The International System in Historical Context: Perspectives and Interpretations

De Baripedia

Based on a lesson by Ludovic Tournès[1][2][3]

The international system, also known as world order or international relations, refers to the way in which states and other international actors interact with each other on the world stage. Analysing the international system in a historical context allows us to better understand its evolution, its recurring patterns and the different perspectives that have been proposed to interpret it.

The modern international system as we know it today has its roots in the Treaties of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War in Europe. These treaties established the principle of the sovereignty of nation states, stating that each state is free to govern its territory without external interference. This principle of sovereignty became a fundamental pillar of the international system and laid the foundations of modern international law.

Over the following centuries, the international system has gone through periods of relative stability and major conflicts. For example, the period of the balance of power in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries was marked by a system in which several great powers balanced each other to maintain peace. However, this was followed by periods of devastating world wars, illustrating the limitations of the existing system.

What does the notion of an international 'system' mean?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The notion of an international 'system' refers to the idea that international relations can be analysed as an interconnected set of actors and rules that influence and determine the interactions between states and other international actors. The international system is, therefore a conceptual framework for understanding how different actors interact and evolve in a global environment.

An international system involves the existence of multiple entities, mainly states, but also international organisations, non-state actors such as multinational companies, terrorist groups, social movements, etc. Relationships and relationships of trust link these entities. These entities are linked by complex relationships and interactions, which include diplomacy, negotiations, alliances, conflicts, economic and cultural exchanges, and other forms of cooperation and competition.

The notion of a system also implies the existence of rules, norms and institutions that govern the behaviour of actors and influence their decisions and actions. These rules can be formal, such as international treaties, conventions and agreements, or informal, such as norms and practices accepted by the international community. International institutions, such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other regional and global organisations, play a key role in maintaining and managing these rules.

The notion of an international system emphasises the interdependence and interaction between actors, and the existence of certain structures and dynamics that influence behaviour and outcomes. Changes in the international system can have repercussions on the system as a whole. They can lead to adaptations and readjustments on the part of actors to adapt to new realities.

Explanation of key terms in the international system[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The term "system" refers to the idea of a complex structure of interdependent actors in the world of international relations. This system of interaction on a global scale is an essential element to consider in understanding the evolution of international relations.

Until the 19th century, the international system was mainly centred on Europe, where the European great powers were the dominant actors. This means that the main interactions and power dynamics took place between European countries. This is referred to as the European system at that time.

During the twentieth century, the international system underwent a major transition from a European system to a global system. This occurred due to several factors, including the emergence of new non-European powers, the decline of European influence and global geopolitical and geo-economic changes.

The First World War played a crucial role in this transition process. It marked the beginning of a period of major upheaval, leading to the decline of Europe as the dominant centre of the international system. The war weakened the European powers, brought about significant political and territorial changes, and led to the rise of new powers, notably the United States and the Soviet Union.

This shift from a European to a global system led to a multiplication of actors and powers in international relations. New actors, such as the United States, the Soviet Union, China and other non-European countries, played an increasingly important role on the world stage. This development has also led to changes in power dynamics, global issues and interactions between international actors.

Internationalism: Concept and History[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

As early as the 18th century, conceptualisations of the idea of supranationality can be found. However, it is from the end of the 19th century onwards that the idea of supranationality became a fundamental framework in the discourse and practice of international relations. The rise of international trade, migration flows, economic interconnection and global challenges such as peace, security, human rights and the environment have contributed to the emergence of the notion of supranationality. The central idea of supranationality is to go beyond national borders and create a higher authority that transcends national interests and competences. This higher authority, often embodied in supranational bodies, is responsible for regulating, coordinating and taking decisions at global, regional or sectoral level. One of the most emblematic examples of supranationality is the European Union (EU). Founded after the Second World War to promote peace, stability and economic cooperation in Europe, the EU has gradually evolved into a supranational organisation with extensive competences, including legislation, monetary policy, trade and fundamental rights. It has supranational institutions such as the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Parliament, which have a significant influence on the Member States. Over time, other supranational bodies have also emerged in other regions and fields of activity, such as the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and many others. These supranational organisations aim to promote international cooperation, solve global problems and facilitate trade and interaction between states.

The European system of international relations, like any international system, is characterised by anarchy. This means that there is no higher authority that regulates relations between states in a binding manner. In this context, the question of setting up a supranational management entity arises. The idea is to create a higher authority or institution that would transcend the differences between states and be responsible for coordinating and regulating their actions. This supranational entity would be designed to foster cooperation, conflict resolution and collective decision-making in the common interest. However, this proposal gives rise to a profound debate on the very principle of supranationality and on the form it should take. Some states and political actors favour further supranational integration, with increased delegation of sovereignty to existing supranational institutions, such as the European Union. They argue that this promotes cooperation and the efficient management of international affairs. Others, however, are more reluctant to transfer some sovereignty to supranational entities. They fear that this would weaken their ability to take sovereign national decisions and defend their national interests. These debates also address the question of the democratic legitimacy of supranational institutions and the participation of Member States in decision-making. Discussions on supranationality are complex and require careful consideration of the pros and cons of such an approach. The establishment of a supranational entity must take into account the divergent interests, cultural and political specificities of states, as well as mechanisms to ensure democratic participation, representativeness and accountability. Ultimately, the search for a supranational management entity in the international system remains a central issue, but how this should be achieved and the precise contours it should take remains a matter of debate and controversy.

