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International Relations: The English School

Free «International Relations: The English School» Essay Sample


In the last two decades, the English School of International Relations (IR) has emerged as a popular theoretical establishment, which helps analyse global events. The English School functions as a middle way of theorizing, since it draws inspiration from mainstream IR theories into a coherent perspective. The English School views the international arena as intricate and amorphous. Hence, the international system should be approached from diverse perspectives, including the anarchical international system, a world arrangement that considers the actions and activities of individuals and a value-laden international system. The English School stresses that states are not merely separate elements within a system, but rather a substantial level of institutionalization of shared values, shared interests and mutual understandings. The English School offers an account of IR that integrates history and theory, structure and agency, morality and power. The paper examines the contribution of the English School to theories of international relations (IR). The paper highlights the need to elevate the English School from the margins to the core. Indeed, the English School avails an insightful, richer, factual and open account of interpreting world politics compared to other mainstream alternatives.

International Relations Theories: An Overview

The study of international relations adopts a broad range of theoretical approaches. The conventional IR theories can be classified based on their focus on states, citizens or the state system as the source of conflict. The English School was initially pioneered by the British Committee in the 1960s and 1970s and developed by various writers who shared ontological dispositions and were highly critical of the form of scientific method advanced by positivists (Hidemi 2011, p. 27). The pioneers of the English School, such as Charles Manning, Adam Watson and Hedley Bull, faulted the choice presented between Liberalism and Realism (Reus-Smit & Snidal 2008, p. 267). English School pioneers, such as Bull, distinguished British approaches to international relations from the realist approaches, in which states are motivated solely by egoistic materialism and power politics (Burchill et al. 2009, p. 94). Bull contended that, although the international realm is anarchical owing to the absence of overarching authority to enforce and define rules, it did not imply that global politics is chaotic or anarchic.

Realism stresses the conflictual and competitive side of international politics. Moreover, it perceives the international system as anarchical in nature in which there is minimal possibilities for cooperation and where intervention is presently accommodated by resorting to support of certain factions within a civic struggle (Mingst & Snyder 2013, p. 329). Realism is guided by four assumptions: that survival is the core goal of every state; states can be rational actors; all states enjoy some form of military capacity; the international relations hinge on Super Power politics. Realists view the struggle for power as a zero-sum game in which a win for one country unavoidably constitutes a loss for another country (Burchill et al. 2009, p. 32). The focus on anarchy and power shapes realists’ perception of the international law and international institutions. Realism can be contrasted with liberalism and the English School, which tend to emphasize cooperation. Institutionalists share some of the Realism’s assumptions. They, just like realists, contend that the global system is anarchic, and states function as rational participants solely concerned with survival and improvement of material conditions. Institutionalists also argue that states are self-interested (Little 2003, p. 443). However, the approach also views cooperation as a rational, self-interested strategy. Realists largely doubt the possibility of such collaboration, especially in the absence of coercive power.

Liberalism holds that the national characteristics of individual states have influence on international relations. Such assertion contrasts with that of Realists and Institutionalist accounts where countries share goals and behaviours (survival and wealth). Andrew Moravcsik’s liberal theory features three core assumptions: first, individuals and private groups, rather than state, are the chief participants of world politics (Burchill et al. 2009, p. 58). Second, states represent a prominent subset of domestic society, whose interests they serve. Third, the configuration of the preferences that exist in the international system shapes states’ behaviour. States are not simply “black boxes” pursuing survival and prosperity within an anarchic system, but rather represent configurations of individual and group interests projecting them into the international system (Little 2003, p. 444). Although, survival may remain the central objective, other kinds of interest, such as commercial or ideological beliefs, may be taken into consideration.

Constructivists view reality as socially created, hence, significant emphasis is made on the role of norm development, ideational power and identity. Constructivism challenges the Rationalist framework that supports the bulk of IR theories. Although, some Constructivists would admit that states are rational and self-interested participants, they would highlight varying identities and beliefs under which states seek survival, wealth or power (Slaughter, Andrew & Stepan 1998, p. 367). Constructivists also stress the role of non-state factors, such as transnational corporations and NGOs, more than other approaches, owing to their interests in ideology and beliefs.

The Contribution of the English School

The English School has made significant contribution to the mainstream theories of IR, especially in recognizing the importance of historical understanding. The English School places a momentous premium on the function of the IR theory in defining concepts pertinent to illuminating complex changes in the world order. The interpretive understanding of the English School markedly contrasts with the positivist pursuit of the formulation of “testable hypotheses that typify mainstream IR theories” (Dunne, Kurki & Smith 2013, p. 136).

