Theories on International Relations: The English School

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Pluralism contrasted with Solidarism

The theoretical approach of the English School of International Relations can be traced to the ideas of Hedley Bull who conceived international society as ‘a group of states , conscious of certain common interests and values, forms 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 1977, 13). In contrast to the realist’s view on the need for a balance of power in maintaining order in the anarchic society, Bull emphasises ‘order in world politics as deriving from the existence of an international society’ ( Baylis 2014, 36) underpinned by rules, norms and institutions.

In discussing the conceptual variations within the English School, it is interesting to note that Bull’s idea of international society was one which eschewed the binary opposition of ‘realism on the one hand and universalism on the other’. (Wheeler, p.465). Bull’s earlier writings seem to support the ‘pluralist’ view of international society, conceiving states as ‘the principle bearer of rights and duties in international law, with individuals only having legal rights insofar as the state provides for them’ (Wheeler, p.467). In this respect, the pluralist view appears to be a rational invocation of the need to ensure international order despite the political, legal and social distinctiveness of the diverse sovereign states that make up the global order.Presumably, normatively guided relationships among liberal democracies, socialist states and theocracies remain a reality so long as certain threshold purposes are met by states: ‘reciprocal recognition of sovereignty, and its logical corollary, the norm of non-intervention.'( Wheeler, p. 467).

What is intuitively problematic with the Pluralist account of international society is the subordination of individuals and entire populations to the State, and its conceptions of Justice in its attempts to ensure a semblance of global order. The state is privileged with the rights and duties in international law and therefore the ultimate determiner and arbiter of whether it is complicit in, for instance, crimes against humanity or genocide of populations.

In contradistinction to the pluralist stance, the Solidarist or Grotian view ‘is the assumption that there is a universal standard of justice and morality against which the actions and states… may be judged.’ ( Wheeler, p.468). Bull argues in The Anarchical  Society that  ‘world order is more fundamental and primordial than international order because the ultimate units of the great society of all mankind are not states .. but individual beings.'( Wheeler, p. 469). If one associates the achieving of world order, as Bull does, with the ‘limitation of violence, the stability of possessions, and the honoring of promises’ ( Wheeler, p. 469) , it may be morally indefensible to accept the pluralist perspective that advocates for the mutual recognition and respect of sovereign states regardless of whether such states are complicit, for instance,  in crimes against humanity and genocide. Such an ideological stance may be supportive of a concept of the rule of law that allows for the mass detention and indoctrination of close to a million ‘Uighurs,  Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim peoples by China…under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.’ ( Amnesty International 2018). Just because there is a lack of consensus on universal conceptions of justice and fundamental human rights does not necessarily mean that international laws and  conventions such as the Genocide Convention 1948, and global courts such as the ICC and ICJ should be rejected; As Chris Brown argues: ‘If diversity entails that states have the right to mistreat their populations, then it is difficult to see why such diversity is to be valued’. ( Wheeler, p.469).

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