English School Diaries - 'Introduction': Intervention in World Politics

 ‘Introduction’ – Intervention in World Politics [1]

Hedley Bull

It may seem somewhat bizarre to make commentary notes on an introductory chapter in an edited volume, especially a volume of essays devoted to such a significant issue of international society. Intervention has been a phenomenon of relations between civic units for as long as such relations have come to pass within the machinations and calculations of the international system. Although it would be a mythology of anachronism to simply assume that the phenomenon of intervention has remained unchanged since the early international system of Ancient Hellas, the narrative events of a state, or group of states, intervening in the affairs of other units has become a recurring thematic issue of international politics. Indeed, from the events that Thucydides chronicles during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE)[2], the Swedish intervention in Catholic States during the Thirty Years War (1640-1648), the intervention of the European Great Powers within the sphere of Ottoman imperial influence during the nineteenth century[3], Mussolini’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), to interventions in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Mali (2013-2014), or Russia’s role in the Syrian Civil War (2015 onwards), to name but a few, or proposed involvement by the United States (US) in Venezuela[4] and by the United Nations in Israel-Palestine[5], intervention is a central, contingent and recurring eventuality in world politics.

Intervention and World Politics’ is a collection of essays that explore this very recurring phenomenon through legal, philosophical, historical and theoretical approaches. Although only some of the contributors may be considered as central or peripheral ‘members’ of the so-called ‘English School’, what unifies them all is the application of the ‘Classical Approach’ to explore a single feature of International Society.[6] Although some may disagree[7], ‘The English School’ approach to international politics hinges on the twin pillars of (1) its unique subject matter – international society – on the one hand, and (2) its methodological pluralism in exploring the topographical and, dare I suggest, topological qualities of this subject on the other. In this regard, ‘Intervention in World Politics’ should rightfully be included into the cannon of English School texts despite its variation of contributors to the usual names we expect to see in an English School volume.

The scope of this short piece will be to unpack Hedley Bull’s introduction to the work. Although only half a dozen pages in length, Bull succinctly and yet lucidly reveals the central stipulations and questions at the heart of an English School approach to the phenomenon of intervention within international society and why the phenomenon is itself so significant to attend to. As I suggest, although short, in this introductory chapter Bull provides a host of theoretical tools that are not only instructive but also thought-provoking, whilst laying out the key tensions that intervention inflicts upon international society as a whole.



At the beginning of the chapter, Bull takes as his starting-point a traditionalist legal definition of ‘intervention’. Here, whilst quietly signalling towards the work of L.F.L Oppenheim[8], Bull states that:

“It [intervention] is dictatorial or coercive interference, by an outside party or parties, in the sphere of jurisdiction of a sovereign state, or more broadly of an independent political community.”[9]

In this vein, intervention may come to pass as a combination of three dyads: (1) Forcible or Non-Forcible – such as by military or economic coercion; (2) Direct or Indirect – as when a larger power may utilise a lesser power as a proxy; and (3) Open or Clandestine – as when the very instruments of the means employed are prominent or not. The first concerns the mode of coercion, the second the approach, and lastly, the third the saliency of the means utilised. From here, the notion of ‘outside party’ and ‘jurisdiction’ undergo clarification. By the use of the term ‘outside party’, Bull is referring to a single political unit or collective of units that do not hold authority to rule or govern within the territory or unit being intervened within. The ‘Jurisdiction’ being interfered with may be that of a state over its territory, citizens, and self-determination of decision-making to conduct its internal relations and/or external affairs. All of the contributors to the volume somehow relate back to this definition, Bull makes sure to iterate, even if through disagreement. Thus, perhaps it should be considered the glue of the volume, its conceptual bone-marrow.

There are conditions that a specific action or policy must adhere to in order to be considered ‘interventionary’. Before these conditions are discussed, what it fascinating is that manner in which Bull turns the phenomenon of intervention, linguistically, into its adjectival form – i.e., interventionary. This is noteworthy as it implicitly infers that the phenomenon of intervention can bleed into other action, becoming a qualitative factor of such an action’s character. To give some illustrative weight to this, for a state to take the sovereign decision to ground all aircraft except that of the air force, for whatever purpose, is not interventionary. For a state or coalition of states to enforce a no-fly-zone over a sovereign territory that is neither part of this coalition nor invited assistance – as in the case of UN action in Iraq during the First Gulf War, NATO action during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, or the 2011 UN Security Council approved activity in Libya – such action is interventionary. This linguistic adage is thus rather revealing about how activity can be qualitatively transformed under certain conditions to be considered as intervention itself. What are these conditions, however?

One of the conditions specific to an action or policy that would lead it to be considered interventionary is that the ‘intervener’ is superior in power to the object of the intervention. In Bulls own words: “It is only because the former is relatively strong and the latter relatively weak that the question arises of a form of interference that is dictatorial or coercive”[10]. Aside from the function of legitimacy construction through the appeal to collective-security via coalition formation, at least as far as intervention is concerned, the necessity for coalitions perhaps reveals the strength of the intervened state; a coalition is necessary to match or preferably exceed the strength of such a state so to intervene effectively.

From here, Bull provides an interesting conceptualisation of a ‘Great Power’ through his understanding of this condition of interventionary action. The conceptualisation of ‘Great Power’ has historically tended to fall back onto an assessment of military might or capability, for instance in the works of A.J.P Taylor, Ranke or even Martin Wight.[11] To give a definition that is popularly in use, in John J. Mearsheimer’s ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’, a ‘Great Power’ is defined in the following manner:

“Great powers are largely determined on the basis of their relative military capability. To qualify as a Great Power, a state must have sufficient military assets to put up a serious fight in an all-out conventional war against the most powerful state in the world”.[12]

In this typical manner, Mearsheimer adds his name to the list of those who define the concept in relation to military capability.

