Anarchy and International Relations: A Reconsideration

By Jonathan Havercroft and Alex Prichard. Jonathan Havercroft is Associate Professor in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.

What is anarchy? Despite its centrality to the self-image of the discipline of International Relations, few have critically enquired into the essence of this concept.  Most still deploy textbook definitions, namely that anarchy is the absence of rulers, of a centralized authority, or a system of self-help. This basic understanding of anarchy is largely uncontested. However, by contrast, the study of the purported causal effects of anarchy, rather than the meaning of the concept itself, has arguably shaped the evolution of the discipline over the last fifty years at least. Debates between classical and neo-realists, and between neo-realists and neo-liberals, revolved around understanding ‘order without an orderer and organizational effects where formal organisation is lacking’.

The rejection of the terms of these two debates, including a rejection of anarchy, was central to the evolution of normative and critical IR theory. Anarchy was synonymous with statism, with the absence of morality, and what Jo Freeman called, in a different context, ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’, where hierarchies and domination proliferated in the absence of formal institutions. Elsewhere, the analytical virtue of anarchy was itself questioned, such that to focus on anarchy was itself a problematic collusion with the gendered and Eurocentric legacies of modernity. Barry Buzan and Richard Little (2001) argued that IR’s failure to speak beyond the confines of our own academic and intellectual silos was primarily a function of the discipline’s ‘anarchophilia’. IR has had little influence, they argued, because our core concept has had such little traction outside the neo-neo debates that have shaped so much of the discipline, but little else.

Yet despite this extensive debate, few have taken the time to interrogate the concept’s plural meanings, to see what the consequences might be if anarchy itself were defined differently. This paucity of critical conceptual analysis is surely a function of how uncontested the meaning of this concept has been, despite its centrality to the field.

In a recently published special issue of the Journal of International Political Theory we seek to puff at the glowing embers of this debate. Our aim is to take stock of, examine, and reconsider the concept of anarchy, and its place in the study and practice of international relations. We contest mainstream conceptualizations of anarchy by drawing upon original research in political philosophy, medieval history, pluralist theory, history of political thought, and of course, IR theory. The aim is to investigate how differing conceptions of anarchy can advance the study of world politics. Our conclusion is that there are a range of ways in which anarchy can be defined, deployed, and perhaps even appropriated by IR theorists, and that ‘the anarchy problématique’ has plenty of life in it yet.


Podcast on the Politics of Indignity and Refugees with David Owen

Here is a podcast of Dr. David Owen speaking at Oxford University, for the Refugee Studies Centre’s 2017 Public Seminar Series. His talk is entitled, “Refugees and the Politics of Indignity.” The series was convened by Matthew J. Gibney.


Decarbonisation and Poverty

By Chris Armstrong, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton.

The spectre of dangerous climate change throws up many challenges. This post concentrates on just one of them – albeit one which has received too little attention. We know that if dangerous climate change is to be avoided, the majority of the world’s fossil fuel supplies cannot be burned. If we are committed to avoiding temperature rises in excess of 2ºC, for example, an estimated two thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves must go unused by 2050. To these reserves must be added all anticipated supplies which are not yet commercially available.

If there is widespread agreement that our dependence on the world’s most valuable commodity must be radically curtailed, this simple fact throws up a series of important questions. Politically, the most pressing question is how to ensure that the world adheres to the available ‘carbon budget’ by leaving most supplies unexploited. The earliest attempts to curtail fossil fuel use aimed to depress demand, for instance by way of carbon taxes, or compulsory cap-and-trade mechanisms. Increasingly, though, attention has shifted to measures which would restrict the supply of coal, gas and oil. In principle – since there are far fewer extractors of fossil fuels than there are consumers, and since extraction is immobile – supply ought to be easier to monitor and control than demand.

