International system, its origins and rules


The Genesis of the International System

When continents began to interact between themselves, from approximately five centuries ago, slowly, they started to form, what is now called the "international system". It is an attempt to break the Islamic fence - which threatened to strangle strategically the small and divided Christian kingdoms of Europe -, Portugal and Castile launched their navigations through the Atlantic to Asia, bordering the Muslim power. In Europe, tribes, kingdoms and empires, through war and trade were in contact, for centuries, more or less intensely, somehow being influenced by each other. However, until 1521, in one case, and 1533, in the other, two great empires, the Aztec and the Inca - in the Americas, which had unified, by force, multiple peoples and tongues - had not been suffering ever, the influence of Eurasia. The Aztecs and Incas didn't know about the existence of Rome, Constantinople, Damascus, Mecca and Beijing, and didn't suffer the influence of some of the Eurasian centres of power. Only from the arrival of Hernán Cortés in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru, it can be assumed that all major political units of the world integrated the same system, the "world system" and that, therefore, the actions of a political unit always influence, directly or indirectly, the other political units more or less intensely, depending on the degree of vulnerability that each of them holds.

At this historic moment are born, with the Spanish theological school - that questions and analyzes the legality or illegality of the conquest of hispanic America- the seeds of the international law which, after an arduous historical process, will enshrine in 1945, with the letter of San Francisco, the Legal equality of the States and the prohibition of war.

However, as long as the principle of legal equality of the States proclaimed by the international law is a legal fiction that only serves decorative purposes, on the international stage, the power is and always will be the measure of all things.States are not equal to each other simply because some have more power than others.

The Fiction of the Legal Equality of the States

The simple and objective observation of the international scenario shows that the legal equality of the States is a fiction, for the simple reason that some states have more power than others, leading to international law being a net that traps the weakest fly but let the strongest pass by.

The States exists as active subjects of the international system as long as they possess power. Only those with power are able to build their own destiny; those without sufficient power to resist the imposition of the will of another state, just end up being an object of history because they are incapable of directing their own destiny.

By the very nature of the international system - where somehow rules a situation that resembles the state of nature -, the states with power tend to establish as leaders or become subordinating and, logically, devoid of the attributes of sufficient power to maintain their autonomy tend to become vassals or subordinates, beyond who manage to hold the formal aspects of sovereignty.

In those states, when they are democratic, major decisions are taken back to the majority of its population and, almost always, outside its territory. The subordinated democratic states have a low intensity democracy.

Logically, there are degrees in the relationship of subordination, which is a non-static but dynamic relationship. It is important not to confuse the concept of economic interdependence with subordination. The United States depends on Saudi oil but is not subjected to Saudi Arabia. Instead, Saudi Arabia, to which the United States relies heavily on its supply of oil, is subordinated by the United States to the point that, despite the Saudi monarchy is the guardian of the holy places of Islam, was forced when the United States required it, to allow the sacred Islamic soil - preserved by religious mandate to any army abroad- for the massive presence of the US military. The economic interdependence does not alter the fundamental division of the international system into subordinating States and subordinated States.

Power as a Measure of All Things

Power has been and is a necessary condition to temper, neutralize or prevent political subordination and economic exploitation. For any political unit, from Greek city-state to the national States of the modern world, power is the sine qua non condition to ensure safety and to neutralize greed. The wealth of the powerless States is always transitory, it tends to be fleeting. Because the wealth of some nations often awakens in others the desire to possess the goods of the others, desire that leads to robbery, theft and fraud.That is, to undergo military subordination, economic subordination or ideological-cultural subordination, which is the most perfect way to enslave a state because it is an ideological fraud, a trick or a scheme -built through ideology- for their wealth and their peaceful political subordination without being aware of the situation.

Unfortunately, the primacy of international law is, and will be for a long historical period, a beautiful unattainable utopia.

The third stage of globalization born with the great maritime discoveries does not alter the assumptions on which international relationships conceptually lie, as claimed by Raymond Aron, it is given by the fact that the political units are striving to impose –on one another- their will. International politics, Aron sustains, always involves a clash of wills - will to impose or to not allow the impositions of the other's will - because it is constituted by the States which pretend to determine themselves freely.

In the last instance, since, as Aron sustained, on the relationship between the States each one keeps and claims the right to take justice into their own hands and the right to decide whether or not to fight, ruled by the logic described by Hegel about how masters and servants are born. In his "Phenomenology of Spirit", Hegel describes how master and servant are born. Men want to be free and not to be constrained to live according to the impositions of others. That's why they confront between each other in a deadly struggle. Literally mortal, because only one who is willing to die for freedom will defeat the other. Who is afraid and looks for physical survival insurance, retires and leaves the battlefield at the mercy of the "other" that becomes, thus, the "lord" and he, in his "servant."