Bull’s understanding of a ‘Great Power’ is somewhat distinct. Here however, as in his ‘Society and Anarchy in International Relations[13], at first glance Bull’s grasp of what constitutes a great power does not veer much from the traditional perspective, i.e., in conjunction with conceptualisation by military might or capacity. Here, Bull contends that “a great power is, among other things, a power that cannot be intervened against”.[14] Simply put, a state that has significant enough military capability to become a focal point of the structure underpinning international order is not going to be interfered with. Once again, military capability defines a great power – at least on the surface.

Nonetheless, Bull’s grasp of what constitutes a ‘Great Power’ is far more than such a surface parochialism. Bull does not specify that the reason for not wishing to intervene in a particular state stems from its military capability, but rather that great powers are those states which cannot be intervened against – for whatever reason. Here perhaps Bull would equally lean on Joseph Nye’s conception of ‘Soft Power’, whereby a state cannot be intervened against not because of their military capacity but because of their quiet command over international norms and capability to attract favour as opposed to achieving favourability out of fear.[15] In this manner, a state such as Switzerland, for instance, that lists in the top ten across indexes of Soft Power is able to reinforce its position as a power that cannot be intervened against, despite that Switzerland has continually decreased its military spending since 1960, to some 0.68% of GDP by 2017, placing it in the bottom quartile of state defence spenders and amongst states that have experienced external intervention – such as Sierra Leone or Nicaragua.[16] Similar could be said for Austria, New Zealand, Ireland or Iceland; states we know as immune from intervention, not for their military capability but for their explicit soft power.

I am implying, therefore, that Bull grasps what defines a ‘Great Power’ not by its military capacity, but the extent to which it cannot be intervened against, be it due to any mode of power potential. This may seem insignificant to some, a nuance hardly worth mentioning perhaps. However, this distinction shows that the inability to be intervened with, as opposed to raw military might, becomes an indicator of status within the international order, and as such a gauge as to its structural dynamics. Subsequently, as Bull shows, a change in status concerning the inability for a state to be intervened with equates to a change in the structural dynamics of international order, no matter how slight.

Flux is a central part of international order, whether willed or not. When a state becomes intervenable, for whatever reason, it loses its status as a ‘great power’ and subsequently the structural dynamics of international order shift, even if only symbolically or aesthetically. In the text, Bull briefly illustrates this with the mention of Turkey in the nineteenth century and Russia in 1917, showing that the status of a great power indeed lapses when it can be intervened with.[17] Intervention hence holds ramifications beyond the implications of its phenomenon, such as the undermining of sovereignty, but also the epiphenomenal consequences that intervention can itself insinuate.

There may be incidents in which a state intervenes in the affairs of one which is stronger or more powerful. As illustrations, Bull gives the deployment of New Zealanders alongside the US in Vietnam and those smaller states that formed part of the Warsaw Pact into Czechoslovakia in 1968, in both cases supporting a great power ally. We could add to this list of illustrations and include as a more contemporary example a number of the states that comprised the US led multi-national task force, the so-called ‘Coalition of the Willing’, that participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Here, states such as Estonia, Honduras, Tonga and Nicaragua supported its great power ally, the US, in intervening against a far more powerful state than they. This phenomenon Bull refers to as ‘Vicarious Intervention’ and, in many ways, occurs as a result of already existing power relations.

Intervention, as conceptualised above, Bull reminds us, is generally thought to be both legally and morally wrong. This is so as “sovereign states or independent political communities are thought to have the right to have their spheres of jurisdiction respected, and dictatorial interference abridges that right”.[18] At the heart of the contemporary political order, one evolving naturally from the Westphalian condition, is the notion of sovereignty – whereby the state holds the right to be the ultimate decision maker of its own political fate across its locality and citizenry. Intervention, by definition, undermines this right, instantly dissolving the previously rigid and impregnable jurisdictional sphere of self-decisionism. In response to this, with sovereignty being the necessitous quality to hold so to be a member of either a society or system of states, and is as such of the ultimate sanctity, our contemporary order has evolved to produce the principle of ‘non-intervention’ that goes hand in hand with that of sovereignty; sovereignty implies non-intervention and the principle of non-intervention ensures the endurance of sovereignty – the two continue to co-construct one another.

In ‘The Anarchical Society’ Bull discusses this point in relation to the code of obligations that states adhere to as agents coexisting within a socially anarchic world order. Here, he states:

“The rules of coexistence also include those which prescribe behaviour that sustains the goal of the stabilisation of each state’s control or jurisdiction over its own persons and territory. At the heart of this complex of rules is the principle that each start accepts the duty to respect the sovereignty or supreme jurisdiction of every other state over its own citizens and domain, in return for the right to expect similar respect for its own sovereignty from other states. A corollary or near-corollary of this central rule is the rule that states will not intervene forcibly or dictatorially in one another’s internal affairs”[19]

This co-construction of judicial sovereignty (internal sovereignty), sovereign reciprocity (external sovereignty) and the non-intervention principle is thus something that Bull touches on in relation to the conduct and obligations of coexisting states. This in itself is perhaps the foundation of such an anarchical society itself. The first among many norms and principles that allow for an international society of sorts to emerge is such a mechanism by which states may achieve jurisdictional or judicial reciprocity. In our case it is the sovereignty/non-intervention complex.