But an important moral question is how to manage any losses generated by the ‘decarbonisation’ of the global economy. Leaving the oil – and the gas, and the coal – in the soil will have major consequences for a number of actors. Unless they manage to diversify first, fossil fuel companies may have billions of dollars wiped off their stock market valuations. Thousands of people employed in the oil, gas and coal industries could lose their jobs. Indeed a whole series of people in peripheral industries – right down to people running cafes and general stores in mining towns – might do so too. Shareholders, and ordinary pension holders, might be exposed to significant losses, given that many investment funds maintain large holdings in fossil fuel industries.

Finally – and of particular interest from the point of view of debates on global justice – fossil-fuel exporting countries stand to lose out on a significant source of revenue. On one estimate, the overall revenues foregone when these assets are ‘stranded’ could total tens of trillions of dollars globally.  Moreover, some of the greatest losses are likely to occur in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and Latin America, since developing country exporters are particularly likely to have untapped – or even unexplored – supplies.  For instance, it has been calculated that 73% of the coal found in Central and South America, and 90% of African supplies, must go unexploited if we are to meet a 2ºC target. The countries of the Middle East and Africa, meanwhile, may have to leave their entire unconventional gas reserves underground.

The economic consequences could be dramatic. Consider a simple comparison. According to the OECD, annual oil revenues flowing to Nigeria alone are more than triple the Overseas Development Assistance flowing to the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. To be sure, fossil fuel wealth has often turned out to do disappointingly little for the ordinary citizens of developing countries, and in some cases it has locked countries into cycles of bad governance and civil strife. Nevertheless, it has also spurred periods of remarkable economic growth. For the taps to turn off now could generate an economic shock that poor countries are ill-equipped to weather.

The world has rightly focused on how the transition beyond carbon can be brought about. But we also need to make sure it is a just transition. It cannot be a transition which leaves some mired in poverty. As a result, we need to give serious attention to side-policies which would offset morally troubling losses of development opportunities. As well as being morally pressing, doing so will be politically important too. The chances of stabilising our climate are all the slimmer if parties to any agreement feel that their legitimate grievances are not being addressed. It is likely that ‘Only a global climate deal that compensates losers and is perceived as equitable by all participants can impose strict limits on the use of fossil fuels in the long term.’

The vitally important question to which we are only now shifting our attention is: what policies should accompany decarbonisation, so as to make the transition away from carbon a fair one? Assuming that these policies will have a cost, who should pick up the tab, and on what basis? These are important questions for both theorists and policy-makers. I was recently lucky enough to be involved in an excellent conference on just such questions, on the island of Lofoten in Norway – a country which famously relies on oil and gas sales for much of its wealth, but is now thinking seriously about the post-carbon future. It is to be hoped that this conference is a sign that the question about decarbonisation and poverty will be taken up much more widely.

Justice and Natural Resources

By Chris Armstrong, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton.

Struggles over precious resources such as oil, water, and land are increasingly evident in the contemporary world. States, indigenous groups, and corporations vie to control access to those resources, and the benefits they provide. As the controversy over the Dakota pipeline in the US illustrates, those conflicts can be intense. Moreover, whereas international law provides states with an extensive set of rights over domestic resources, these conflicts are rapidly spilling over into new arenas, such as the deep oceans and the Polar icecaps. Engineers and scientists are hard at work developing the technology which would be needed to access mineral deposits, or valuable forms of biodiversity, in these otherwise inhospitable regions.

Humanity will therefore face crucial decisions, in coming decades, about how these precious resources should be governed, and how the benefits and burdens they generate should be shared. This is a question political theorists have argued about for centuries. Should our ‘appropriation’ of the world’s resources be relatively unconstrained, so that they can be gobbled up on a first-come-first-served basis? Or should appropriation be constrained in light of the claims we all have on these precious resources, which none of us, after all, played any hand in creating? Should the world’s resources be seen as a treasury for the alleviation of global poverty or inequality?

Questions of natural resource justice, then, are crucially important. Our answers to those questions will resonate with some of the most significant controversies within political theory today: what are the demands of global justice? How can we fairly share the costs of dealing with climate change, or threats to biodiversity? What, if anything, justifies the territorial rights of states, including the right to ‘freely dispose’ of the natural resources within each state’s territory?

