IR English School


Main Principles

The English School occupies a special position within IR theories. Usually, it is not considered as an independent paradigm, as it has common characteristics with realism and liberalism, being an original combination of elements characterizing both these approaches. In fact, it cannot be regarded as the synthesis of these two schools as its representatives have quite original positions on some issues, far from both realistic and liberal ones.

Founded by the Australian Hedley Bull[i], this school is characterized by high attentiveness to the social analysis of international relations as a whole.

Hugo Grotius: Natural Law

One of the founders of the IR English School is the protestant theologian, jurist, and philosopher Hugo Grotius (1585-1683). Grotius one of the first to put forward the theory of universal world peace as the goal to which people should strive. At the same time, he offered three features of the Just War:

·        Self-defense;

·        Сompensation of damages after aggression

·        Retribution

Moreover, Grotius insisted on the fact that after the beginning of the war (just war or not), those who take part in it must follow several rules (jus in bello).  In particular these are the rights of prisoners of war, and distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants etc.

The principles, introduced by Grotius, became the basis of international law.

Grotius’ important principle was the idea of Freedom of the Seas, i.e. the existence of some part of the earth that is open for all nations and people, and cannot be considered as one particular state’s zone of exclusive control. Thus, Grotius prepared the basis for a global understanding of world politics.

In law, Grotius was the first one who introduced the notion of human “natural law” in jurisprudence, common in modernity, which was universal for all cultures and periods. This “natural law” was connected to human nature, which he regarded as good, and orientated to the rational cooperation with other people (anthropological optimism). He said that the settlement of disputes between nations always brings peace.

There is also “voluntary law”, which consists of divine law represented in sacred texts, and man-made law, created under different circumstances. Both divine and man-made laws affect the society though the state, where the interaction between the natural and voluntary rights occur. God will determine the course that must be followed, and always has a good purpose; human will can be both good and bad. Society’s objective is to create states where the natural law is more primary then the voluntary one, and is harmonized with divine moral law.  

The World Community

The representatives of the English School (H. Bull, M. Wight[ii], J. Burton, J. Vincent[iii], etc.) introduced the notion of “world community” or “world system”. Their aim is to stress that the independent states (regarded as the main actors of international relations), collectively represents not just a mechanistic agglomeration of selfish individuals, working only for private interests (as the realists insist). They also work also for the “community”, the social system, deliberately defining the social, and sometimes political, context of the behavior of actors and international events. This process unfolds as society distinguishes social statuses and roles of its members, giving each component their social dimension. That is why for sovereignty, according to the English School, the state must be recognized by the others states and requires mutual acknowledgment. Thus, sovereignty is not only the state’s autonomous characteristic, but at the same time, is the product of social interaction at the international level.

This means that chaos and anarchy in international relations theory is relative, and represents a special type of system, subjected to rational study and intentional changes.

The relativization of chaos in an international environment makes the representative of the English School close to the classical liberals. Moreover, there are some common ideas with neo-liberal theories, based in the actors' scope of actions. However, at the same time, the theorists of the English School agree with the realists on their evaluation of the factor of hegemony in the general model of international relations, and create their theories on an actual weighing of the powerful potential of great powers as the key and crucial features of the whole international relation system, which in turn makes them close to the realists.

This uncertainty in classification did not disappear, and now various IR specialists have offered their own understanding of the place of the English School in the main categories of international relations, sometimes insisting that they are the “idealists of the Cold War” (J. Mearsheimer[iv]), or sometimes returning to the more common classification as being part of realism.

The sociological context in IR analysis is stressed by the theories of R. Aron , who is an unconditional representative of realism.

The English school affected some positivist IR theories, which will be discussed later. Particularly, it formed historic sociology and normativism.

Hedley Bull: Society of States

Hedley Bull (1932-1985), the founder of the IR English School, was born in Australia, but made his academic career at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Bull’s main work is the book the Anarchical Society[v], which describes in detail the anarchy principle in IR. Bull suggests that anarchy be interpreted in a quite specific way, as something completely independent of the patterns of the selfish behavior of actors (nation-states) that the realists insist on. Rather, he posits a big system characterized by a society of states, subjected to supranational control (which the liberals aim for). Bull in a way continues Aron’s ideas, and offers to regard this anarchy as a field of social interactions where the actors are partially independent, but sometimes affect each other and are under the common influence of the system.

Bull has a special definition of a state. To call a unit a state, it must:

1)     Introduce sovereignty over a group of people;

2)     Control certain territory;

3)     Have a government.

A number of states are a system of states only if they have a certain level of interaction, as the decisions taken by one affects the others. In this case, they are a relative “part of a whole” (system of states). However, according to Bull, the system of States is not identical to the society of states. The society of states appears “when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions.”

