In the broadest of terms, the international system could be regarded as anarchic. Anarchy does not necessarily have to be understood as a permanent state of chaos. Instead, as Mearsheimer proposes, it should be regarded as a system in which states are independent units, that means sovereign units, that don’t have an authority above them. Others have claimed that anarchy is based on the participants unregulated ability to acquire or relinquish resources. Regardless of the perspective that anarchy is given, all converges into the recognition of the lack of central authority or government in the international system. Sates have tried to find a logic for the organizing principle that anarchy is, through institutions. There are those who claim that institutions are driven by states and other that argument the opposite. However, it all goes back to the interests that states prioritize in the international system, both individually and collectively. Finally, the anarchic international system is facing a situation in which the independent units are disintegrating into smaller ones, putting chaos back on the table, but on a different level than a systemic one.

International institutions are sets of rules that advice acceptable behavior, that limit the states actions and guide them on how to compete and cooperate with each other. Normally these rules are accepted by states after a negotiation process. Many argue that the existence of international institutions annuls the anarchic element of the international system. However, the system depicts a possibility of emerging conflict so states need institutions to diminish the fear and uncertainty that they have to cope with while relating themselves with others. As a result, institutions are not bigger, stronger or more capable than states because they are merely a reflection of the international system and an elaboration of states’ capabilities. In this sense, international institutions do not stop anarchy from existing, rather they make its organization more apparent and understandable. Anarchy as an organizing concept still exists regardless of the presence of powerful states which exercise authority over smaller ones. A hierarchical organization of the international system represents a structure in which its units are ordered at a different level depending on their resources, military capabilities, size of their economies and so on. But the principle of their sovereignty is reaffirmed when there is not an international institution big enough to enforce laws the way the state does at a national level. Both the inexistent international government and the independence of its units confirm the anarchic character of the system.

International institutions can be considered as instruments through which states operate to have its interests covered and achieve its goals. Just as it was discussed before, the existence of an institution does not necessarily mean that anarchy has faded away. On the contrary, one could understand the emergence of an institution as the reflection of the needs of those states that seek to institutionalize its practices, rather than eliminate anarchy as whole. Additionally, it could be considered counterintuitive for states to try to eliminate anarchy completely because it would undoubtedly mean to relinquish part of their independence and sovereignty to a larger authority. Likewise, states embrace so much their independence that they are always on the look out to increase their resources and influence over others as well as their odds at surviving in the international system. Stephen Walt describes “defensive realists” as those that the focus on the formation of alliances to guarantee security and defensive military postures, and some states follow this; as a result, they reduce the effects that anarchy has on states’ behavior. Additionally, anarchy posses the possibility that the arrangement of the system is questioned by a revisionist state; therefore, the other states are encouraged to increase their relative capabilities because they are unable to predict when a state’s interests are focused on changing the structure of the system.

Nowadays it is common to find that powerful states exercise a great load of influence over others or situations in which states become target of nationalistic discourses that seek to divide a nation into smaller units. In the first case, smaller states may have two options, the first one, to resist the influences and be at risk of coercion. The second is to become an ally of the much larger state to obtain gains of this relation. Regardless of the resulting situation, there is no one to which a state can turn to seek for defense. Maybe another state can become the defendant of the smaller one but it will always be implied that no supreme power can keep states from looking after their interests. In the case of having a fragmented population, it can be said that states within them fall to anarchy whenever different groups are at constant fear of the use of force. In this sense, anarchy can mean simultaneously chaos and lack of government. This not only affects the state that is being separated by different groups but it has an effect on other states because they are at risk of being touched by the uprising of violence. In both, the case of international relations and intra-state reality, anarchy is present. 

The international system might be a place where states see the need to survive on their own and, as a result, the possibility of conflict is always present. International institutions may not be the antidote to eliminate anarchy but the formalization of the order governing international affairs. Moreover, states can find anarchy somewhat useful when trying to get things their way. Although institutions regulate certain aspects of their behavior they are restrained when a state decides to act based on its interests. The current time holds an uncertain future due to the decline of the state as a unit in international relations given the instability that is undergoing in many places. Finally, anarchy is a threat and an opportunity. A threat because states have to rely on themselves or alliances based on nothing else but trust. And an opportunity because it can allow states to become as big as they want and/or can be.

Photo credit: Cyndy Sims Parr