Justice and Natural Resources is the first book-length treatment of these issues, and provides a systematic theory of natural resource justice. It argues that we should use the benefits and burdens flowing from these resources to promote greater equality across the world, and share governance over many important resources. It also illustrates the implications of this theory for a series of pressing real-world issues, including the scope of state resource rights, the claims of indigenous communities, rights over ocean resources, the burdens of conservation, and the challenges of climate change and transnational resource governance.

Responsibility for Refugees

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, You can find more posts by David here.


How should responsibilities for refugees be distributed? According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2014 there were 19.5 million refugees among a total of 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. 1 Developing countries hosted 86 % of this refugee population (up from 70 % ten years previously.) 2 Lebanon (26 %) and Jordan (9.8 %) have the highest per capita ratios of refugees worldwide. 3 Is this a fair distribution of responsibilities?

Considerations of fairness have been much to the fore in the political rhetoric of debates concerning current flows of Syrian refugees into the European Union (although to put this into perspective, from the beginning of the crisis up to the end of 2015, the total number of asylum applications from Syrians in the European Union reached 681,713, 4 while in the same period the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey amounted to 2.18 million 5). But at least one of the difficulties in this debate is that there is no agreement among states, globally or within the EU, concerning what would count as criteria of a fair distribution of responsibility for refugees.

The current EU crisis also illustrates a further question that is urgent in the contemporary context: what are the limits on state’s obligations to refugees? Is it, for example, sufficient to have done one’s fair share or, in the absence of established criteria, to have done what a good faith effort to work out one’s fair share required? Or do states that have done their fair share have an obligation to take up the slack consequent on others failing to do their fair share?

In ‘Refugees, Fairness and Taking up the Slack’ – available open access here – I argue that in circumstances where not all states do their fair share, human rights protecting states are morally obliged to do more than their fair share, i.e., that refugee protection takes priority over fair distribution of responsibility for refugee protection. However I also draw attention to the prudential point that effective refugee protection is likely to depend on states being willing to do their fair share. Combining these claims, I argue that states have a duty to come to arrangements that, as far as plausible, aim at ensuring a fair distribution of responsibilities.

If the political task is thus that of establishing effective mechanisms for determining fair shares and generating reasonable compliance among states, what are prospects for the fulfillment of this duty? The article provides some reasons for thinking that any general rule for directly determining fair shares is both open to reasonable disagreement and is liable to be skewed by states’ perception of their own interests. It further argues that we have little reason to be confident that states will support the establishment of effective compliance measures – a point sadly illustrated by the failure of EU cooperation in the current refugee crisis.

Refugee crises as political crises are always a combination of a crisis of production and a crisis of response. As things stand, there is little reason to think that both types of crisis will not continue to recur. What this suggests is that we need both to recognize that the existing refugee regime – for all its limitations – is a considerable political achievement – and to acknowledge the extent of the hard political work that will be needed to address current and future refugee crises.


SUVs and suspicion: climate change scepticism on the populist right

By Dr. Eloise Harding, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Southampton (


“It’s snowing and freezing in NYC. What the hell ever happened to global warming?”

Tweeted by @RealDonaldTrump, 21/03/2013

With this tweet, Donald Trump – now a presidential hopeful – places himself firmly in the canon of populist climate change scepticism. This embodies some of the hallmarks of Trump’s rhetoric: sustained use of conspiracy theories and greater faith placed in big business than in science. It also ties in to a wider ideological pattern of climate change scepticism (and occasional denial) on the political right. At the core of this ideological tendency lie the following concepts: deep anthropocentrism, technological optimism (also known as Prometheanism) and a suspicious interpretation of the motives and intentions of environmentalists.

