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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: June 2012

17 - International society and european expansion

from Part 2 - The traditional agenda: states, war and law



This chapter examines the evolution of international society through European expansion. It considers, first, the nature of international society: does such a society exist? What are its features? What purpose does it serve? And does it have the requisite unity to act as an agent in international relations? The discussion here draws upon the work of the English School which pioneered the notion of international society. Second, the differing approaches to international society taken by solidarism and pluralism will be navigated. Third, the history of international society through colonialism and decolonisation will be charted, revealing the neglected story of an ongoing capacity for ‘international society’ to colonise the space of non-liberal states. Such a capacity throws up a challenge to international society to act as a standard bearer for countries that continue to be subjugated to the interests of greater powers.

International society

‘International society’ is a central term and focus of the English School (see Box 17.1). It is used to refer to both an influential concept and an actual society of states that is fundamental to world politics. This distinction matters because it is very easy to slip between these two meanings when thinking about international society; the concept doesn't easily correspond to how the world is actually constituted. Bearing this in mind, international society as an actual entity in world politics involves two stories; one of which is familiar and the other neglected.

Further reading
Bellamy, Alex (ed.) 2006, International society and its critics, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Excellent collection of essays, both sympathetic and critical, on the English School's notion of international society.
Bull, Hedley and Watson, Adam (eds) 1984, The expansion of international society, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Large and indispensable collection of essays on the expansion of international society from its European origins to its global limits.
Keal, P. 2003, European conquest and the rights of indigenous peoples: the moral backwardness of international society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Expanded version of the argument presented here.
Keene, Edward 2002, Beyond the anarchical society: Grotius, colonialism and order in world politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Valuable historical account of tensions between two types of international order promoted by international society: toleration and civilisation.
Linklater, Andrew and Suganami, Hidemi 2006, The English School of international relations: a contemporary reassessment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Impressive assessment of the English School's contribution to the study of international relations by two leading theorists.