Fundamentally, English School’s approach to world politics hinge on the Grotian, Kantian and Hobbesian ideas, in which international politics is perceived as a moral space of restraint, which renders order and possibility. Social order, reinforced by states and embodied in the activities of practitioners, should be understood from the point of view of the system dynamics and the world society (Dunne, Kurki & Smith 2013, p. 132). The system-society distinction avails a norative benchmark for responding to the question of how far the international society extends. In addition, the idea of system renders it possible to discern mechanisms that mould international and world societies, while capturing the core material forces in the world politics. The English School logic delineates that the international politics hinges on three elements, namely: power politics amongst states; the institutionalization of collective interest and identity; and the world society.

The proponents of the English School view the approach as the middle ground of IR alongside with Constructivism, which is preferable to the leading mainstream theories of Neoliberalism and Neorealism, as well as the radical alternatives, such as post Structuralism and critical theory (Little 2003, p. 443). The English School averts the framing typical of Realism versus Liberalism. Additionally, the English School averts the explanatory (versus) interpretive dichotomy that gained prominence in the 1990s (Dunne, Kurki & Smith 2013, p. 133).

In the English School itself, there are two unique divisions that differently interpret the conduct and objectives of international society. The pluralist account aligns with the conventional conception of IR by focusing on realist or Hobbesian understanding of the field. Pluralists concentrate on the conduct of state in anarchy, but acknowledge that states cooperate irrespective of self-interest. The pluralist version is anchored on minimalist rules, the safeguard of national sovereignty and the quest to create and preserve international order. Pluralist rules and norms avail a structure of coexistence, anchored on the mutual recognition of states as legally equal and independent members of society, as well as on the inevitable dependence on self-preservation and self-help and on freedom to foster own ends subjected to the limited constraints (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 2013: 141). Pluralism concentrates on the instrumental side of international society as a functional counterweight to the menace of excessive disorder within international anarchy.

The second interpretation of international society details the Solidarists account, which focuses on the relationship between the world society and the international society. The Solidarism focuses on liberal or Kantian understandings of IR, since the core focus centres on how the individual in the state influences the conduct of the society of states. Solidarism accommodates the ideas of individual security, human rights and peace, which permeate the normative foundation of the international society. Solidarism concentrates on the enforcement of transnational liberal rules by inter-governmental institutions, which eliminate the dense networks of participants and institutions.

Pluralism and Solidarism should not be viewed as simply occupying opposing positions, but rather should be viewed as the elements constituting the normative framing principles shaping debate within the English School on the constraints and possibilities of international society. Both approaches exhibit preferences regarding how things should be managed and, hence, function as practice-guiding theories. The difference between the two approaches stems from the content of the values and character of the institution and rules. It is essential to note that the global order has largely been influenced both by Solidarists and Pluralists’ viewpoints, which implies that the practical aspect of the debate is not necessarily concerns the notion “either/or” but rather “how”.

The Critique that the English School Puts forward in IR

The English School acts as the middle ground between Realism and Liberalism. As a result, the boundaries of the English School seem unclear, which illuminates the ongoing debate on who belongs to the school and how the approach varies from other theoretical accounts of world politics. The English School integrates realist propositions, such as the focus on the primacy of states interacting within an anarchic system. Anyway, it merges the realist understanding with the idea of a human element rising from the domestic sphere. The realist’s emphasis on self-interest and power exposes realists’ scepticism on the significance of ethical norms regarding relations among states. The English School contends that people and states are capable of generating mutual interests and cooperating to achieve them. English School scholars also take into account other factors, including morality, ideology, altruism and cooperation responsible for creation the behaviour of state leaders and directing the course of world politics. The English School views ethics as a core element of world politics, in which morality and prudence do not qualify as mutually exclusive.

The English School posits that ideas, rather than material capabilities, shape the conduct of international politics and, thus, deserve critique and analysis. In such way, the English School is analogous to constructivism, despite having it roots in world history, political theory and international law, and accepts more normative approaches compared to Constructivism. The English School perceives the mainstream theories explanations of the motors for change and the lines of causation within world politics as conceptually weak and with limited explanatory power. The English School distances itself from the realist’s ‘law of jungle” where the international politics is solely propelled by power politics and egoistical materialism.

The English School rejects the over-pessimistic realist perception that pictures states as self-interested and selfish. Furthermore, the English School rejects the over-optimistic idealistic perception that describes states as always cooperative and honest with each other. The concept of world society is another proof that illustrates English School’s desire to maintain balance between Realism and Liberalism by combining ideas from both sides regarding the pluralist and solidarists’ conceptions. Law and balance of power function to safeguard the individual liberty of states and prevents the imposition of cultural, social and political uniformity that would stem from any one state acquiring global dominance. On the concept of anarchy, the English School scholars tend to concur with idealists, who believe in a world where justice and cooperation prevail over anarchy.

