In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hierarchies in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • Anarchy and International Relations Theory
  • The Emergence of Hierarchy in International Relations Theory
  • Defining Hierarchy: Theoretical Approaches
  • Causes/Origins of Hierarchy
  • Mechanisms of Hierarchy

International Relations Hierarchies in International Relations
David A. Lake, Feng Liu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0285


In international relations, hierarchy is understood in two related ways. In the most general usage, hierarchy refers to any ranked ordering, most commonly conceptualized in international relations as status rankings. In a more narrow usage, hierarchy refers to relations of authority in which a dominant state sets rules for or possesses more or less authority over one or more subordinate states. So defined, hierarchy in international relations is the antonym to the more common concept of anarchy. This bibliography focuses on the second, more narrow conception of hierarchy. The broader usage is examined in the Oxford Bibligraphies article Status in International Relations by Jonathan Renshon. There have been, of course, historical international systems structured by hierarchy, including the Roman Empire and China, examined by scholars of international relations for their own dynamics or as a contrast to the present international system. We address these historical systems in Hierarchical Systems. Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, however, the European international system and, through the diffusion of norms and practices, the global system have been understood as characterized by anarchy, or the absence of any authority higher than the nation-state. While not disputing that the current international system as a whole is anarchic, contemporary scholars of international hierarchy claim it is a fallacy of composition to assume that what is true of the system must also be true of its parts. Rather, this emerging literature allows for relations of authority between states at the level of dyads or sometimes regions. Hierarchy is a form of power but differs from power-as-coercion as understood in theories of international politics. Many studies of international relations place power at the center of their analyses, seeing it as the primary determinant of international diplomacy and bargaining outcomes. Authority, however, implies more than just the ability to coerce or even create incentives for states to alter their behavior. Rather, authority implies a “right to rule” in which subordinates accept that the dominant state can regulate legitimately certain limited actions, that they have an obligation to comply when possible with those regulations, and that the dominant state has the right to enforce its regulations in the event of non-compliance. In this way, authority constitutes a social relationship in which limited duties and obligations are recognized by both dominant and subordinate states. A now substantial literature has emerged that aims to explain when and how hierarchy between states will arise, how it functions, and with what consequences. After outlining works that contribute to this unfolding of hierarchy, we turn to historic international systems that were more clearly organized hierarchically.

Anarchy and International Relations Theory

International relations have been assumed to be characterized by anarchy or political relations of formal equality between states. Schmidt 1998 reviews the intellectual history of the concept of anarchy as it has been applied in international relations. Waltz 1979 firmly established anarchy as the defining characteristic of the international system. This assumption is now increasingly contested, as represented in Ashley 1988, Milner 1991, Buzan, et al. 1993, and Buzan and Little 1996.

  • Ashley, Richard K. “Untying the Sovereign State: A Double Reading of the Anarchy Problematique.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 17.2 (1988): 227–262.

    A critical review of international relations theory that argues both theorists and observers/policymakers assume the existence of sovereign states before considering the effects of anarchy on politics. In this sense, sovereignty is a deep structure that precedes other analyses and limits their scope. Highlighting the growing scholarly attention to non-state actors, Ashley renders sovereignty problematic, showing that the pure form is a fiction, that it has not existed historically, and that many other important political forms exist.

  • Buzan, Barry, Charles Jones, and Richard Little. The Logic of Anarchy: Neorealism to Structural Realism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

    Building from the “neorealist” theory of Waltz 1979, the authors develop a “structural realist” theory of international politics in which structures and agents are mutually constitutive. Where for Waltz states as units and the structure of international politics are exogenous, Buzan, Jones and Little use a broader historical framework to theorize the formation and interaction of both with a focus on political change.

  • Buzan, Barry, and Richard Little. “Reconceptualizing Anarchy: Structural Realism Meets World History.” European Journal of International Relations 2.4 (1996): 403–438.

    Extending structural realist theory, the authors show that historical international systems are comprised of units that differ (1) in their internal structures (whether they are hierarchical or not and territorially fixed or not) and (2) in the variety of units that constitute those systems. A Westphalian system of like units is only one of many possible international systems and, indeed, does not exist in pure form even today.

  • Milner, Helen. “The Assumption of Anarchy in International Relations Theory: A Critique.” Review of International Studies 17.1 (1991): 67–85.

    A remarkably clear discussion of the concepts of anarchy, government, governance, order, authority, and legitimacy as applied to international politics. Argues that the distinctions made by Waltz 1979 between domestic political structures of hierarchy and the international political structure of anarchy are blurred in reality and cannot be sustained empirically. Milner challenges Waltz’s propositions on balancing and the lack of functional differentiation (interdependence) among states.

  • Schmidt, Brian C. The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

    An intellectual history of the field of international relations from the mid-19th century to World War II, Schmidt places the concepts of anarchy and sovereignty at the center of the discipline from its founding. A revisionist account that challenges many historians who see the “great debates” as clear intellectual breakpoints, Schmidt emphasizes the continuities in inquiry around these central concepts.

  • Waltz, Kenneth N. Theory of International Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

    A foundational work that develops a systemic-level theory of international politics. In this highly influential study, Waltz posits that the international system is ordered by anarchy, states are functionally undifferentiated, and the international system varies only by the distribution of capabilities. Of these dimensions of political structure, anarchy is the most important as it requires that states be functionally similar and balance against power regardless of the distribution of capabilities.

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