Bringing the backward discipline forward

International Systems in World History - Realism and International Relations - The State and International Relations - Non-Democratic Regimes
November 24, 2000

International relations is a parochial social science. Typically labouring in not so splendid isolation from its peers, the discipline has produced few works or theories that have achieved recognition beyond its own boundaries. Instead, international relations imports theory and concepts from elsewhere - often forgetting that it has done so - or reinvents them. In 1985, this legacy prompted Mervyn Frost to dub international relations the backward discipline. Not only was international relations an importer of theoretical goods, many of the goods it was importing were past their sell - by date.

Frost’s work was part of a more general effort to bring the discipline up to date with contemporary developments in social theory. Fifteen years on, it comes as no surprise to find the legacies of that effort making their way into the heartland and the textbooks of international relations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reworking of key concepts, notably the international system and the state, produced through a new and self-conscious engagement with other disciplines.

Barry Buzan and Richard Little’s International Systems in World History is a significant attempt to rethink realism, the discipline ’ s one great contribution to the theoretical marketplace, and a major contribution to the social sciences in general. Although it bears some of the marks of a text book, this is really something else. Taking their cue from the mutual lack of attention paid to each others’ work by scholars inside and out side international relations, Buzan and Little seek nothing less than to recast human history as a history of international systems. 

Their foil is Immanuel Wallerstein, whose world - systems theory has achieved widespread recognition across the social sciences as a framework for making sense of human history on a macro-sociological scale. Drawing on their earlier work with Charles Jones in The Logic of Anarchy , Buzan and Little extend their reworking of Waltzian neorealism through a sustained engagement with the English school and world history. The resulting book covers some 60,000 years of human history, but focuses on only the past 5,500. This is world history on a Victorian scale. Such a scale is necessary, the authors argue, if international relations is to overcome its persistent Eurocentrism and historical narrowness, both of which have contributed to state-centric analyses too much enamoured of the assumption of anarchy.

To get a sense of just how significant Buzan and Little’s contribution is, it is useful to compare it with Jack Donnelly’s Realism and International Relations . Part of a new series from Cambridge University Press designed to provide upper - level undergraduates and graduate students with authoritative surveys of central topics in international relations, each chapter is followed by a set of discussion questions and suggestions for further reading. 

Framing realism as a philosophical orientation enables Donnelly to draw out the diverse nature of the positions held by even the most exemplary realist figures. Drawing on the paradigmatic works of Morgenthau, Waltz, Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes, Donnelly works systematically through realist accounts of human nature and state motivation, international anarchy, system structure and the balance of power, international institutions and morality in foreign policy. This is a very American book: it is a sign of the times and the balance of power in international scholarship that the prisoner’s dilemma is accorded co-equal status as a paradigmatic realist theory. 

Donnelly’s book is an excellent introduction to realism. Read it next to International Systems in World History  , however, and it already looks dated, if not rather quaint. Locating the essence of realism in the combination of egoism and anarchy, a combination that Donnelly argues provides one-sided insight into international politics, is pretty thin gruel next to the sweep and sophistication of Buzan and Little ’ s account of international systems.

John Hobson’s The State and International Relations , a volume in the same Cambridge series as Donnelly ’ s, makes a sustained effort to bring international relations up to speed on the theory of the state. Despite an almost - slavish disciplinary commitment to the state in theory and practice, explicit attempts to theorise the state and its relation to the international are rare. Hobson has done the discipline a huge service in working systematically through each of the major traditions - realism, liberalism, Marxism, constructivism and Weberian historical sociology - and showing how they conceptualise the state and the state-international relation. Focusing on the international power of the state as agent, the international analogue of the infrastructural power of the state in domestic politics, enables Hobson to produce a genuinely innovative argument about how we should understand the state now. This is an excellent text and should be widely read.

Again, we can get a sense of just how far Hobson moves the field forward if we compare his text with Paul Brooker’s Non-Democratic Regimes , part of the Palgrave textbook series Comparative Government and Politics  edited by Vincent Wright. Realist theories of international relations assume a sharp distinction between domestic and international politics. At the limit, realists assert the autonomy of the international. The flipside of such an assertion is to assume that domestic politics can be understood in isolation from the international. 

Brooker’s workmanlike text neatly exemplifies the result: analysis that elides the question of how domestic and international shape and mutually constitute one another. Comparative politics of this kind takes the territorial state for granted as its key unit of analysis, implicitly accepting the realist account of relations between the state and the international system. What one gets is an account of the world as a set of discrete political systems that can be abstracted as "cases" from their international context and compared with one another. Read next to Hobson, it becomes clear just how much is taken for granted about the state and the international system in this kind of analysis. In contrast, Hobson puts the state-international relation at the centre of our vision. Raising important questions about the character of the state and of the international system, respectively, Hobson and Buzan and Little have produced studies that contribute significantly to remaking how we think about and study international politics.
Mark Laffey is lecturer in international relations, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations, First edition

Author - Barry Buzan and Richard Little
ISBN - 0 19 878065 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 452

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments