The Assumption of Anarchy in International Relations Theory: A Critique

  • Citation: Milner, Helen. "The assumption of anarchy in international relations theory: a critique." Review of International Studies 17.01 (1991): 67-85.
    • Topics:
    • IR Theories
    • Keywords:
    • international politics
    • anarchy
    • interdependence

‘Anarchy is one of the most vague and ambiguous words in language.’ George Coreewall Lewis, 1832. In much current theorizing, anarchy has once again been declared to be the fundamental assumption about international politics. Over the last decade, numerous scholars, especially those in the neo-realist tradition, have posited anarchy as the single most important characteristic underlying international relations. This article explores implications of such an assumption. In doing so, it reopens older debates about the nature of international politics. First, I examine various concepts of ‘anarchy’ employed in the international relations literature. Second, I probe the sharp dichotomy between domestic and international politics that is associated with this assumption. As others have, I question the validity and utility of such a dichotomy. Finally, this article suggests that a more fruitful way to understand the international system is one that combines anarchy and interdependence.

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