This adds another dimension as to why intervention is considered morally and legally wrong that Bull does not tend to. Namely, for a single state to intervene in the affairs of another sovereign state, and as such by virtue of the nature of this act undermine the intervened state’s sovereignty, is to weaken the grounds of international society as a whole. Naturally, this would break international law – Article 2.1 of the UN Charter to say the least – but would also undermine the commonality of interest that is the glue holding international society together. In the moment of intervention, any semblance of commonality, or adherence to common interest, that states have forged between them over the course of the modern system dissolves away in the act of intervention itself.

As a result of the overt illegality and immorality of intervention, states that wish to engage with a programme of intervention in the affairs of other states will usually undertake a somewhat creative process of justification that seeks to reconstitute such a programme as something other than intervention per se. Indeed, intervention is understood to be so illegal and immoral that policies of intervention are not discussed as being justified or unjustified, as they are always unjustified. Rather, the question becomes whether or not this interference into the autonomy of another sovereign state constitutes ‘intervention’ or a different moral and legal phenomenon, such as ‘collective security’ or ‘humanitarianism’. One case Bull gives to illustrate this point rests in ‘The Anarchical Society’, whereby he discusses the relationship between the US and the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Latin America during the Cold War. Here, Bull highlights that the non-interference principle was considered so sacrosanct within the OAS that if a communist government were to be installed or amongst them that this would ipso facto equate to aggressive intervention, and as such would require the US to counter-intervene in order to uphold the principle of non-intervention itself.[20] Thus, intervention is unanimously understood to be wrong morally and legally – intervention by another name, for ulterior purposes other than power, is acceptable.

There are four points to be made here about this postulate. The first concerns it’s ‘Realist’ undertones as an assertion. States will find a way to justify intervention via a creative route of conceptual and phenomenal gymnastics, intervening in the affairs of other states if it be truly prudent to the national interest.

The second concerns its ‘critical’ undertones as an assertion. In this statement, Bull exposes the machinations of power politics that lie beneath the surface of those agents that proselytise to be purporting universal values concerning ‘the good’, questioning the status-quo of international political power dynamics and state behaviour.[21]

Thirdly - and I think that this is important in relation to Bull – such creative justification for intervention implies that the discourse has shifted away from one of a Grotian kind where intervention is discussed in relation to a ‘Just War’ framework, as was once the case. Question such as ‘Can intervention adhere to jus ad bellum?’ are answered – explicitly not; intervention is morally and legally wrong, there is no just cause of an interventionary war. Rather, the rich juristic curiosity that moved Grotius to write ‘De Jure Belli ac Pacis’ have been suspended in the place of classificatory questions concerning whether or not a policy constitutes ‘intervention’ – which would be unjust – or something more palatable. This is significant as it implies that the yoke of the questions Grotius asks concerning the line between a just and unjust cause of war, for instance, are neglected, and with them the normative discourse that informs statesmen and political practitioners alike.

Lastly, as the questions asked veer away from whether or not a particular mode of action is justified or not, for whatever purpose, but whether or not a mode of action really constitutes intervention as such, Bull reveals to us that the perceived ‘truth’ of a given interventionary act is constituted in the discourse about the act itself. An intervention can only be considered so if international discourse deems it to be so and is as such by definition immoral. Thus, through the illustration of the discourse surrounding the clear normative and legal revulsion against ‘intervention’, alongside the linguistic and semantic gymnastics states undertake to subsequently change opinion about the nature of their activity to be non-interventionary, the ‘truth’ concerning international political activity is exposed to emerge discursively. This reveals a profounder political character of international relations as a mode of activity in which its grounds, its very scaffolds, are constructed out of a discourse interwoven with power relations.

Nonetheless, Bull tells us that although there is a normative consensus that intervention is a moral and legal wrong, it is a ubiquitous feature of international relations, perhaps even an inherent feature.[22] To ignore this, or even that there are indeed some instances where we could all justify intervention – be it humanitarian or otherwise – is to admit that one is not a serious student of international politics. What is interesting, briefly, is the distinction that Bull and Wight make between ‘features’ and ‘institutions’ of international society. An institution of international society would be such phenomena as ‘war’, ‘diplomacy’ or ‘alliances’, those guiding principles that ground the very qualities of such a society; whereas ‘features’ are connected to the temporal flux of norms and values that are dependent on the development of, but remain within, the purview of the international society’s key institutions. ‘Arms control’ or ‘the balance of power’ are exemplary features in our case. Returning to the issue at hand, Bull makes it clear that there are recognised instances in which the principle of non-intervention can be undermined. Here, Bull presents five scenarios in which intervention is deemed to be permissible.

