IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

International Theory: The Three Traditions

Martin Wight was the central figure in the “English school” or “international society” approach to international relations.  The following extract comes from a memorial lecture given by his most prominent student, Hedley Bull, himself the author of a seminal tract of the English school (The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 1977).  Notice that while the English school raises notorious problems of nomenclature (what to call itself? what to call the three traditions?), there is a coherent set of alternatives or ideal types standing behind these terms.  

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At the heart of Martin Wight's Theory course was the debate between three groups of thinkers: the Machiavellians, the Grotians and the Kantians — or, as he sometimes called them (less happily, I think) the Realists, the Rationalists and the Revolutionists. The Machiavellians he thought of crudely as 'the blood and iron and immorality men,' the Grotians as 'the law and order and keep your word men,' and the Kantians as 'the subversion and liberation and missionary men.' Each pattern or tradition of thought embodied a description of the nature of international politics and also a set of prescriptions as to how men should conduct themselves in it. For the Machiavellians — who included such figures as Hobbes, Hegel, Frederick the Great, Clemenceau, the twentieth-century Realists such as Carr and Morgenthau — the true description of international politics was that it was international anarchy, a war of all against all or relationship of pure conflict among sovereign states. To the central question of the Theory of International Relations — 'What is the nature of international society?' — the Machiavellians give the answer: there is no international society; what purports to be international society — the system of international law, the mechanism of diplomacy or today the United Nations — is fictitious. The prescriptions advanced by the Machiavellians were simply such as were advanced by Machiavelli in The Prince: it was for each state or ruler to pursue its own interest: the question of morality in international politics, at least in the sense of moral rules which restrained states in their relations with one another, did not arise.

For the Grotians — among whom Wight included the classical international lawyers together with Locke, Burke, [the American Founders], Castlereagh, Gladstone, Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill — international politics had to be described not as international anarchy but as international intercourse, a relationship chiefly among states to be sure, but one in which there was not only conflict but also co-operation. To the central question of Theory of International Relations the Grotians returned the answer that states, although not subject to a common superior, nevertheless formed a society — a society that was no fiction, and whose workings could be observed in institutions such as diplomacy, international law, the balance of power and the concert of great powers. States in their dealings with one another were not free of moral and legal restraints: the prescription of the Grotians was that states were bound by the rules of this international society they composed and in whose continuance they had a stake.

The Kantians rejected both the Machiavellian view that international politics was about conflict among states, and the view of the Grotians that it was about a mixture of conflict and co-operation among states. For the Kantians it was only at a superficial and transient level that international politics was about relations among states at all; at a deeper level it was about relations among the human beings of which states were composed. The ultimate reality was the community of mankind, which existed potentially, even if it did not exist actually, and was destined to sweep the system of states into limbo. The Kantians, like the Grotians, appealed to international morality, but what they understood by this was not the rules that required states to behave as good members of the society of states, but the revolutionary imperatives that required all men to work for human brotherhood. In the Kantian doctrine the world was divided between the elect, who were faithful to this vision of the community of mankind or civitas maxima and the damned, the heretics, who stood in its way.

This Kantian pattern of thought, according to Wight, was embodied in the three successive waves of Revolutionist ideology that had divided modern international society on horizontal rather than vertical lines: that of the Protestant Reformation, that of the French Revolution and that of the Communist Revolution of our own times. But it was also embodied, he thought, in the Counter-Revolutionist ideologies to which each of these affirmations of horizontal solidarity gave rise: that of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, that of International Legitimism and that of Dullesian Anti-Communism. . . .

Wight himself was the first to warn against the danger of reifying the concepts he had suggested. He insisted that the Machiavellian, Grotian and Kantian traditions were merely paradigms, to which no actual thinker did more than approximate: not even Machiavelli, for example, was in the strict sense a Machiavellian. Wight recognized that the exercise of classifying international theories requires that we have more pigeon-holes than three and so he suggested various ways in which each of the three traditions could be further subdivided: the Machiavellian tradition into its aggressive and its defensive form, the Grotian tradition into its Realist and idealist form, the Kantian tradition into its evolutionary and its revolutionary forms, its imperialist and its cosmopolitanist forms, its historically backward-looking and its forward-looking or progressivist forms. . . .

Of course, if we had to put Martin Wight into one or another of his own three pigeon-holes there is no doubt that we should have to consider him a Grotian. Indeed, in one of the early versions of his lecture course he did actually say that he regarded the Grotians or Rationalists as 'the great central stream of European thought,' and that he would regard it as the ideal to be a Grotian, while partaking of the realism of the Machiavellians, without their cynicism, and of the idealism of the Kantians, without their fanaticism. He displayed his leaning toward the Grotians when, in one of the chapters he wrote in Diplomatic Investigations, he gave an account of the Grotian tradition under the heading 'Western Values in International Relations,' claiming that this tradition was especially representative of values of Western civilization because of its explicit connection with the political philosophy of constitutional government, and also because of its quality as a via media between extremes.  He was attracted towards the Grotian pattern of thought, I think, because he saw it as more faithful than either of the others to the complexity of international politics. He saw the Grotian approach to international morality, for example, as founded upon the recognition that the moral problems of foreign policy are complex, as against the view of the Kantians that these problems are simple, and the view of the Machiavellians that they are non-existent. The Grotian tradition, he thought, was better able to accommodate complexity because it was itself a compromise that made concessions to both the Machiavellian and the Kantian points of view. The Grotian idea of the just war, for example, was a compromise between the Kantian idea of the holy war or crusade and the Machiavellian idea of war as the ultima ratio regum. The Grotian idea that power in international society should be balanced and contained was a compromise between the Kantian demand that it should be abolished and the view of the Machiavellians that it was the object of the struggle. The view of the Grotians that the relations of the advanced countries with so-called barbarians should be based on the principle of trusteeship was a compromise between the Kantian notion that they should be based on liberation and assimilation, and the Machiavellian contention that they should be based on exploitation.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to force Martin Wight into the Grotian pigeon-hole. It is a truer view of him to regard him as standing outside the three traditions, feeling the attraction of each of them but unable to come to rest within any one of them, and embodying in his own life and thought the tension among them. . . .

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I have long had great fondness for the work of Martin Wight, having read and regularly re-read him since the early 1980s. His two most important works are Power Politics and International Theory: The Three Traditions, both published posthumously). I have taught selections from Wight’s work on a few occasions, but never with much success.  Students find his prose difficult, put off by the very thing I like about it—the vast range of historical examples that he embedded in his analysis. While Wight's nomenclature is open to serious question and has been brought under sharp criticism by historians of international thought, the underlying question raised by Wight and Bull--do you deny, accept, or seek to transcend the society of states?--is surely fundamental.

Bull went on to offer some sharp criticisms of Wight's framework (the extract forms only about a quarter of the essay). It also has an amusing depiction of their approach to the behavioralists. Wight ignored them, whereas Bull thought that the "correct strategy" was "to sit at their feet, to study their position until one could state their own arguments better than they could and then--when they were least suspecting--to turn on them and slaughter them in an academic Massacre of Glencoe."

The lecture was first published in Hedley Bull, "Martin Wight and the Theory of International Relations: The Second Martin Wight Memorial Lecture, British Journal of Internaitonal Studies 2 (1976): 101-116. The article is available online in a pdf file and also on JSTOR. It was republished as an introductory to Martin Wight, International Theory: The Three Traditions, edited by Gabriele Wight and Brian Porter (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1992).  The Martin Wight Memorial Trust offers has pdf files of all the annual lectures since 1975, an extremely valuable resource for students of international relations.