Bull views the world community as defined by “anarchy” (“or anarchical society”), arriving at this from the sovereignty principle (thus, Bull agrees with the realists), as the carriers of some values that can be called moral. According to him, international society must:

1) Protect itself as an international system, based on principles of inter-state relations;

2) Strengthen independence of international society members, supporting peace, providing a standard of social life, and restricting violence (thought the law of war);

3) Respect its obligations (i.e. follow the principle of reciprocity);

4) Guarantee stability of property (that is stated in the mutual acknowledge of sovereignty)[vi].

Such a form of interrelating sovereign states creates a special understanding of “international anarchy”, identifying, in this case, with “International Society”. This is not a supranational structure, limiting sovereignty de jure in the way that is promoted by the IR liberals, and yet also not even the free collision of completely independent units where all norms in their relations are rejected (as the realists interpret it).

Bull believes that the “international society” aims at guaranteeing two main principles: order and justice. He regards order and justice to consist of three levels[vii].



Social order

Social justice

International order

International justice

World order

Global justice


Introducing these levels allows for the creation of a model of “international society” where the clear divisions between home and foreign politics will be mitigated, but compared to the globalization and desovereignization advocated by liberals (especially neo-liberals), the state functions remain. Instead of the selfish priorities of national interest, these functions gradually transform to provide order and justice at both local and global levels. 

John Burton: World Society

The other representative of the English School, also Australian, is John Burton (1915-2010); developing the ideas of Hedley Bull, he offers the concept of the “World Society”. Burton analyzed the reasons of the conflicts in international relations, and found that conflicts are not caused by national interests, but by the subjective estimation of individual objectives, which can be formed through social dialogues (as it happens in normal society, despite the contradictions of wishes and interests). According to Burton, if we regard the states as social systems, their interactions would be explained by the same scheme; it would be possible to avoid any conflicts and wars, and the harmonized social changes would be reflected in the appropriate transformations of social systems. Burton insists that the conflict can always be settled at the very beginning, as it is a social dysfunction and not something more serious.

Burton believes that the reason for war is that the states that are unable, for some reason, to move towards the social changes that deal with the inner dysfunctions of the environment. That is why the state is the source of conflict, as it falls behind in responding quickly to the dynamic of social changes. For this reason, it is important to change the principle of “national security (which the realists insist on) to the principle of “global security”.

Martin Wight: System of States

The other famous representative of the IR English School is Englishman Martin Wight (1913-1972). He taught at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Wight developed the idea of a “system of states” as a special development in international relations, which did not correspond to the intersection of selfish national interests (as the realists believes) or to the coexistence of democratic states , creating national structures (according to the liberals)[viii]. Wight believed that the principle of sovereign states is an impediment upon the social system’s development on an international scale. In its main “system of states” concept, the “system” on the one hand is opposed to the “state” on the other.

After Wight’s death, his principle work in IR theory was systematized and published by Hedley Bull, who actively cooperated with him. 

Barry Buzan: International Systems in World History

The new wave of  English School in IR began in the 1990’s, when globalization and the intensification of social interactions between different states changed it scale, showing the relevance of those concepts that first stressed the social interaction element in the body of IR theory.

Thus, the English IR specialist Barry Buzan[ix], together with his co-author Richard Little, offered the systematization of historical “international systems”[x]. They offered to regard the IR system as a hierarchical model with the following levels:

–        Individual

–        Sub-unit

–        Unit

–        Sub-system

–        System

Each of the international systems is specific in quality and intensity of cooperation at each level. Moreover, each level can correspond to certain social phenomenon.

The analysis of international systems is conducted at three levels:

–        Interaction research (they can be linear or non-linear, as well as differ in the level of intensity);

–        Structural analysis (partially being a static model of a unit’s systematization);

–        Consideration of process (transformation of each level’s identity and their correlation).

Moreover, it is important to regard these interactions qualitatively. In this case, they can be united into the following categories:

–        War;

–        Union;

[i] Bull  H. The Anarchical Society. A Study of Order in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977

[ii] Wight Martin. System of States. Leicester University Press, 1977

[iii] Vincent R. J. Human Right and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986

[iv] Mearsheimer John J. E. H. Carr vs Idealism: The Battle Rages On // International Relations, Vol. 19 No 2.

[v] Bull H. The Anarchical Society. A Study of Order in World Politics

[vi] Bull H. The Anarchy Society. A Study of Order in World Politics. P. 16-19

[vii] Ibid. P. 3-21

[viii] Wight M. System of States. Leicester: Leicester University Press. 1977

[ix] B. Buzan is also know as the post-positivist of historical sociology that appeared within the English School Concept.

[x] Buzan B., Little R. International System in World History. Oxford: Oxfors University Press. 2010