The first manner in which intervention may be considered permissible concerns the notion of an invitation to intervention. An invitation to intervention changes the very character of the activity itself. In this case, an incumbent government invites another state to intervene within its affairs. Essentially, this permits intervention without undermining the notion of sovereignty that the non-intervention principle is based upon. How so? Simply put, the decisions of the government of a sovereign state are exactly that – an extension of sovereignty. As such, an invitation by the government of a state to intervene in its own affairs becomes sovereignly consented-to action, creating a differing moral and legal situation to that of coercive intervention.[23] A good illustration of ‘Intervention by Invitation’ would relate to the arguments made by the US in relation to their intervention in Vietnam during the 1960s, or even Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War since 2015, following Bashar al-Assad’s request to the Putin administration for assistance to tackle Islamic Salafi-Jihadists (such as the Islamic State group or the Al-Nusra Front) and the anti-governmental ‘rebel’ Syrian National Coalition.[24]

Secondly, intervention can be thought of as acceptable when it takes the form of counter-intervention. Counter-intervention occurs when assistance, be this financially or militarily, is given to a state in order to repel an intervention that another party or state has already begun. This is of course increasingly controversial as this is the argument that was often invoked by the superpowers during the Cold War, seeking to uphold policies of ideological expansion and containment. As was discussed above, the US intervened throughout Latin America during the Cold War, in states such as Panama, Guatemala or Nicaragua, to name but three, in order to stop the spread of Soviet Communism within the American hemisphere, a dissemination of ideas that the US considered to be intervention in the first instance. Interestingly, the notion of counter-intervention in order to restore the status-quo of non-intervention is put forward in the international thought of none other than John Stuart Mill as an act justifiably distinct from ‘intervention’ proper. In his ‘A Few Words on Non-Intervention’, Mill states that:

“The doctrine of non-intervention, to be a legitimate principle of morality, must be accepted by all governments. The despots must consent to be bound by it as well as free States. Unless they do, the profession of it by free countries comes but to this miserable issue, that the wrong side may help the wrong, but the right may not help the right. Intervention to enforce non-intervention is always rightful, always moral, if not always prudent”.[25]

Although Mill’s overall argument is that intervention for self-determination is legitimate, but not in order to establish democracy, and that freedom from tyranny is something one must fight for, as opposed to receiving it externally, what Mill insinuates is that intervention for the blank canvass, the status-quo, of non-intervention, for the sake of sovereignty and the sheer potentiality contained within such a notion, is legitimate.[26] By seeking to simply restore the status-quo of non-interventionism, interventionary action is to uphold the rules-based order that deems it a legitimate activity in the first instance.

Thirdly, intervention can be thought of as acceptable when it is undertaken on the grounds of self-defence. Once again, self-defence is an extension of sovereignty. In order for a state to be the ultimate decision-maker over its own territorial jurisdiction, it must be protected from external forms of violence; it must be able to protect citizens in order to cash in on the obedience that protection extends to and co-constructs. If a state cannot enforce order by ensuring peace in some territories within its jurisdiction, then it is not the god-like omnipotent decision maker over that territory that sovereignty entails. A good illustration of this, one that Bull himself references and is yet still apparent in 2021, is how Israel takes a stand against militants outside of its borders in Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria, responding to violence with violence out of claims to self-defence in order to reassert and consolidate its sovereignty.[27]

Fourthly, intervention is deemed acceptable and justified in order to defend the rights of foreign subjects against an oppressive ruler. This is an argument that extends all the way back to Grotius in his discussion of jus ad bellum in ‘De Jure Belli ac Pacis’ and has been part of the ‘Just War Theory’ discourse since. In the contemporary world, this is often associated with humanitarian intervention, once again a distinction from ‘intervention proper’, and the United Nation’s key principle of ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). In this manner, interventions such as that in Kosovo in the late 1990s or the Australian led intervention in East Timor from 1999-2000, two of the many potential illustrations that could have been utilised, are apt examples of this manner in which intervention is deemed justifiable. As always, this is not the transcendence of power politics, but merely a guise by other means. Even the greatest of normative intentions always appeal to some state’s power interests, whether intended or not.

Lastly, and perhaps the most contemporary excuse for just intervention, concerns collectively and internationally authorized intervention. A key tenet of liberal international society is collective security and the multilateralism that this entails. This implies that security is achieved for all when states act collectively, in mutual defence of one another against threats to the whole. Such notions have underpinned liberal internationalist institutionalism for the past century. International institutions – The League of Nations, the UN, NATO, regionalist institutions - have sought collective security as both a means of defence and as a mechanism for justifying interventions of their own. Interestingly perhaps, it has been oft noted that as far as the League of Nations was concerned, its rigid upholding of non-intervention and its inability to trigger such a mechanism of collective security against Japanese, Italian and German aggression became a factor abetting the total moral collapse of human civilisation characterising the era and leading to war.[28]

The first to speak of such an exception to the rule of non-intervention, according to Bull, was none other than Christian Wolff, the first to explicate the principle of non-intervention in its most absolute and uncompromising terms.[29] Wolff contends that the foundation of the law of nations is the notion of a civitas maxima, which literally translated means the ‘largest city’, but we should take to imply as the largest civic unit possible – the civic community of humankind. As Wolff asserts that the basis of the law of nations concerns the desire and wellbeing of such a civitas maxima, if intervention were to be sanctioned through such a multilateral framework of interconnected peoples and nations, then such intervention would be itself legitimated.

This we can clearly see in our own politics today. For Wolff, contextually, the expression of the civitas maxima either sat within the power of the church to decide upon, or was in itself only theoretically deducible through certain precepts of reason; the extension of a certain philosophical idealism still nonetheless. In our own era, the signat tempora of liberal internationalism has brought us those international institutions in which the expression of the collective will of the civitas maxima is, apparently, clearly discernible, observable and articulatable. Unilateral interventionism can be legitimated or delegitimated with reference to the authorisation of such a collective will. How do we see this?