Hegelian reasoning can be applied, by analogy, to the international stage but certainly should be qualified, since the deadly clash occurs only in a limited series of decisive moments in history. In the international arena there are lords and servants: subordinated and subordinating States, and for the exercise of its domain, the subordinating use both economic, military, and cultural power. As an example, we could say that the war for independence, led by the thirteen colonies against England, was one of those decisive moments in history was the judge of Hegel’s appeal, when it can be clearly seen, that only those subjects (men or States) who are willing to die for their freedom can be free. However, this freedom that the thirteen colonies conquered on the battlefield had to be entrenched both economically and culturally.

For a peripheral state, wanting to decide their own destiny always involves a dialectic tension between the fear of possible punishment and the desire for freedom, understood as the maximum capacity of autonomy which it is able to conquer.

Fear leads to the collaborationist or claudicate realism, by which the State abdicates the capacity to lead its destination, being placed in a situation of passive subordination, tying its fate to the good will of the subordinating state.

The desire to achieve the ability to direct their own destiny leads to liberationist realism, whereby the State, based on the actual situation, i.e. subordination, decides to transform the reality to start a historical process in the course of which it will be looking to acquire the elements of power necessary to achieve the autonomy. In the process of building the autonomy, the first stage is the "active subordination."

The Rules of the International System

Claiming that on the international stage power is the measure of all things, does not imply postulate the absence of limits as an ideal and a rule of conduct for the States or, being unaware of the importance of international morality, international public opinion and the international rights as limits of the power of the States, but rather starting from a realistic reading of the rules of interaction between them.

In the international system, unwritten law is as important as written law. The system always tends to be sorted inevitably by the interest of the greatest powers, e.g. the states that have more power.

While the weight of national and international public opinion - inspired by the principle of legal equality of the States and respect for human rights- imposes certain restrictions on international actions of the most powerful States, it is also true that there are absolute priorities linked to the vital interests of the greatest powers that are beyond any consideration of ideal and abstract justice.

As evidenced by numerous historical examples, when in play the vital interests of the greatest powers the principle of legal equality of the States becomes a fiction that only serves decorative purposes. The greatest powers tend to impose in their respective areas of influence - or at the periphery as a whole when there is consensus among them - certain rules, inspired by its vital interests which are often conveniently camouflaged with ethical and legal principles.

It goes without saying that the time when the great powers are facing off are the best historical moments for a state located in the periphery of the system to attempt to consolidate its national power and achieve maximum possible autonomy. The thirteen colonies, being dependent colonial territories could achieve independence due to France and Spain were facing England. The process of industrialization in Argentina and Brazil, which is essential for these countries to make the first move to win their national autonomy, was facilitated by the military confrontation that occurred between 1939 and 1945 in the hegemonic center of world power.

How to understand the nature of the system and its rules?

Now, how do you get to understand the nature of the international system and the non-explicit rules through which the most powerful states try to rule the system?

Karl von Clausewitz, in whom Raymond Aron was so inspired to write his monumental work "Paixet guerre entre les nations", provides a fundamental principle for this purpose when he says:

It would be a mistake to use the chemical components of a grain of wheat to study the shape of the spike: just go to the fields to see the spikes already formed. The research and the observation, the philosophy and the experience, should not be neglected and never mutually exclusive: they guarantee each other. (Clausewitz, 1994: 27)

Clearly, the first step to understanding the system and the development of a methodology and a theory of international relationships cannot be made but from the observation of reality. Today, as in the days of Imperial Rome, remains being valid the apothegm of the great Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis who, through his effort to create a useful framework for understanding some aspect of political reality, was one of the first ones in clarifying that "any theoretical disquisition or preparation should be made after careful observation of reality, and will be, the latter, which give the category of being assumed or rejected" (Andreotti, 2000: 18).

Making a reading of politic actions taken by the major powers, it is possible to begin putting the pieces of the puzzle of the global situation together. However, the "present" -that is, the international stage, the actions of the States, their political, economic and ideological strategies, and internal architecture of the system itself- is not understood by mere analysis of the actuality or the simple accumulation of chronicles about the present.

This is where history comes into play, because through the deep historical study, we can begin to understand the real nature of world power. So our method is the analysis of "being" -the temporary political phenomenon internationally shape analysis of "being" -his specific substance, returning to "be" a glimpse of the future.

