‘The English School’ is a term coined in the 1970s to describe a group of predominantly British or British-inspired writers for whom international society is the primary object of analysis (Jones 1981; Linklater and Suganami 2006). Its most influential members include Hedley Bull, Martin Wight, John Vincent and Adam Watson whose main publications appeared in the period between the mid-1960s and late 1980s (see Bull 1977; Bull and Watson 1984; Wight 1977, 1991; Vincent 1986; Watson 1982). Since the late 1990s, the English School has enjoyed a renaissance in large part because of the efforts of Barry Buzan, Richard Little and a number of other scholars (Buzan 2001, 2003; Little 2000). The English School remains one of the most important approaches to international politics although its influence is probably greater in Britain than in most other societies where International Relations is taught.
The foundational claim of the English School is that sovereign states form a society, albeit an anarchic one in that they do not have to submit to the will of a higher power. The fact that states have succeeded in creating a society of sovereign equals is for the English School one of the most fascinating dimensions of international relations. This is not to suggest that the English School ignores the phenomenon of violence in relations between states. Its members regard violence as an endemic feature of the ‘anarchical society’ (the title of Hedley Bull’s most famous work, 1977) but they also stress that it is controlled to an important extent by international law and morality.
Members of the English School are attracted by elements of realism and idealism, yet gravitate towards the middle ground, never wholly reconciling themselves to either point of view. In short, members of the English School maintain that the international political system is more civil and orderly than realists and neo-realists suggest. However, the fact that violence is ineradicable in their view puts them at odds with utopians who believe in the possibility of perpetual peace. There is no expectation among its members that the international political system will come to enjoy levels of close cooperation and the relatively high level of security found in the world’s more stable national societies. There is, they argue, more to international politics than realists suggest but there will always be much less than the cosmopolitan desires. This is why it makes sense to argue that members of the English School belief there has been a limited degree of progress in international politics.
The English School is interested in the processes which transform systems of states into societies of states and in the norms and institutions which prevent the collapse of civility and the re-emergence of unbridled power. It is also concerned with the question of whether societies of states can develop means of promoting justice for individuals and their immediate associations. Bull in particular distinguished between international societies and international systems, but he also identified different types of international society in order to cast light on the relationship between order and justice in world affairs.
In an early essay (1966a), Bull distinguished between the ‘solidarist’ or ‘Grotian’ and ‘pluralist’ conceptions of international society. He maintained that the ‘central Grotian assumption is that of the solidarity, or potential solidarity, of the states comprising international society, with respect to the enforcement of the law’ (Bull 1966a: 52). Solidarism is apparent in the Grotian conviction that there is a clear distinction between just and unjust wars, and in the assumption ‘from which [the] right of humanitarian intervention is derived… that individual human beings are subjects of international law and members of international society in their own right’ (1966a: 64). Pluralism, as expounded by the eighteenth-century international lawyer, Vattel, rejects this approach, arguing that ‘states do not exhibit solidarity of this kind, but are capable of agreeing only for certain minimum purposes which fall short of that of the enforcement of the law’ (1966a: 52). A related argument is that states rather than individuals are the basic members of international society (1966a: 68). Having made this distinction, Bull asked whether there was any evidence that the pluralist international society of the post-Second World War era was becoming more solidarist. His answer in The Anarchical Society was that expectations of greater solidarity were seriously ‘premature’ (Bull 1977: 73).
Bull argued that the goal of preserving the sovereignty of each state has often clashed with the goal of preserving the balance of power and maintaining peace. Polish independence was sacrificed on three occasions in the eighteenth century for the sake of international equilibrium. The League of Nations chose not to defend Abyssinia from Italian aggression because Britain and France needed Italy to balance the power of Nazi Germany. In such cases, order took priority over justice which requires that each sovereign state should be treated equally. Contemporary international society contains other examples of the tension between order and justice. Order requires efforts to prevent further additions to the nuclear club, but justice suggests all states have an equal right to acquire weapons of mass destruction (1977: 227–8).
The development of English School thinking about human rights is fascinating in this regard. Bull (1977: 83) argued that in the recent history of international society pluralism has triumphed over solidarism. In recent centuries, the solidarist belief in the primacy of individual human rights had survived albeit ‘underground’. In addition, most states – and Europe’s former colonies since the end of the Second World War – have feared that human rights law might be used as a pretext for interfering in their domestic affairs. Bull was concerned that Western arrogance and complacency about human rights might damage the delicate framework of international society. He also noted that relative silence on the importance of human rights had produced a strong counterreaction, and that states in the twentieth century had come under increasing pressure to ensure their protection (Bull 1984a).
In fact, two very different tendencies have appeared in the English School in recent years. Dunne and Wheeler (1999) argued in the late 1990s that the end of bipolarity made it possible that states could agree on how to introduce new principles of humanitarian intervention into the society of states. They added that the aspiring ‘good international citizen’ should be prepared to intervene in societies where there was a ‘supreme humanitarian emergency’ even though their action was in breach of international law. This argument has been rejected by Jackson (2000: 291ff.) who stresses, citing the example of Russia’s long-standing affinity with Serbia, the danger that humanitarian intervention might disturb order between the great powers. Jackson (2000) argues that the greatest violations of human rights take place in times of war, and so preserving constraints on violence between states should have priority over the use of force to safeguard human rights, whenever it is necessary to choose between them.
In The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919–1939, E. H. Carr (1939/1945/1946: 12) argued that international theory should avoid the ‘sterility’ of realism and the ‘naivety’ of idealism. The English School can claim to have passed this test of a good international theory. They have analysed elements of society and civility which have been of little interest to realists. Although they have been principally concerned with understanding international order, they have also considered the prospects for global justice and some have made the moral case for creating a more just world order. Members of the English School are not convinced by utopian or revolutionist arguments which maintain that states can settle their most basic differences about morality and justice. The idea that the English School is the via media between realism and revolutionism rests on such considerations.
The English School argues that international society is a precarious achievement but the only context within which more radical developments can take place. Advances in the global protection of human rights, they argue, will not occur in the absence of international order. It is to be expected that there will always be two sides to the English School: the side that is quick to detect threats to international society and the side that identifies ways in which that society might become more responsive to the needs of individuals and their various associations.
Linklater, Andrew. 2005. ‘The English School’ dalam Theories of International Relation. New York: Palgrave McMillan