In the contemporary international political system, if the UN refuses to authorise any mode of intervention – authorisation that would by definition be the expression of the civitas maxima as collective action – such action is deemed illegitimate. The failure of the ‘coalition of the willing’ to secure UN approval prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, or that of NATO prior to airstrikes in Kosovo, have led to such interventions as being considered unjust and lacking legitimacy by many precisely because collective action was neither informally sanctioned by the community of humankind as a whole, nor by the institutional expressions of such a community legally.

The same could be said of the inverse. Where action is authorised by the international community it ascertains a certain sense of legitimacy on both a judicial and moral level. For instance, the counter-interventionary action of the first Gulf War in Kuwait was authorised with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 678, adopted on the 29th November 1990, making it clear that if Iraq had not withdrawn from Kuwait by the 15th January 1991 that member states cooperating with the government of Kuwait would be authorised under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to use all necessary means to uphold and restore international peace and security in the area.[30] Thus, empirically we can observe that collective authorisation provides an exception to the foundational principle of non-intervention.

From here, Bull goes on to discuss the debate surrounding intervention in world politics more broadly. The nature and scope of these exceptions takes place against the background that intervention is in general wrong. In this manner, Bull reveals that the obligation of non-intervention by states co-constructs their right to external sovereignty and the idea that states are equal in such rights. On a somewhat pedantic note of personal intrigue, what Bull does not differentiate between is the extent to which obligation to the principle of non-intervention leads international society to be characterizable as an Isonomy [ἰσονομία], an Isoarchy [ἰσοαρχία], or even an Isocracy [ἰσοκρατία] in terms of equal legal capacity, at least in its theoretical ideal type. This becomes important to ask as each of these are distinct in their character with major ramifications upon the qualities such an international society would display.

The notion of ‘equal right’ or ‘sovereign likeness’ that Bull centres some focus on becomes even more significant in that he claims the internal features of any given state’s political system holds no bearing on the co-construction of external sovereignty, obligation, non-intervention and the equal rights of all states. Simply put, what or whom a state is holds no consequence on those states right to external sovereignty and on its obligation to uphold the external sovereignty of others. Interestingly, what we might see here is a quiet overlap of Bull and Kenneth Waltz.

 In his famed ‘Theory of International Politics’, the behaviouralist Kenneth Waltz formulated his theory of international relations, one that came to be contentiously referred to as ‘Structural Realism’ or ‘Neo-Realism’, whereby states act calculably, to a certain degree, in response to the power structure and dynamics of the international order. Part of this, for Waltz, concerns that “one cannot infer the condition of international politics from the internal composition of states”, and that the internal character of a state holds no bearing on its relation to the dynamics of structural power politics; no matter the policies, principles, culture or ideology of a nation-state it will always seek to structurally act in its best interests in the anarchical self-help system of international order – “The explanation of states’ behaviour is found at the international, and not at the national, level”.[31] This has come to be known as the ‘Black Box’ model, in which internal forces and qualities hold no bearing on the phenomena of the international.

Now, I do not wish to suggest that Waltz and Bull hold a considerable overlap in their thinking.[32] Although there may be some shared principles between them, they arrive at this shared status from increasingly different approaches, and a such, the perspective in which they view the very phenomena of international politics is coloured differently. Waltz is a behaviouralist, Bull opts famously to be the champion of the ‘Classical Approach’ in International Relations. This would be a markedly large distinction to ignore between them. Nonetheless, perhaps in this instance, we see a certain sense of international statism that unifies the two, i.e., that the current international order, however characterised, functions and operates in the space between nation-states, and that by virtue of being nation-states these units hold certain rights to agency that are influenced and executed primarily by the character of those agent’s interaction. This being said, although there may be a weak link between the two thinkers, such a link remains perhaps even coincidental, arriving at such ‘back box’ thinking from such different perspectives that their mutuality may just be simple parallax.

Returning to the topic of sovereignty at hand, Bull moves his attention, all be it briefly, to that of the “the rhetoric of sovereignty”.[33] Here, Bull asserts that the claim to respect the equal rights of all states to external sovereignty and refraining from interfering in one another’s recognised jurisdictional spheres is proclaimed increasingly in the contemporary era than ever before. This has not been done more so than the developing economies that were once referred to as the ‘Third World’ in the de- and post-colonial era as an extension of their consciousness that their sovereignty was continually up for compromise and susceptible to endemic intervention. In this manner, the rhetoric of sovereignty becomes one of the few means at their disposal to reinforce and defend it. What fascinates me here about this claim is its performative character.

The very notion of ‘performativity’ is often associated with the work of the Ordinary Language philosopher John L. Austin. Speaking at the 1955 William James Lectures, Austin developed his theory of what he penned as ‘speech acts’, going on to be transcribed in to his famed ‘How to Do Things with Words’. Austin shook the foundations of the philosophy of language by claiming that certain statements may be more than merely descriptive, ‘constative’, utterances of fact or falsity. In doing so, he emphasised that specific utterances can themselves function as an act that reaps an effect on the world in which it was uttered – a speech act.

Austin highlights that certain speech acts can be ‘performative’. In this, he stresses that such performative utterances: (a) do not describe, report or constate anything at all, are not ‘true’ or ‘false’, and (b) are, or are a part of, the doing of an action which would not normally be described as, or ‘just’, saying something.[34] Performative speech acts hold three forces: Locutionary (in the linguistic meaning of the language), Illocutionary (the performative function as the linguistic action of the speaker – these being: representatives, expressives, directives, commissives, and declarations[35]), and the Perlocutionary (as the perceived effect through the linguistic inference of the utterance’s locutionary and illocutionary force by the addressee).