Climate change scepticism is a broad field which spans from the left liberal Bjorn Lomborg to right-wing populists such as Trump and UKIP MEP Roger Helmer. The common elements named above are shared across this spectrum: the difference lies in how they are framed. In particular, deep anthropocentrism focuses on a different set of human interests when applied by the populist right, and a ‘green scare’ becomes almost a logical conceptual extension of the earlier ‘red scare’ in the US context.

Deep anthropocentrism, broadly speaking, refers to the assumption that ‘the needs and desires of humankind represent the crux of our assessment of the state of the world’ (Lomborg 2001, 11). Anthropocentrism is decontested in such a way that human interests are perceived to be directly threatened by excessive concern for the nonhuman world. These human interests range from the treatment of pandemics (threatened by competing for resources with environmental concerns) in Lomborg’s case, through discussion of the benefits of fossil fuels to the global poor, to the populist end of the spectrum in which conceptual stretching comes into play. Marc Morano of the website Climate Depot expresses outrage at a particular potential extinction, arguing that ‘we’re allowing the American SUV to die right before our eyes’ (Klein 2014, 32). This is a broader-than-usual conception of human interests, and one which is likely shaped by proximity to business interests. A cynic might also suggest that, in the case of politicians, reassuring the public that their current habits need not change is liable to win votes.

The interpretation of environmental campaigners’ motives, Naomi Klein notes, is in the US case drawn almost unchanged from Cold War rhetoric regarding tendencies perceived as left-wing. The rhetoric of individual freedom – decontested as freedom to pollute, rather than (say) freedom to breathe clean air – features strongly. There are two strands in play here: firstly the perceived infringement on liberty by legislation designed to limit pollution, and secondly the apparent fear that an authoritarian (by most readings communist) regime is lurking behind the ecological façade.

See for example the predictions of Bay Area Tea Party activist Heather Gass:

“One day (in 2035) you will wake up in subsidised government housing, eating government subsidised food, your kids will be whisked off by government buses to indoctrination training centres while you are working at your government assigned job on the bottom floor of your urban transit centre village because you have no car and who knows where your aging parents will be but by then it will be too late! WAKE UP!!!!”

(Cited Klein 2014, 38: original punctuation and capitals)

Ms Gass, Klein points out, is responding to relatively mild sustainability initiatives with minimal impact on everyday life.

Factors more familiar in the context of the market economy are also brought into play here. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump is on record as stating that ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive’ (Tweeted by @RealDonaldTrump, 06/11/12). The common thread here is a suspicion of the ‘other’: be it the left or a rival economic power, the populist strand of climate change scepticism hinges on a perception of environmental discourse as a smokescreen set up to mask something less benign.

While Lomborg and his ilk make it their mission to debunk climate science (albeit on dubious grounds at times), the populists prefer to elide the issue entirely by citing shadowy paymasters in the background of the scientific establishment or merely by dismissing evidence in favour of the sort of wild claim made by Trump above. If anything, claims originating from the realm of conspiracy are harder to disprove than those drawn from the realm of science, since contradictory evidence is no more readily available than the confirmatory variety.

The likely solution to this problem hinges on recognising the debate as a political, rather than scientific, one and acting accordingly. The approach taken by climate scientist Mark Maslin sets parameters as to which aspects are up for discussion (for example the nature of human interests, and the question of whether nonhuman interests should be considered) and which are not. As we adjust to the Anthropocene era – the first geohistorical period in which humans have had more impact on the planet’s development than natural forces – it is reasonable to insist as Maslin does that the scientific aspect of climate change be placed firmly in the latter category.






After Brexit, What Next? Not Much Mandate for Anything…

By Ben Saunders, Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders,


As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson, Gove, Farage, Leadsom) have all vacated the main stage, leaving it to others to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. This is probably wise on their part, not only because the political divorce is likely to produce considerable short-term discomfort, but also because it seems that no one had any clear post-exit strategy.

We’re told that the British people have spoken and their will must be respected. But, even setting aside reports of widespread protest voting and regretful Leavers, it’s not clear what ‘the people’ (or 52% of them) voted for, beyond the obvious (leaving the EU). Leaving the EU doesn’t itself specify what alternative arrangements should be put in place.

