Anarchy (International Relations)

Anarchy (International Relations)

In this article, we shall discuss the topic of anarchy in international relations. We will define anarchy, as well as examine how different international relations theories such as realism, liberalism, and constructivism, as well as power transition theory view notions of anarchy.

What is Anarchy in International Relations?

Anarchy (international relations) is defined as the absence of some overarching power in the international system. An anarchical world is one in which there are no pre-set laws or rules to help oversee and dictate state and non-state behavior. The idea of anarchy is central to international relations. Powell (1994) explains anarchy as a condition in which “No agency exists above individual states with authority and power to make laws and settle disputers. States can make commitment and treaties, but no sovereign power ensures compliances and punished deviations. This-the absence of a supreme power-is what is meant by the anarchic environment of international politics” (330).

Another definition of anarchy suggests an absence of order; conditions of chaos (Milner, 1991). Regardless of the exact definition of anarchy in international relations that one uses, various scholars of international relations have argued that it is difficult to understand world affairs today without taking into account anarchy, since behaviors arise out of the conditions of anarchy in international relations.

How Do the Different International Relations Theories View Anarchy?

The idea of anarchy (international relations) is viewed differently depending on which international relations theory one subscribes to. In fact, the topic of anarchy is among the central points of debate in the international relations theory community. For example, in the case of political realism, an anarchical society leads states to defend for themselves. This sort of world–one in which there is not an overarching authority to command adherence to a specific set of actions or behavioral guidelines, leads states to have to find ways to defend themselves. In this anarchical world, no one else can be trusted, since there is no external force to punish the actors in the international system. So, for realists, states will seek power (or at least defense) in an anarchical system, since the only way that one can get someone else to do something is through coercion, or if they themselves choose to comply (Slaughter, 2011). For the realists, anarchy leads to an environment of distrust. This can best be captured by the prisoner’s dilemma, in which actors, without an overarching authority to punish behavior, will look out for their best interests, even if at the expense of everyone else (Milner, 1991). As Holsti (1985) writes: “According to classical realists, “structural anarchy,” or the absence of a central authority to settle disputes, is the essential feature of the contemporary system, and it gives rise to the “security dilemma”: in a self-help system one nation’s search for security often leaves its current and potential adversaries insecure, any nation that strives for absolute security leaves all others in the system absolutely insecure, and it can provide a powerful incentive for arms races and other types of hostile interactions” (4).

In addition, because of the anarchical nature of the world, not only will realists say that one cannot trust others, but this will have implications on interactions. If states do interact with one another, then according to realists, that country must be very careful in ensuring that while they gain, that their power and/or gain is not weak relative to other others’ gain. So, relative power matters very much in the case of realism and anarchy (Walt, 1998).

Liberalists, like realists, recognize the role of anarchy in international relations. However, liberalists differ from realism in that they view anarchy as possibility; state and non-state actors can come together (within an anarchical system) and set up institutions and rules in which can help make the world better off. Through joint cooperation, world actors can work together on a series of issues, and because of this, they can all increase their own absolute power. So, for the liberalist, anarchy is not something that will lead to violence and distrust, but rather, it is merely a condition that those in the world system can overcome by cooperation and joint ventures. So, scholars of liberalism/pluralism in international relations examine the different ways that cooperation comes out of this anarchical system (in Milner, 1991). Again, the main differences between realists and liberalists regarding anarchy are the implications that arise in terms of how actors will behave in this anarchical system (Powell, 1994). In addition, for liberalists, they do not worry about relative power, but rather, argue for absolute power; as long as both sides are benefitting from cooperation, this will be good for both parties involved; they do not need to worry about relative power with one another.

Social constructivists take more of a middle position between realism and liberalist international relations thought. For constructivists, anarchy is neither bad, nor good (in the sense of the type of behavior that will arise out of anarchical conditions). So, they challenge realist ideas that anarchy drives states to act in certain ways (Wendt, 1992). Rather than anarchy leading to a specific type of behavior, constructivists argue that anarchy in international relations has no set behavioral responses; states can make what they want out of anarchy (Wendt, 1992). From anarchy, conditions of insecurity and distrust can surely arise. But so can conditions of peace and harmony. It is not the notion of anarchy that itself will cause a specific behavior, but rather, as Alexander Wendt has argued, actors in the international system themselves can make of anarchy what they will. He notes that “self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or causally from anarchy and that if today we find ourselves in a self-help world, this is due to process, not structure” (394) (Others such as Mercer 1995 look at notions of identity within anarchy in international relations).

