Order and Disorder in International Politics

Order and Disorder in International Politics
MIUC Professor Lorenzo Cello has recently delivered a paper at the University of Cambridge for the Third Annual Conference of the Cambridge IR/History Working Group. The theme of this year´s conference was ¨Order and Disorder in International Politics¨, a topical issue for anyone interested in international relations and global politics.

Order and Disorder in International Politics Speakers

Last month I was fortunate enough to participate in a full day of panels and presentations that stimulated a rich interdisciplinary debate among scholars coming from some of the best universities in the world: Princeton, Cambridge, Sciences Po, London School of Economics, UC Berkeley, to mention a few. The conference brought together political scientist, historians, social theorist, and international lawyers to discuss the vexed question of international (dis)order. The single most influential definition of international order was given by Hedley Bull, who in his classic text The Anarchical Society defined it as ¨a pattern of activity between and among states that sustains the basic goals of the society of states, which include: (1) preservation of the system and society of states itself, (2) maintaining the independence or external sovereignty of individual states, (3) preserving peace, in terms of the absence of war, (4) general goals of social life (limitation of violence, keeping promise, stability of possession)¨ (Bull 1977, 16-18).

It is undeniable, however, that international order is a contested concept: hard to pin down to a single agreed-upon definition, but nonetheless largely used in the field of International Relations (IR). Disagreement among IR scholars should not come as a surprise, particularly given the interdisciplinary nature of the discipline and the different epistemological and ethical stances animating the field (Cello 2017). Indeed, IR is a relatively young academic discipline. It is only 100 years ago that the first Department of International Politics was founded at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. That is where the first professorship of IR was established in 1919 (Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics). The latter was explicitly committed to the study of relations among states and the advancement of a peaceful international order.

In recent years, questions about the limits of the current international order have attracted much attention. The nature and stability of the so called post-1945 liberal international order has fallen under significant scrutiny. With an eye to its historical origins and evolution, IR scholars have been outlining possible future scenarios and positioning themselves with regard to the resilience of such order, asking whether it can evolve to accommodate new challenges (Ikenberry 2018; Rose 2019). The list of these challenges is long and well-rehearsed, but it invariably includes the rise of non-democratic authoritarian powers and the consolidation of populism and nationalism in traditional liberal-democratic countries. Indeed, many commentators noted that we are witnessing a global retreat of democracy. The democratic principles of constitutional and representative government are losing ground, and this is a source of much anxiety about the future of the liberal international order (Luce 2017). The assumption underlying these concerns is that democracies are vital pillars of the liberal international order. In other words, democratic states are seen as conducive to (or even as a precondition for) international order. These are certainly not novel ideas; they are deeply entrenched into contemporary public and academic debates. And yet, we do not know much about the genealogy of these ideas. Where does the belief in the moral superiority of democracies come from? And why do people think democratic states play a central role in upholding international order?

Too little has been done to recover the history of these ideas, the ways in which they have been articulated and deployed in the past. The paper I presented at Cambridge is an attempt to redresses this situation. Therein I reconstruct Jeremy Bentham’s vision of an international order of liberal-democratic nations, which was based on the prospect of globalizing constitutional and representative forms of government. His global intellectual activism during the first three decades of the nineteenth century was indeed characterised by practical attempts to give shape to foreign societies through his plans for constitutional reform abroad. This emerges quite clearly from his correspondence with the legislative authorities of Russia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and with many of the anti-colonial leaders struggling for national independence in South and Central America. Ultimately, focusing on a major (yet somewhat neglected) thinker in the history of international thought, my paper sheds some light on the emergence of the ´liberal bias´ that informed early ideas about international order. It is indeed only by turning to the past that we can uncover the deep-seated assumptions that inform our present way of thinking.

By Lorenzo Cello


Bull, Hedley (1977) The Anarchical Society (London: Palgrave).
Cello, Lorenzo (2018). ‘Taking History Seriously in IR: Towards a Historicist Approach’, Review of International Studies, 44:2, 236-251.
Ikenberry, G. John (2018) ‘The End of Liberal International Order?’, International Affairs, 94:1, 17–23.
Luce, Edward (2017) The Retreat of Western Liberalism (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press).
Rose, Gideon (2019) ‘The Fourth Founding. The United States and the Liberal Order’, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb Issue, 10-21.