From the "today" of the international system (or the state today whose behavior is analyzed) to his most recent and more distant past is "being" - and following, in that sense, Methol Alberto Ferré, we can say that to understand the present and projecting future scenarios, it is necessaryto take "a journey to the sources from which the phenomena we see today, to return to this being a better explanatory hypothesis baggage with which to investigate again the future present-past-present-future: if you could chart our method, these would be its coordinates "(Methol Ferré and Metalli, 2006: 12).

Reflecting onthe importance of historical knowledge of the historical method for understanding the political phenomenon and the study of international relationships, Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira affirms:

I can hardly understand foreign policyand international relationships of a country without placing them in their concrete historicity, its immediate connections, in its essential conditions and in its continuous mutation. Last-not the dead pastbutalive-is the real substanceof the present, which is nothingmore than aconstant evolution. (Moniz Bandeira, 2004: 32)

In his brilliant study "Essays in the Theory and Practice of International Politics" Stanley Hoffmann clearly warns that one of the characteristic problems afflicting features international relations - closely linked not to the nature of these but the fact that the discipline was born in the United States and is there still, its main residence- is exaggerated emphasis on the present, on the preponderance of studies that deal only this node.

According to Hoffmann, the error of North American scholars -which constitutes a serious weakness of international relationships as a discipline of study leading to a real deficiency in the understanding of the present international system - repeated outside the United States because experts from other countries tend to reflect more or less slavishly and with some delay, the North American fashion"(Hoffmann, 1991: 25).

When the importance of historical knowledge about international relationship, as a discipline of study, is emphasized, it should be warned that the reality ofan epoch can only be understood during its entire process,and that the "knowledgeof the historical process requires, therefore, understanding the phenomena in the context of the epoch, linked to the structures of the society in which they occurred, revealing the connection of the causality, without resorting to an abstract conceptualization of  values alien to the reality of that time.You cannot judgean epoch as those political and moral values generated in later times"(Moniz Bandeira, 2006:32).

We understand, therefore, that historical knowledge is a key to understanding today and the forecast of tomorrow’s power flows, because the past, as real substance of the present, shapes the future. For Hans Morgenthau:

To draw the course of that current (of power) and the various tributaries that compose it, and anticipate changes in direction and speed, it is an ideal task of the observer of international politics. (Morgenthau, 1986: 193)

The States, as major players on the international stage, acquire a specific character under the circumstances in which they were formed and developed. The impression received by the States in its founding stage models, in a way, its subsequent behavior on the international stage. Thus, 'the tendency to national messianism, accentuated in the American (US) people by the belief of being the chosen of God, generated the idea that the manifest destiny of the United States was to expand throughout the hemisphere not only its territorial boundaries but also the economic. And that idea, that der Geist des Volkes, condensed and led its history "(Moniz Bandeira, 2004: 33). As rightly argues Moniz Bandeira, it is not possible to understand what are the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, nor any another State without deeply knowing their past, their origins and how they evolved over the centuries:

The physicians, to diagnose a disease, usually seek to know about thepersonal historyand family history of the patient. Knowledge about what individuals cando,their capacity and their vocation, are obtained from the way the person acted or what occurred throughout his life, that is, through your resume or police record. Therefore, the understanding of ap olitical phenomenon or a State policy have to be through the knowledge of history, for if nothing is absolutely true, either, nothing is absolutely contingent, casual. (Moniz Bandeira, 2004: 32)


ANDREOTTI, Gonzalo Cruz, “Introducción general” a POLIVIO, Historia. Libros I-V, Madrid, Ed. Gredos, 2000.
CLAUSEWITZ, Karl von, De la guerra, Buenos Aires, Ed. Labor, 1994.
HOFFMANN, Stanley, Jano y Minerva. Ensayos sobre la guerra y la paz, Buenos Aires, Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1991.
METHOL FERRE, Alberto y METALLI, Alver, La América Latina del siglo XXI, Buenos Aires, Ed. Edhsa, 2006.
MONIZ BANDEIRA, Luiz Alberto, Argentina, Brasil y Estados Unidos. De la Triple Alianza al Mercosur, Buenos Aires, Ed. Norma, 2004.
MONIZ BANDEIRA, Luiz Alberto, La formación de los Estados en la cuenca del Plata, Buenos Aires, Grupo Editor Norma, 2006.
MORGENTHAU, Hans, Política entre las naciones. La lucha por el poder y la paz, Buenos Aires, Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1986.