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In his article, Barry Buzan attempts to relate the concept of International Society of the English school to the American Structural Realism and the Regime Theory. By doing so, Buzan argues that the two approaches will be enhanced by giving a normative aspect to Neorealism and to reconnect Regime Theory to its own tradition. The new approach has the advantage of explaining the complex and uneven expansion of the European international society toward a global international society.

1. International System and International Society

Buzan uses, as a starting point, the International Society definition of Hedley Bull and Adam Watson (Expansion of International Society, 1984): “a group of states (or, more generally, a group of independent political communities) which not merely form a system, in the sense that the behaviour of each is a necessary factor in the calculations of the others, but also have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognize their common interest in maintaining these arrangements.” (p. 330)

Although Bull and Watson’s definition offers a clear distinction between international system and society, it is not clear as to where the former acquires the latter. The international system is prior to, and necessary for, the development of an international society. To explain its origin, Buzan explores two different conceptions of society.

Civilizational (Gemeinschaft): The society originates from tradition, common experience and culture, blood and identity. It is organic and homogeneous. This is the historical approach to society.

Functional (Gesellschaft): Society is constructed and based on contractual relations. It is heterogeneous. This is the organizational view of society.

Departing from the traditional explanation of the English school, which poses the development of international society on civilization, Buzan takes the path of the functional approach. At some point in their relations, units tend to prevent the disadvantage of chaos by creating order in regulating the use of force, the observance of contracts and property.

But to achieve an international society, as defined by Bull and Watson, a society must contain an element of identity, a sense of “we-ness”. Buzan tells us that it can be achieved by two different paths: Waltz’s like-units process and Bull’s neomedievalism. Although the multileveled identity proposed by Bull, which is based on the recognition and the regulation of the difference among units, is a possible avenue for a future international society, Waltz’s process remains the most plausible to explain the development of today’s international society.

2. International Society and World Society

Traditionally, the international society is defined in function of “the nature of relations among states” (p.336) and the world society by the relations of the individuals on a global scale understood as the global population.

Furthermore, the classic authors pose the development of the international society and the world society as somehow antagonistic. The realists seeing the supremacy of the state as explaining the relations in an anarchic world and the liberals considering the development of a world society as being a possible and a desirable arrangement for the future of humankind.

Departing from this superficial analysis, Buzan considers that the international society and the world society can go hand-in-hand, especially in a world of high interaction capacity and complex interdependence where a multi-leveled identity is possible. In fact, he considers that “an international society cannot develop past a fairly primitive level without being supported by the development of elements of ‘world’ culture […] Conversely, a world society cannot emerge unless it is supported by a stable political framework, and the state system remains the only candidate for this.” (p. 340)

3. System before Society

Buzan imagines a developmental model of international society which will eventually leads to the functional model:

  • It starts with a pure system, no society: There is a significant amount of interactions (trade, visits and intermarriages). Theses interactions lead to the demand of codes to facilitate the processes of exchanges.
  • The facilitation tends to increase the capacity of interaction, therefore increasing the possibility of conflicts, which brings the security dilemma and the unconscious balance of power, reproducing anarchy and instability (Buzan’s “immature anarchy”).
  • The unstable system would lead to changing modifications of the structure into a wide spectrum of possibilities from pure anarchy to a hierarchic empire (Adam Watson’s spectrum).  The eventual disintegration of the latter leaving on its path the seed of common culture, facilitating the development of international society.
  • In a system of this type, Waltz’s socialization and competition would pressure to adapt to the practices of the most successful, which creates more demands for codification (order in at least basic domain such as security, contract and property) and “creates pressure for some form of recognition” (p. 342)

4. Boundary between International System and International Society

To understand the boundary between international system and international society, one needs to understand the spread of the latter in the former. The development of the international society follows a concentric pattern. As Buzan puts it: “once international society begins to operate throughout the system (or perhaps, to start earlier, once a global international system exists within which there is at least one societal subsystem) is that layers of concentric societal circles will develop. States in the core circle will have more shared values, and much fuller sets of rules and institutions, than those in the outer circles. The existence of international society is not simply a yes or no issue. Within yes, a spectrum of both levels of development and degrees of participation is possible.” (p. 345)

The concentric development is thus characterized by:

  • the possibility of multiple sub-society with each a core at its center and serving as its driving force;
  • the possibility of expansion, where the gemeinschalf international society will meet with foreign culture;
  • the uneven development where participation to the international society fades as we go farther away from the core.

Once the concentric development of international society is taken into account, the solution of the boundary between a system and a society is found in shared identity (we-ness): “when units not only recognize each other as being the same type of entity but also are prepared to accord each other equal legal status on that basis.” (p. 345). Recognition of Sovereignty.

Although much remain the same (anarchy and war), the development of international society allows a shift from natural law to positive law as a mean to resolve conflicts; an increase in the responsibility of the Great Powers in maintaining order; sovereignty equality gives some protection to the smaller states. But, furthermore, international society permits a shift towards the maintenance of order and the balance of power as conscious policy from the actors.


Buzan finishes by characterizing the modern international society in these terms: “This truly global international society is by definition a postcolonial phenomenon. As one would expect from its partly gemeinschaft origins, it has a European (now Western) core that is much more highly developed than the rest of it in terms of having a higher number, variety, and intensity of rules, norms, and institutions binding its members in a network of regimes. And as one would expect from its partly gesellschaft origins, it is globally multicultural in character and significantly differentiated in terms of the degree of commitment with which states adhere to it.”

Seen as concentric circles, the international society is more than a regime. It would be more a regime of regimes.

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