Was anarchy always what states made of it?

26 June 2022, 1341 EDT

Like a lot of academics, I love Google n-grams, but not as much as the digitized archive Google uses to produce it. It’s a great warren of rabbit holes – even better than wikipedia – and I often wind up following one somewhere or other. My latest journey begins with realism.

Steven Walt’s recent Foreign Policy entry (“Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?”) touched off a round of online debate, including entries by Seva GunitskyPaul PoastPatrick PorterKen Schultz and others. My daughter suggested that I weigh in. I even began to write a rather lengthy teardown of the kerfuffle.

I started out with the idea that I was going to write something much more comprehensive. Combine ADHD with COVID and that meant a fair amount of unnecessary research – including some cursory investigation of a claim that Paul makes in the aforementioned article. In passing, Paul notes that:

The first work of modern realist thought and the precursor to Mearsheimer’s own work was The European Anarchy, a short book written by the British political scientist G. Lowes Dickinson in 1916.

I’ve seen this argument before, and it never sounded quite right to me.

Dickinson wasn’t actually, as best I can tell, a realist in any meaningful sense. He thought the anarchical competition that produced World War I was bad – and that policymakers ought to construct an alternative international order.

The European Anarchy closes with a section entitled “The Change Needed.” In it, Dickinson argues that, “first” we need “a change of outlook.”

We must recognize that behind the acts that led up to the immediate outbreak of war, behind the crimes and atrocities to which the war has led, as wars always have led, and always will lead – behind all that lies a great complex of feeling, prejudice, tradition, false theory, in which all nations and all individuals of all nations are involved. Most men believe, feel, or passively accepted that power and wealth are the objects States ought to pursue; that in pursuing these objects they are bound by no code of right in their relations to one another; that law between them is, and must be, as fragile as a cobweb stretched before the mouth of a cannon ; that force is the only rule and the only determinant of their differences, and that the only real question is when and how the appeal to force may most advantageously be made.

Dickinson hopes that World War I will bring about a “conversion.”

The way to deliverance is neither difficult nor obscure. It does not lie in the direction of crushing anybody. It lies in the taking of certain determinations, and the embodying of them in certain institutions.

First, the nations must submit to law and to right in the settlement of their disputes.

Secondly, they must reserve force for the coercion of the law-breaker; and that implies that they should construct rules to determine who the law-breaker is.

We do need to be careful about how we interpret Dickinson’s use of the term “anarchy.” Jack Donnelly argues that Dickinson – as well as his contemporaries – mean something more than simply the absence of a common authority.

‘The international anarchy’ identifies a particularly perverse, historically contingent form of power politics. ‘What was wrong? Germany? England? No. The European tradition and system.’

That’s certainly how I read Dickinson. It looks like at least some of his contemporaries also understood his argument this way. Here’s what James W. Garner wrote in 1926 in the American Political Science Review:

By a liberal interpretation of a word, the author characterizes the period covered as one of international “anarchy,” which it obviously was not in the usual sense of the term. But it was, as he demonstrates, an era of international “chicanery,” “imperialism,” “armament competition,” and “territorial aggression” – a period of increasing distrust, suspicion, and fear, among the nations of Europe; of kaleidoscopic alliances, ententes, and shifting friendships, a given country being an enemy today and an ally tomorrow; of diplomatic intrigue and hypocrisy; of international stealing and brigandage; of secret treaties and of treaty violations, and, above all, of increasing armaments the effect of which was to irritate and provoke war. The treaties which were concluded during this period, says the author, were all made ostensibly with a view to preserving the peace, and some of the statesmen, perhaps all of them, who made them may have desired that the peace should be kept. But in fact they laid the basis for the Great War because, among armed powers pursuing objects that can only be achieved by war and united by treaties directed against one another, peace is impossible.

Garner also highlights Dickinson’s policy outlook:

Unfortunately, he concludes, the terrible lessons of the war have not been learned. Europe is still armed, suspicious, and covetous, even more than before the war. But there are hopeful currents below the surface and a new world is fermenting underneath. The way to peace, he thinks, lies in the development of the League of Nations into a strong organ of international control, an association in which all states must become members. The “legal openings” for war must be closed as the lamented Geneva protocol so provided; there must be “a complete apparatus” for the peaceable settlement of all disputes; there must be arrangements for an equitable distribution of raw materials and the abandonment of protective policies; and above all there must be a general, all-round disarmament.

