Social Trends Institute

International Relations: Anarchy or Hierarchy?

In academia, the world of international relations has long been understood as anarchical. But mightn't it be more heirarchical? Ayşe Zarakol's book "Heirarchies in World Politics" makes that case.

In academia, the world of international relations has long been understood as anarchical. In her recent book, Hierarchies in World Politics, Ayşe Zarakol (University of Cambridge) brings together leading scholars from around the world whose work challenges this assumption. The book was presented to a global audience of IR scholars at the European International Studies Association conference in Barcelona in late September. Zarakol discusses the book with STI in this interview.

Tell us about the book

One of the first things that students of international relations learn is that the international system is characterized by ‘anarchy’ because there is no sovereign above the state level. States have to be looking out for their own interests. Realists believe the anarchical condition of the international system creates particular incentives, to increase military spending. After all, one never knows who will attack. Liberals are a bit more optimistic and believe the anarchical condition can be mediated via international institutions, law or market forces etc. They believe incentives can be changed to make cooperation more likely.

In this book, we start from a different place: we want to challenge this assumption that anarchy should always be the starting place for analysis in international relations. Historically, world politics have been rather hierarchical: there are many more examples in history of empires, tributary systems, feudal arrangements etc. than states that legally recognize each other as equally sovereign, which is the system we have now. But even in the modern international system there are many hierarchies: social, economic, political. And there are reasons to believe that the world of legally equal sovereign states may not persist into the twenty-first century. So if we want to understand world politics better we need to think about their hierarchical aspects: in what ways is ‘international relations’ hierarchical, where do international hierarchies come from, how do international actors operate in hierarchies, and so on.

How is the book organized? Who are the contributors?

The book is the end-product of a number of workshops I helped organize over three years, bringing together leading scholars from around the world. Despite IR’s anarchy orientation, many IR scholars had started studying hierarchies on their own. After all, hierarchies feature heavily among both the problems of world politics that scholarship is interested in addressing and the possible solutions to those problems.

The book is organized around the two big questions this research has gravitated towards. Part I deals with the origins and nature of hierarchies in world politics. In this section, we have a range of contributors, from David Lake (University of California - San Diego), who sees hierarchies as man-made institutions designed as solutions to problems of world politics to Vincent Pouliot (McGill University) who conceives of them more broadly, for instance as social hierarchies that arrange the ‘pecking orders’ between diplomats. In between, there is a chapter on empires by Andrew Phillips (University of Queensland), comparing Chinese and British approaches to imperial design, a chapter by Michael Barnett (George Washington University) on paternalism in world politics, and a chapter by Laura Sjoberg (University of Florida) on gender hierarchies in international relations. Part II deals with the question of how international actors operate in hierarchical environments. In this section, there is a chapter on micro-states by J.C. Sharman (University of Cambridge), a chapter on the politics of military bases by Alex Cooley (Barnard/Columbia University), a chapter on international nongovernmental organizations by Sarah Stroup (Middlebury College) and Wend Wong (University of Toronto), a chapter on the Eurozone crisis by Rebecca Adler-Nissen (University of Copenhagen) and a chapter on China in Africa by Shogo Suzuki (University of Manchester). There are also two overview chapters by me and a friendly dissent on hierarchy by Jack Donnelly (University of Denver).

What does the book offer to non-specialists?

Non-specialists are sometimes turned off by IR theory because it feels too abstract and disconnected from real world problems. We are hoping that by taking hierarchies more seriously, we can capture many of the dynamics that traditional IR has missed. Furthermore, the chapters in the book are empirically very rich. For example, the chapter on the Eurozone crisis by Rebecca Adler-Nissen demonstrates the social hierarchies involved in this crisis by analyzing Greek and German newspapers and how each side characterized the other. There is no way to make sense of that episode without taking hierarchies seriously. All of the other chapters are similarly illuminating.


Ayşe Zarakol is Reader in International Relations in the POLIS Department and a Fellow at Emmanuel College. She is the author of After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge Studies in International Relations, no.118, Cambridge University Press, 2011). Her articles have appeared in journals such as International Organization, International Theory, International Studies Quarterly, European Journal of International Relations, and Review of International Studies, among many others. Her research has been supported by a number of academic and government institutions in the UK, North America and Europe, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the European Research Council. Hierarchies in World Politics (Cambridge Studies in International Relations, no.144, Cambridge University Press, 2017) is her most recent book. Buy it here.