The perlocutionary force of the performative speech act is external to the utterance itself, as the effect of the illocutionary force by the locutionary. As Austin clarifies in reference to the perlocutionary force of the performative speech act, being beyond that of a mere statement:

“Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them”.[36]

Thus, the performative speech act concerns linguistic utterances that form actions in themselves and change the very milieu of the world in which they are uttered. It is in the combination of the locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary forces that the performative speech act retains the character it holds.

How is this relevant to Bull and intervention? Simply put, Bull discusses the rhetoric of sovereignty being a guard against the breakdown of the non-intervention principle. In this way, especially for post-colonial states in the previously thought of ‘Third World’, the rhetoric of sovereignty acts as a constant performative speech act in that the perlocutionary force of rhetoric is the reinforcement, or perhaps even constitution, of external sovereignty. Bull concedes that the rhetoric of sovereignty is one of the few tools by which states that are susceptible to interference hold in their arsenal in order to reinforce their claims to self-determination and ultimate decision-making capability over their territorial jurisdiction. Bull, whether conscious of this or not, provides a route by which we can understand that (a) external sovereignty is co-constituted with the rhetorical utterances that make-up international political discourse, and (b) that such rhetoric can be mobilised, or rather mechanised, in order to create a perlocutionary effect that would be in the national interest, for the sake of upholding sovereign power through the very rhetoric of sovereignty itself. This, interestingly, adds one more possibility to Austin’s illustrations of what one ‘can do with words’ – one can construct, reinforce and uphold a state’s external sovereignty through rhetorical utterances.

Moving on from this, no matter how fascinating the role of language may be in sovereignty formation and consolidation, Bull makes it abundantly manifest that these concepts concerning intervention and sovereignty are modern inventions, and even then thoroughly Eurocentric. For instance, it is not until the likes of Wolff, Vattel or Puffendorf that the most basic foundations of international law and the grounding normative principles of international politics as we understand it were laid. Concepts such as ‘non-intervention’ and the ‘equal rights of sovereignty’ are only first stated in the 18th Century, and since that time the impact of these concepts has indeed been limited, even in Europe. This limitation, Bull concedes, has occurred in two ways. Firstly, through the hierarchies of status and precedent amongst the European powers that were curtailed, but not eliminated, at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. And, secondly, new hierarchies of rights and power that are constantly developing, for example as posited in the rights crystallised and proselytised by the power of five permanent members of the UN Security Council. In this illustration there have been a number of instances in which  this evolving network of power structures undermines the concepts of international law that ground the ‘rules based international order’ all states claim to uphold. 

Equally, with the growing Liberal influence within international politics, especially following Woodrow Wilson’s administration and effect on international diplomacy in the last century, there manifested a feeling that non-intervention may be an obstacle to progress.[37] It is no secret that the paradox of contemporary liberal international relations has become overt, whereby principles such as ‘non-intervention’ and a ‘respect for sovereignty’ are considered to be sacrosanct, and yet intervention in Libya (2011) or the twenty year intervention in Afghanistan by the US and its allies are equally considered to be a normative necessity in order to uphold a certain notion of a ‘just’ international order in which grave internal injustices and mass-crimes of sovereign states against its people are brought to an end.[38] This paradox I think is best summarised by James Mayall in his ‘Nationalism and International Society’, where he discuses the principle of non-intervention at length. Mayall states:

“Non-Interference is the most problematic entailment of sovereignty, however, because, by asserting an absolute prohibition, it appears to make an immoral principle a crucial structural support of the system…Modern attempts to breach the non-interference principle in the interests of protecting fundamental human rights (and I am referring here to the theoretical and legal debate on this issue rather than to state practice) invariable, and inevitably run up against the core doctrine of sovereignty”.[39]

As Mayall explains, attempts to engage in a programme of global humanitarian action must inevitably ‘run up’ against sovereignty, in this moment undermining the principle of non-intervention and thus removing the only normative assurance of external and mutually recognised sovereignty. This is the paradox Liberal Internationalism faces, whether it choses acknowledges it or not.

In this respect, the upholding of sovereignty and non-intervention seem remote today, and this Bull openly concedes. In the past century, European powers intervened across the non-European world, be it France in Algeria or Britain in Egypt, and Non-European superpowers are equally as guilty, be it the US across Latin America and the Pacific in order to uphold the Monroe Doctrine, Russia in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, or both through proxy wars in Korea or Angola. Subsequently, we have seen since the last century a “lack of effective application to the non-European or non-Western world” of the principle of non-intervention and the equal rights of sovereign states.[40] Nonetheless, this does not prevent states from taking measures to reinforce the notion of non-intervention. This, I think Bull himself summarises succinctly in the following passage:

“Today, it would seem, at least at first sight, that the rule of non-intervention, and the rule of mutual respect for sovereign jurisdiction, of which it is part, are remote from the facts of international life. On the one hand, under the influence of Third World majorities in the political organs of the United Nations, legal prohibitions of intervention have multiplied; om the other hand, interventionary activity of one kind or another is so widespread that it is sometimes said to be endemic or ‘structural’ in nature”.[41]

Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps, as Bull claims here, intervention is more than just a ‘feature’ of international society, as he claims earlier. Rather, if intervention is endemic or embedded into the structure of international order then it is an ‘institution’ of international society, in which case the principle of non-intervention and the equal recognition of external sovereignty is not as interwoven into the fabric of international order as we may think.