The New Vistas of Theorizing Opened by the English School

There are several ways of examining the English School’s contribution to International Relations (IR) theory. According to Griffiths (2007, p. 75), one of the ways is in asserting that the English School has unexploited resource and time to establish and apply the approach’s historicist andd methodological pluralist approach. Buzan contends that the English School has increasingly become recognized as a unique worldview with a huge potential to contributing to the discipline of IR (2001, p. 472). It is a radical contrast to critics who argue for its closure and others who state that the English School does not exist, owing to the “distortion it has received by contemporary proponents such as Wheeler (1992) and Dunne (1998).” Critics also contend that English School’s approach is intrinsically conservative, since it draws from static features of international life, including the absence of central government and absence of social, cultural and political solidarity (Finnemore 2001, p. 509). The critique of the inclination of the English School writings to treat international society as unchanging entity is rebutted by the pursuit of diverse forms of international society or an institutional arrangement restricted purely to the preservation of order.

The English School is largely viewed as professing methodological Pluralism, which renders the approach difficult to separate from Realism. In addition, English School writers adopt an interpretive approach in the study of IR and remain deeply sceptic about “scientism” in IR preferring to exploit approaches drawn from legal, historical and diplomatic studies (Copeland 2003, 427). It has exposed the English School to criticisms from Realists and Constructivists who argue that the English School requires development of better (scientific) theories (Copeland 2003, 427). Critics contend that the English School manifests several flaws: its central ideas remain blurred and underspecified; the approach cannot account for the materialization of society; and the approach largely ignores scientific inquiry (Copeland 2003, 427). In areas where Liberalism and Realism refine their conceptions of regimes, actors and institutions, the English School seems to stagnate. Moreover, the English School largely tends to disregard positive social science in favour of methodological Pluralism, which in reality largely masks a deficiency of standards (Copeland 2003, 427). However, the English School scholarship should not necessarily stick to the strict positivist standards, but there is legitimacy in pointing out that there are very few commonalities shared between English School writers to view it as a coherent theoretical feature.

Despite the shortcomings, the English School offers a convincing alternative to the mainstream approaches. The English School’s societal approach provides a fertile ground to study international and world history in terms of international orders and social structures. For instance, the interaction between some of English School’s chief concepts, such as work society and international society, remains underexplored. The English School holds a great theoretical promise as a potential grand theory (Little 2000, p. 395). The English School can be employed to generate distinct comparative and historical accounts of the international society. The approach is well-poised for such task, based on its concepts of international society, states-system and world society and its three traditions (Kantian Revolutionism, Grotian Rationalism and Hobbesian/Machiavellian Realism). Moreover, the English School has shown great promise in dealing with normative and analytical elements of emergent issues, such as globalization (Little 2000, p. 395).

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English School’s postulations are largely general in nature and there is a need to empirically verify the causality, especially the mechanisms by which and the level to which the international law generates certain behaviours (Navari 2009, p. 167). According to the English School, the international law represents a real body of law, and is no less binding than domestic law and, thus, no less worthy of the label “law.” The understanding of a law as a body of rules that binds states and other agents within world politics fails to appreciate the indeterminacy of law and the level to which political, cultural, ethical and other factors intervene within international legal processes.

Buzan argues that the English School constitutes an underexploited research resource. Consequently, the English School merits a greater role in IR (2001, p. 471). Indeed, the English School is a testament that, out of two opposing theories, something fresh can be built that incorporates the elements of both approaches. The English School occupies the middle ground between Liberalism and Realism and succeeds in imposing its influence as a theory, irrespective of the political orientation. English School’s distinctive elements draw from its historicism, methodological pluralism and interconnection of the three core concepts: international society, international system and world society. In order to exploit its potential, the English School should construct a more coherent research agenda and exploit some of the working methods developed by the British Committee. The English School presents a way of confronting the theoretical fragmentation that troubles IR and creates the grounds for a return to grand theory (Buzan 2001, p. 471). The mainstream paradigms in IR fail to elucidate sufficiently two of the core issues in the international system, namely: the source of the conflicts around the world and an account of behaviour of the majority States. The paradigms largely fail owing to the lack of historical depth and the tendency to formulate generalizations based on restricted data. The English School approach to IR can make valuable contributions to the discipline by exploring other forms of research enterprises (Navari 2009, p. 168).


The English School avails an account of international relations that captures the interaction between morality and power, the pluralist and the solidarist, theory and history, the empirical and the normative, and order and justice. Hence, the English School provides a holistic framework for examining the central questions related to the moral values linked to particularistic political collectivities. The English School (ES) contends that there exists a “society of states” at the international arena, despite the condition of anarchy (absence of a world state or global ruler). Overall, the English School is less pessimistic relative to Realism and less optimistic relative to Liberalism. The core participants within the international politics are states, which form an anarchical society in which a group of states, sharing certain interests and values, form a society, since they view themselves bound by shared set of values. As a result, states do not merely act based on self-interest, but rather embrace and institutionalize collective values and norms.

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