Some want to withdraw as completely as possible from the European project – in particular, in order to control migration. Call this Total Exit, or TE for short. But not everyone in the Leave campaign favours TE. Others made quite clear that they welcome trade and cooperation with our European neighbours, they merely oppose the EU organisation and the threat of a federal European state. These people would be happy for the UK to adopt a position like Norway or Switzerland, not an EU member but not so different in practice. For want of a better label, call this Weak Exit or WE. (For simplicity, I’ll only consider two alternatives, though there are many possibilities.)

Obviously, these alternatives are incompatible. If the UK opts for WE, then we will have no more control over migration or over laws and regulations that continue to bind us. The referendum result will, officially, be respected – we’ll be out of the EU – but many of the 52% won’t be satisfied. But, on the other hand, if we got for TE then, though we’ll have control over these things, we won’t have the strong relations with Europe that were promised and, further, this is more likely to cause great economic disruption than WE. Again, a significant number of the 52% are likely to be dissatisfied – while they may have wanted out of the EU, they didn’t necessarily want TE.

It might be that the 52% are so strongly committed to leaving the EU that they would prefer either TE or WE to continued membership, but I doubt all of them feel this way. Someone who dislikes loss of sovereignty, but is also concerned about the possible economic effects of Brexit, might reasonably prefer WE to Remain, but also prefer Remain to TE. That is, their preferences might be WE > R > TE (with ‘R’ standing for ‘Remain). If they were moderately optimistic about what ‘Leave’ meant (i.e. WE), they would vote for Leave, but they would prefer Remain if the alternative were TE.

Conversely, someone whose chief concern was migration, while ideally wanting TE, might prefer Remain to WE. The Leave campaign emphasized the threat of Turkey joining the EU but, as a member, the UK would have a veto over this. If the UK ends up like Norway, having to accept free movement but without that veto, then the UK would actually have less control over migration than before. So it could be perfectly consistent for someone to prefer Remain over WE, even if their first choice would be TE. That is, TE > R > WE.

The Leave campaign was actually a coalition of people wanting inconsistent things. Some were voting for TE and some for WE. Since we can’t have both of these, it’s likely that a considerable number of Leave voters will end up disappointed, whatever the eventual outcome – and some of them might even have preferred to remain in the EU to the eventual outcome.

Given the closeness of the result, it might seem reasonably likely that, given a choice between ‘Remain or TE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain and, likewise, that given a choice between ‘Remain or WE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. So far, I’ve only highlighted divisions amongst the Leavers, but the Remain voters might also have been influenced by lack of clarity over the options.

No doubt many amongst the 48% who voted to Remain prefer that to either TE or WE. However, it could be that some were simply pessimists about the likely consequences of Brexit. Suppose, for example, that someone would really prefer WE to Remain and Remain to TE (i.e. WE > R > TE). Such a person might nonetheless have voted to Remain if they (pessimistically) thought that Brexit was more likely to result in TE than WE. Had the ballot in fact given the choice between ‘Remain or WE’ then they would have switched their vote from Remain to WE. Likewise, someone whose preferences were TE > R > WE might have voted Remain had they feared that Leave would result in WE.

So, even if some Leavers would have voted Remain, given this choice, it’s also the case that some who actually voted to Remain might have voted to Leave, given a more concrete proposal. For all the talk about ‘respecting the will of the people’ the problem is that there are more than two options. The referendum didn’t really present a choice between two clear options, but rather a choice between the status quo and a mystery box. Now we’ve chosen to open the box, what’s inside is still unclear.

Though the referendum was not legally binding, I think it would be politically impossible for the government to ignore the result. The problem, however, with respecting the will of the people is identifying what it is that the people want. Given that the only really clear outcome of the referendum is that the people are deeply divided, and that both the Conservative Party and Labour Party have been plunged into leadership contests, probably the only certainty is that the political landscape will be unsettled for some time.