Some, such as Powell (1991) have argued that looking at anarchy in international relations with attention to a lack of supreme authority is itself ‘misplaced’, saying the following: “Two arguments suggest that our emphasis on anarchy has been misplaced if by anarchy we mean the lack of a central authority. These arguments suggest that conclusions often claimed to follow from the absence of a central authority do not. These conclusions require other supporting assumptions. The first argument is really an empirical observation. Keohane notes in his assessment of the debate between neorealism and neoliberalism that the modern state system, conventionally dated from 1648, has always been anarchic in the sense that it lacked a common government. Thus, anarchy, while perhaps a necessary condition, is certainly not sufficient to explain any of the variation in international politics during the modern era ” (331-332). Powell (1991) goes on to add that there is too much attention on anarchy to explain behavior, when rather, one can look at state actions based on their consumption to military expenditure patterns, and that this will affect their balancing of power in the anarchical system. So, it is not just about anarchy, but rather, how they behave that will dictate actions; anarchy is not the driving force here.

Extensions of Anarchy in International Relations

Scholars studying international relations theory have looked for new ways to approach the effects of anarchy in the international system. These examination have approached the question of anarchy differently, whereas others are looking to see how anarchy impacts world politics in ways previously not addressed. For example, some have continued to examine anarchy from a perspective of political theory, looking at various theorist arguments (such as looking at Hobbess’ thought) about ideas of international anarchy, sovereignty (Moloney, 2011). Other still have looked at anarchy from an economics perspective (Moss, 2010).

Other branches of scholarship are looking at anarchy from non-traditional models, veering away from the attention for he state. For example, while anarchy has historically been studied with a lens on state behavior, Fidler looks at the effects of anarchy (international relations) on non-state actors. Ram (2001) also examines the ever-changing international system with the rise of non-state actors. Regarding anarchy and non-state actors, Ram argues that “In the contemporary world non-governmental organisations and social movements are posing a serious challenge to the state-centric pillars of the world system. Such a predicament of international anarchy provides a potential space to re-search the different dimensions of anarchy, state and governance both at domestic and international levels” (520). Vinci (2008) looks at the relationship between domestic anarchy (failed states) and international anarchy, arguing that the two can be connected. Vanderschraaf (2008) looks at anarchy and domestic revolutions through a game-theoretical perspective.

Thus, the topic of anarchy in international relations continues to be one that captures the interests of scholars. Whether anarchy is being discussed in the context of theory, in more specific matters of international conflict, or within the framework of NGOs, or domestic politics, the issue of anarchy is an important element to the examination of international relations.

Anarchy (International Relations) References

Vinci, A. (2008). Anarchy, Failed States, and Armed Groups: Reconsidering Conventional Analysis. International Studies Quarterly, 52, pages 295-314.

Holsti, K.J. (1985). The Dividing Discipline: Hegemony and Diversity in International Theory (London, 1985).

Fidler, D.P. (2008). A Theory of Open-Source Anarchy. Indian Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, pages 259-284.

Maloney, P. (2011). Hobbes, Savagery, and International Anarchy. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 105, No. 1, pages 189-204.

Moss, L.S. (2010). Optimal Jurisdictions and the Economic Theory of the State: Or, Anarchy and One-World Government Are Only Corner Solutions. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol. 69, No. 1, pages 321-332.

Mercer, J. (1995). Anarchy and Identity. International Organization, Vol. 49, No. 2, pages 229-252. 

Milner, H. (1991). The Assumption of Anarchy in International Relations Theory: A Critique. Review of International Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, pages 67-85. Available Online:

Powell, R. (1994). Anarchy in International Relations Theory: The Neorealist-NeoLiberal Debate. International Organization, Vol. 48, No. 2, pages 313-344. Available Online:

Ram, R. (2001). From the Anarchy to Anarchy: State and Governance Problematique. The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 62, No. 4, pages 520-531.

Slaughter, A.M. (2011). International Relations, Principle Theories. In Wolfrum, R. (Ed.) Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (Oxford University Press, 2011). Available Online:

Vanderschraaf, P. (2008). Game Theory Meets Threshold Analysis: Reappraising the Paradoxes of Anarchy and Revolution. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 59, No. 4, pages 579-617.

Walt, S. (1998). International Relations: One World, Many Theories. Foreign Policy, Issue 110, Pages 29-35. Available Online:

Wendt, A. (1992). Anarchy Is What States Make Of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics. International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2, pages 391-425.

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