Regardless of the specific meaning of “anarchy,” this underscores that there is little inherently “realist” about the idea that it allows for war. The connection between anarchy and conflict is a core argument in the so-called “liberal tradition.” Heck, it’s one part of Kant’s argument about the conditions necessary for perpetual peace.

One can easily understand the affinity between putatively “realist” understandings of international anarchy and liberal ideology.

  • Many accounts of international anarchy draw from “state of nature” liberalism. By this I mean liberal theories about i) the scope of legitimate government that ii) begin with an understanding of why people would consent to give up the freedom that they enjoy in its absence.
  • International anarchy is, in principle, mutable. If realpolitik behavior stems from innate human dispositions, then we are – comparatively speaking – stuck with it. That’s less true if it emerges from contextual factors; then we can, at least to some degree, tame or at least channel power-political competition among states.

Back in 1992, Keith Shimko published a great piece in The Review of Politics on liberalism, classical realism, and structural realism.

The difficulty of transplanting realism to the United State is to be found in the main conflict between classical realism and liberalism – the former’s pessimistic view of man, which is at odds with the basic optimism of liberalism.

“Neorealism” solved this problem by… you guessed it.. kicking out of a “human nature” account of realpolitik in favor of one focused on international anarchy.

Those who found Morgenthau’s insistence on human nature “embarrassing” (to use Rosenberg’s phrasing) need no longer be embarrassed. American students of relations can be realists without shedding their liberal predispositions.

I’ve always liked Shimko’s argument. But I’m starting to think that his emphasis is a bit off. Instead, structural realism and its cousins are in a direct line of descent from liberal (or, at least, reformist) accounts of international politics.

Dickinson is clearly not the first person to articulate the “realist logic of anarchy.” Here’s Vere Henry (Lord) Hobart in 1864 (reprint) arguing that anarchy is, among other things, a permissive condition for war:

The community of nations, then , is a community in which law, in the ordinary sense of the term – the sense in which it subsists and is effectual in an ordinary society – has no existence. The natural consequences of anarchy follow. The military power possessed by each nation being its only means of defence against aggression or insult, and of obtaining that to which it considers itself entitled, or which without any such consideration it is resolved to obtain, blood will from time to time be shed, and acts of injustice will be committed or contemplated, either by means of successful war, or, where there is on the side of those who commit or contemplate them a great superiority of force, without any disturbance of the peace of the world.

In “The ‘Mission’ of Richard Cobden” (1867) Lord Hobart has some strong words about the “evils” of anarchy:

But if war is unlawful, then, in the case just supposed of a community consisting of individual persons, it is unlawful for each of them to protect his own rights in the absence of any government to protect them ; a doctrine which no one possessed of common sense will be found to maintain. The natural and necessary result of international anarchy is war, just as the natural and necessary result of national anarchy is personal violence. But war is not, because in international anarchy is not, an inevitable condition of human affairs. War is, because international anarchy is, excusable enough as between barbarous communities. But among civilised and enlightened nations war is, because anarchy is, a scandal and a shame. It is this evil – this anarchy of nations which has wrought more misery and prevented more happiness than perhaps any other of the self-inflicted torments of humanity. … so long as nations remain politically isolated from each other, so long as they are unable by common agreement to terminate the anarchy which afflicts them, force is the sole and legitimate protector of the rights of each ; and that to compel a people against its will to submit to a foreign dominion is an injustice which must be resisted to the last.

In 1883 The Herald of Peace and International Arbitration reviewed a book called The Actual Mission of Sovereigns, by One of Themselves – which it attributes to the King of Bavaria – and has this to say:

Dickinson also was not, contra some claims, the first to connect international anarchy, the state of nature, and Hobbes. In The Extinction of War, Poverty, and Infectious Diseases, George R. Drysdale (1897) argues that “international anarchy” accounts of interstate war and explicitly invokes Hobbes (and Locke). For example, Drysdale writes (pages 24-25) that:

Yet again, the way out of anarchy is through federation.

Based on these scattered readings, it seems fairly clear to me that

  • Something akin to the “neorealist” account of anarchy was already in circulation by 1900; and
  • It was closely associated with what we’d now call “idealist” proposals for reducing the prevalence of military conflict and realpolitik.

But to really know we’d need to venture beyond the confines of JSTOR and Google Books.

A version of this post first appeared on the Duck of Minerva Substack.