Whether international organisations are emanations of nation states or autonomous actors is a matter of debate among scholars and experts in international relations. On the one hand, some argue that international organisations are essentially created and controlled by nation states, making them emanations of these states. According to this perspective, states are the main actors in the international system, and international organisations are mechanisms they use to pursue their interests and objectives. The decisions taken in these organisations are influenced and often determined by the positions and interests of the member states. On the other hand, there is a growing recognition that international organisations have a certain autonomy and capacity for independent action in relation to member states. They have specific missions, mandates and competences entrusted to them, and they can take decisions, implement policies and carry out actions that go beyond immediate national interests. They often have their own resources, expertise and capacities that allow them to act independently of Member States. These international organisations can play an important role in promoting cooperation, economic development, conflict resolution, protection of human rights, the environment, etc. They often have a certain degree of autonomy in their activities. They often have a degree of authority and power vis-à-vis member states, including through decision-making mechanisms, implementation of international treaties, management of budgets, etc. It is also important to note that international organisations are not monolithic and their degree of autonomy may vary according to specific contexts and areas. Some organisations may have more independence and autonomy, while others may be more closely linked to the interests of member states.

Actors in the International System: Diversity and Implications[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

International relations involve a wide variety of actors. In addition to states, which are traditionally considered the main actors in international relations, there are other non-governmental actors that play a significant role. Non-governmental actors include a wide range of actors such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), multinational companies, think tanks, the media, pressure groups, human rights groups, humanitarian organisations, religious groups, social movements, etc. These non-state actors can influence international relations in a number of ways. These non-state actors can influence national and international policies, advocate for specific causes, make contributions to development, participate in international negotiations and act as a counterweight to states. International organisations (IOs) also play a key role in international relations. They are created by states and have the task of facilitating cooperation and coordination between member states in specific areas. International organisations can be global, such as the United Nations, or regional, such as the African Union or the Organisation of American States. They provide spaces for dialogue, decision-making mechanisms, platforms for negotiation and cooperation, and can play an important role in conflict management, human rights promotion, economic development, etc. Various networks are also important actors in international relations. These are informal links and relationships between individuals, groups, organisations and states, which often operate outside formal structures. These networks can be expert networks, communication networks, economic or cultural exchange networks, and can contribute to the dissemination of ideas, transnational cooperation and policy influence. Finally, regional political constructions, such as the European Union, also play a major role in international relations. These regional organisations bring together a number of states around common objectives, such as economic integration, security, political cooperation, etc. They have their own institutions, their own rules, and their own rules of procedure. They have their own institutions, rules and competences, and can exert significant influence on regional and global affairs.

The plurality of actors and their increasing role are salient features of the contemporary period of international relations. From the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, we see the emergence of new international actors and organisations that have become more numerous and more active on the world stage. Traditionally, in political theory, the state was considered the central and dominant actor in international relations. However, over time, other actors such as international organisations, multinational companies, NGOs, transnational networks, social movements and think tanks have become more important and have influenced international dynamics. This has led to a shift from a stato-centric paradigm to a multi-centric world. This means that power and influence are dispersed and scattered around the world, with multiple sites of power and international action. International decisions and interactions are no longer governed solely by states, but also by those non-state actors who play an increasingly important role. This multiplicity of actors and centres of power reflects the increasing complexity of global issues. Problems such as climate change, economic globalisation, migration and transnational conflicts require a multi-stakeholder approach and cooperation between different actors to be solved effectively. It is therefore essential to integrate these non-state actors and international organisations into the reflection and analysis of contemporary international relations. Their role and influence cannot be ignored, as they contribute significantly to the dynamics and transformation of the international system.

The multiple actors in international relations constantly interact and can be the subject of tensions and rivalries. These tensions can exist between nation states and international organisations, as well as between states themselves within these organisations. On the one hand, there can be extensions of power between nation states and international organisations. States often delegate part of their sovereignty to international organisations by granting them specific competences and responsibilities. However, this can also lead to friction, as states may be reluctant to cede some of their authority and may seek to preserve their national interests. On the other hand, tensions can also exist between state and non-state actors. Non-governmental organisations, for example, may challenge and criticise state policies and push states to take action on certain issues. Similarly, states may seek to control or limit the actions of non-state actors, for example by regulating or monitoring their activities. In addition, there is a constant competition between actors for power and influence. States seek to increase their power and defend their national interests in the international arena. International organisations may compete for the membership and influence of member states, while non-state actors may compete for attention and resources for their causes. This competition for power can manifest itself in negotiations, decision-making, alliances, economic and geopolitical rivalries. The conflicting interests of different actors can lead to conflict and disagreement, but can also stimulate cooperation and the search for compromise.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]