This reversal of the significance of intervention as a defining characteristic of international society is not explored by Bull, sadly. However, from here he goes on to discuss what he pens as the three main broad categories of question concerning intervention in world politics that the volume as a whole explores. Firstly, what is the place of intervention today? Who intervenes? Which forms of intervention prevail, and how endemic can we say intervention has become? Secondly, what is the gap between non-intervention and the fact that such a ‘rule’ has been dissolved. Thus, would it be better to dissolve the rule of non-intervention or is it a vital part of the normative structure of international order? And lastly, if we find that the rule of non-intervention is essential, how should it be formulated, adapted, or modified for contemporary times?



In conclusion, Bull’s introduction to this edited volume is bitterly short, but rich in content. He not only provides essential conceptualisations, but at every step his thinking prompts further thought, the implications of such thinking are laid out and different avenues explored. Lastly, the questions he himself concludes the introduction with are as relevant today as they were then, providing us with the open end of a puzzle piece that we can build from today. Therefore, all in all, it is not so bizarre to explore such a short introductory chapter after all, and I hope that these commentary notes have gone some way in making the case for this introduction’s inclusion into the cannon of the so-called ‘English School’ of International Relations.

[2] Thucydides (1910) The History of The Peloponnesian War, London: J.M. Dent. Emphasis should be placed upon Books 2-5 of this seminal work. Intervention after intervention is chronicled, such as that of the Theban and Spartan sieges of Plataea, the seizure of Amphipolis, or the infamous episode whereby the strength of Athens forced the weaker Melos to ‘suffer what it must’, to give but three illustrations.

[3] For more information, see: Davide Rodogno (2016) “Humanitarian Intervention in The Nineteenth Century”, in Alex J. Bellamy and Tim Dunne (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of The Responsibility to Protect, Oxford: OUP, pp. 19-37.

[4] BBC News (5th May 2019) ‘Venezuela crisis: Guaidó 'considering asking US for military intervention', BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-48172520 (Accessed 2nd June 2021).

[5] Abdelwahab El-Affendi (1st June 2021) ‘Palestine and the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine’, Aljazeera.com, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/6/1/the-uns-responsibility-to-protect-doctrine-in-palest ine (Accessed 2nd June 2021).

[6] For more on the ‘Classical Approach’, see: Hedley Bull (1966) ‘International Theory: The Case for a Classical Approach’, World Politics, 18(13), pp. 361-377.

[7] Specifically, I am thinking of those more recent contributors to the ‘School’ who have sought to introduce a certain empirical positivism to its temporally common ‘methodology’. I find this problematic as it is to jettison part of the framework that the original members of The British Committee on The Theory of International Politics thought central to their treatment of the subject matter. This critique, yet to be formally constructed, would be directed towards works by thinkers such as Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver or Richard Little, who interlace constructivist security studies with classical English School International Theory. Despite these texts, of which I would refuse to in any way belittle the enormously significant contributions of, for a restatement of the Classical Approach, see: Cornelia Navari (Ed.) (2009) Theorising International Society: English School Methods, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[8] L.F.L. Oppenheim (1905) International Law – Volume One, London: Longmans.

[9] Hedley Bull (1984) “Introduction” in Hedley Bull (Ed.), Intervention in World Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p.1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jack S. Levy (1983) War in the Modern Great Power System, 1495-1975, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, pp. 10-19. Wight states that: “a great power is a power that can confidently contemplate war against any other existing single power” [emphasis added], see: Martin Wight (1995) Power Politics, New York: Continuum, pp.52-53. I would like to make a note that in a world of superpowers, such as the US or China, where war against these powers cannot be contemplated by any state but another superpower, does this erase the phenomenon of Great Powers altogether, phenomenally, or has the conceptual phenomenon of ‘Great Powers’ simply morphed into ‘Superpowers’, where we could replace ‘great power’ in Wight’s conceptualisation with ‘super power’? Equally, does this mean that as certain powers are extant that cannot have war contemplated against them, that the ‘great power’ is itself extinct? Of course, Mearsheimer (2001: 39) may argue that the existence of a Hegemon does indeed undercut the existence of great powers as such. 

[12] John J. Mearsheimer (2001) The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p.5.

[13] Hedley Bull (1966) “Society and Anarchy in International Relations”, in Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight (Eds.), Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in The Theory of International Politics, London: Allen & Unwin, pp. 35-50.

[14] Hedley Bull (1984) “Introduction” in Hedley Bull (Ed.), Intervention in World Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p.1.

[15] Joseph S. Nye Jr. (2009) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, New York: PublicAffairs.

[16] For Soft Power Indexes, see: The Soft Power 30 (2019) ‘The Soft Power 30: Overall Ranking 2019’, Softpower30, https://softpower30.com/ (Accessed 24th June 2021); Brand Finance (2021) ‘Global Soft Power Index 2021’, Brand Finance Plc., https://brandirectory.com/globalsoftpower/download/brand-finance-global-soft-power-index-2021.pdf (Accessed 24th June 2021). For Military Spending, see: Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy (2017) ‘Military Spending’, Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata.org/military-spending#citation (Accessed 24th June 2021), data taken from World Bank and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

[18] Ibid, p.2.

[19] Hedley Bull (2012) The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, Fourth Edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p.67.

[20] Ibid, p.211.

