations" (Hoffman 181). A bit of humor comes to light as Hoffman explains why Bull rejected the scientific approach; those individuals who believed in the scientific approach, Hoffman writes, "...seemed to Bull like characters who, having lost a watch in the dark, look for it under a light even though they did not lose it there." But those believers in the scientific approach, according to Hoffman's recollection of what Bull thought, got so locked into their beliefs it kept them "as remote from the substance of international politics as the inmates of a Victorian nunnery were from the study of sex" (Hoffman 181).

More practically, Bull disliked the scientific method because he believed that its practitioners were "obsessed by the quest for a far greater degree of precision than the field of international relations allowed" (Hoffman 181). In other words, international relations is a constantly fluid dynamic, not given to any particular theory or strategy. Bull accused practitioners of "brashness," Hoffman continued, and objected to their urge to "predict and to resolve the issues which they tackled." The way Bull approached international relations was quite different from traditional explorations of these issues, Hoffman explains. Bull was very systematic, and insisted on laying out "conceptual distinctions" prior to attempting an analysis (Hoffman 182). Bull believed that questions relating to international dynamics must first be addressed by referring to the work of "political philosophers" who have already hashed over those questions and "sharpened them," Hoffman explains (Hoffman 182). Secondly, the questions Bull would wish to seek resolutions for can only be answered by comparing the present to the past; and thirdly, Hoffman continues, questions of international relations can only be answered when referenced with both the states' power but also "to the rules which states observe, and particularly to that quite special category of rules which constitutes international law."

Bull was known for his insistence on asking a lot of questions - believing it was the job of the social scientist to "ask a lot of moral question" (Hoffman 184) while at the same time avoiding "moral preaching" and being skeptical of "moral generalizations." What made Bull a truly original social scientist was his delineation of the difference between systems and society, Hoffman stresses on page 185. Bull was "virtually alone among contemporary theorists of international affairs, stresses and studies" when it came to understanding that "society" means "common interests and values, common rules and institutions." But "system" means contact between states "and the impact of one state on another."

Hoffman ends his essay by asserting that before he passed away, Bull gave social science the "first comprehensive defense and illustration of arms control" at a time when the threat from nuclear buildup was enormous (Hoffman 195). Bull gave the field of social science the most "panoramic and incisive analysis" of the rules, institutions and prospects of the "anarchical society" that had been constituted by the existing modern states system. And finally, Hoffman concludes, Bull showed that a person could be aware of "the limits of rigor and precision" and be ready to guard against their misuse and still not depart from that rigor and precision "in favor of sloppiness or stridency." There are few voices that remain, Hoffman insists, with such a high degree of civilized substance, and that present such a fine balance between skepticism and hope.

Ian Harris writes in International Affairs that an unwritten yet important key to understanding the relations between international states is to focus on two elements; the moral philosophy of any given state and "an account of the character of state behavior." Harris boils those two elements down to the "ethical and practical" things that need to be reviewed; and he goes on to point out that much of the writing of the twentieth century focused on "one rather than both," Hedley Bull was known for embracing both concepts, and his most powerful work in that regard, his "magnum opus," is the anarchical society. (Harris 725).

This idea of focusing on both the observable…