The globalisation of international society

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The development of the world’s first global systems of states was a momentous achievement of the twentieth century. Drawing on a wealth of new scholarship in international relations, history, and international law, this workshop reconsiders the emergence of this unique system, and will culiminate in the publication of an edited volume with a leading university press.

Today’s international order is unique in world history. Never before has a universal system of sovereign states existed, nor one that straddles such a diversity of peoples and civilizations. Yet this global sovereign order is remarkably young. An emergent system or society of sovereign states first emerged in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and over time it spread into new regions of the globe, usually through sequential processes of imperial integration and fragmentation. It was not until the 1970s, after post-1945 decolonization had run its course, that the system was fully globalized.

International Relations scholars have paid surprisingly little attention to this phenomenon. Indeed, studies that examine the five-century long process of systemic globalization are relatively rare. Hedley and Adam Watson’s classic edited volume, The Expansion of International Society (Oxford 1984), remains one of the few overarching accounts. Bull and Watson’s achievements were to give international society a history (albeit a contested one), to provide a vocabulary for discussing the globalization of the society of states, and to advance a number of interconnected narratives about the processes of expansion in different regional settings. Yet despite these achievements, Expansion is a product of its time and many of its assumptions have been called into question by more recent scholarship in international relations, political theory and the history of ideas, history, law, and sociology. The concept of ‘international society’ has itself been subjected to intense scrutiny, empire and sovereignty in the European order are now seen as much more deeply entwined, the notion that sovereign equality means an absence of hierarchy has been contested, the role of institutions such as international law in the evolution of international society has been critiqued, and post-colonial scholars have rejected the entire practice of reading global history from the perspective of the metropol.

This workshop reconsiders the globalization of the system of sovereign states, drawing on the wealth of new perspectives to better understand this momentous historical development. Our first departure is to speak of the system’s ‘globalization’ not ‘expansion’. This not only emphasizes the system’s eventual global reach, but the way in which its evolution was embedded in, and dependent upon, changing global social forces, from shifts in economic conditions and military technology to evolving institutional practices and social epistemes. To structure our enquiry we focus on four broad topics, each of which comprises are series of analytical questions:

  1. The world in 1490: Any account of globalization of the system from its original European kernel must build on an understanding of the world out of which it grew. How was political life on the globe organized prior to the development of Europe’s early empires? How were different forms of political organization, in different regions, interrelated, if at all? How should we characterize the organization of political authority in Europe prior to 1490?
  2. The dynamics of emergence and globalization: In the five century long process of the system’s globalization, who were the principal agents, what were the modalities of agency (the practices in which they engaged), and what were the structural contexts (material and institutional) that framed and conditioned their actions? Was the process of globalization an exclusively ‘European’ enterprise—an expansion outward—or was it more synthetic, involving complex processes of regional and civilizational interaction? As new global institutional norms and practices were being constructed, were they embedded by common understandings or through more traditional forms of power politics?
  3. The contours of the global sovereign order: If a global sovereign order had evolved by the 1970s, how should we understand this order? What are its underlying normative foundations, how is it institutionalized and why, and what social and political practices hold it together? What, for example, is the relationship between sovereign equality and informal and formal modes of hierarchy in the system? What is the relationship between the distribution of material power and the institutional contours of the order? How do concerns about individual rights and justice manifest in this global order and how are these normative agendas sustained?
  4. Resistance and contestation: Expansion contains one of the most important essays of Bull’s final years, ‘The Revolt Against the West’. There Bull acknowledges the agency of non-European peoples in struggling against the West but he also worried about the implications for international society if ‘Third World’ demands for economic and political justice were not met. Thirty years on, complex forms of resistance and contestation indeed characterize the global sovereign order, some emanating from rising powers, others from non-state actors and anti-systemic forces. How should this be understood, and what implication does this have for we think about the political dynamics and long-term viability of today’s global international society?

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