[21] There is of course an oft discussed connection between Critical Theory and Realism, especially as far as Morgenthau and Carr are concerned. For more information, see: Milan Babík (2013) ‘Realism as Critical Theory: The International Thought of E. H. Carr’, International Studies Review, 15(4), pp. 491-514; Seán Molloy (2021) ‘Theorizing Liberal Orders in Crisis Then and Now: Returning to Carr and Horkheimer’, International Studies Quarterly, 65(2), pp. 320-330; Hartmut Behr and Michael C. Williams (2016) ‘Interlocuting classical realism and critical theory: Negotiating ‘divides’ in international relations theory’, Journal of International Political Theory, 13(1), pp. 3-17.

[23] This is something that Wight discusses within his chapter concerning intervention in his earlier work, see: Martin Wight (2004) Power Politics, London: Continuum, pp. 191-199.

[24] For more on ‘Intervention by Invitation’, see: Cóman Kenny and Seán Butler (2018) ‘The Legality of ‘Intervention by Invitation’ In Situations of R2P Violations’, New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, 51(1), pp. 135-178; Laura Visser (2020) ‘Intervention by invitation and collective self-defence: two sides of the same coin?’, Journal on the Use of Force and International Law, 7(2), pp. 292-316; Olivier Corten (2010) The Law Against War: The Prohibition on The Use of Force in Contemporary International Law, Oxford: Hart Publishing, pp.249-310.

[25] John Stuart Mill (1867) “A Few Words on Non-Intervention”, in J.W. Parker (Ed.), Mill, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical - Vol. III, London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, pp. 153–78, p. 176.

[26] For more information, see: Stanley Hoffman (1984) “The Problem of Intervention”, in Hedley Bull (Ed.), Intervention in World Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 7-28, pp. 24-26; Michael W. Doyle (2015) The Question of Intervention: John Stuart Mill and The Responsibility to Protect, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. For an interesting usage of Mill’s argument in an increasing contemporary frame, see the discussion of Mill throughout: Michael Walzer (1977) Just and Unjust Wars, New York: Basic Books.

[27] For a contemporary discussion of this, journalistically, see: Patrick Kingsley (July 20th 2021) ‘Israel Briefly Shells Southern Lebanon After Militant Rocket Fire’, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/2 0/world/middleeast/israel-lebanon-rockets.html (Accessed 24th July 2021).

[28] Two critiques immediately jump to mind. Firstly, that concerning the League’s tacit role in appeasing interventions and occupations in the 1930s, see: A.J.P Taylor (1991) The Origins of The Second World War, London: Penguin Books, passim. Secondly, that concerning the underlying utopianism and idealism of the League in being able to achieve such collective action at the expense of power politics and individual state interest, see: E.H. Carr (2016) The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939, London: Palgrave Macmillan, passim.

[29] This Wolff achieved in his rationalist application of what he believed to be universally valid reason, breaking away from traditional natural law thinking of international jurisprudential thinking that had characterised much of the discipline up to that point, for instance by Puffendorf, contending that the law of nations was not just simply because God had declared it, but rather God had declared such laws because they were just. For more information, see: Christian Wolff (2021) The Law of Nations Treated According To The Scientific Method, Carmel, IL: Liberty Fund Inc.

[30] United Nations Security Council (1990) ‘S/RES/678(1990)’, undocs.org, https://undocs.org/S/RES/678(1990) (Accessed 25th July 2021); specifically point 2.

[31] Kenneth N. Waltz (2010) Theory of International Politics, Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., p. 64; (1996) ‘International Politics is Not Foreign Policy’, Security Studies, 6(1), pp. 54-57, p. 54.

[32] For a greater discussion of the interconnectivity between English School thought and positivist IR theory, see: Barry Buzan (2001) ‘The English School: An Underexploited Resource in IR’, Review of International Studies, 27(3), pp. 471-488; Richard Little (1995) ‘Neorealism and The English School: A Methodological, Ontological and Theoretical Reassessment’, European Journal of International Relations, 1(1), pp. 9-34.

[33] Hedley Bull (1984) “Introduction” in Hedley Bull (Ed.), Intervention in World Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp.3-4.

[35] John R. Searle (1976) ‘A Classification of Illocutionary Acts’, Language in Society, 5(1), pp. 1-23. I have chosen to employ Searle’s taxonomy as opposed to that of Austin’s precisely because Searle clarifies the notion of the illocutionary act and rectifies some issues that he isolates with Austin’s taxonomy of illocutionary speech acts.

[36] J.L. Austin (1975) How to Do Things with Words, Second Edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 6.

[37] Of course, this notion of progress towards an increasingly solidarist notion of ‘World Society’ or ‘Global Community’ is questionable and begs evidentiary support. A number of thinkers that we can consider part of the English School have investigated this notion, i.e., the idea that, since Kant, the liberal notion of linear, perhaps even ‘whig’, history is apparent within international political discourse, moving constantly towards a certain non-statism or justice based global communitarianism. For more information, see: David Armstrong (1999) ‘Law, Justice, and The Idea of World Society’, International Affairs, 75(3), pp. 547-561; Andrew Hurrell (1990) ‘Kant and The Kantian Paradigm in International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 16(3), pp. 183-205.

[38] For a fantastic contemporary discussion, and illustration, of this critique within the framework of international relations is: Phillip Cunliffe (2020) The New Twenty Years’ Crisis: A Critique of International Relations, 1999-2019, Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

[39] James Mayall (1990) Nationalism and International Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 20.

[40] Hedley Bull (1984) “Introduction” in Hedley Bull (Ed.), Intervention in World Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p.4.

[41] Ibid, pp. 4-5.