The international system

How language shapes the way we think of the international system

Federico Germani

Federico Germani

Federico is a bioethicist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. His research focuses on the influence of misinformation on public health. He explores strategies to enhance public resilience against misinformation, with a strong emphasis on risk and crisis communication, trust-building, information and media literacy. Federico is the founder and director of Culturico.

How are relations among states shaped? Is there a structural invisible layer that keeps our society within given and predictable boundaries, or is society fluid and unpredictable? A scientific study of how language influences ideas and change could bring these two views together.
The international system is a structural and invisible entity represented by stratified layers of large and small groups of humans, and eventually of individuals.
The international system is primarily thought to be composed of states, entities that possess sovereignty. Though it is not a tangible or quantifiable entity, it is – rather – a reality itself.

Language shapes the international realm.jpg
How language shapes the international realm. Illustration @ Massimiliano Germani for Culturico

According to structuralists, the international system is composed of states that relate to each other in a context of anarchy (1, 2). Structuralism, mainly represented by neorealist and neoliberalist theories, bases its analyses on the very scientific assumption that the behaviour of international actors can be anticipated because society has developed in an anarchic, and therefore static (although invisible) structure (1,2).
Poststructuralism, to describe the world we live in, challenges the language and discourse adopted by predominant International Relations (IR) theories, including the aforementioned neorealism and neoliberalism. Following Derrida’s views (3), it challenges the very basic definitions of anarchy and system, as well as of sovereignty. Poststructuralists believe that society is fluid and that language defines our way of interpreting events (4), shapes the norms, rules and practices of the international realm, in agreement with the ideas of the English School.

A step forward is made by social constructivists such as Wendt. He believes, like poststructuralists, that language is important and – he adds – it shapes circulating ideas (5).
Ideas are eventually the driving force in history and, by definition, they can adapt and change. Nevertheless ideas and social norms that derive from other ideas can be scientifically analyzed. The job of a social scientist is therefore to interpret interpretations, deducing recurrent themes in a fluid, self-changing, society.
Wendt defines anarchy as

what states make of it (5)

indicating that the behavior of the individual actors comprising the international society is what defines our society. He points out, for instance, the interstate relations between the USA and Canada versus the relations between the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold war, showing how different states perceive each other, although their ‘underlying anarchic structure’ remains the same (5).

Other thinkers went instead far enough to challenge the very concept of anarchy and affirmed that society is essentially ordered under a capitalist structure; Hardt and Negri, two marxist intellectuals, believe that the United Kingdom first (in the 19th century) and the USA after (after the Second World War) have established an international hegemonic order (6), placing themselves as the world providers of goods and services, of a reliable currency and allowing free markets to exist.

The international system
Photo @ Artem Beliaikin for Unsplash.

Interestingly, poststructuralists would agree with Hardt and Negri’s conclusion that the hegemonic order is based on and influences the perception of other actors.
Hegemons, therefore, acquire a predominant position in society through the imposition of a certain view of the world, made real by a repeated and constant use of a specific language. One could say that hegemons dictate the way one sees, describes and thinks of the international society. They have won the war of words, and knowledge is power, as Foucault pointed out (7). Transitions of power – after all – are also transitions of discourse or, perhaps, transitions in discourse can cause shifts of power.
The ‘international system’ will therefore always ‘be there’, but not necessarily in the same existing form.
Federico Germani


  1. Bull, H., The anarchical society, 1995.
  2. Waltz, K., Theory of International politics, 1979.
  3. Derrida, J., Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences, 1966.
  4. Keohane, R.O., Neorealism and its critics, 1986.
  5. Wendt, A., “Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics”, International Organization, 1992.
  6. Hardt, M. & Negri, A., Empire, 2000.
  7. Foucault, M., The history of sexuality, 1976.
Received: 26.8.18, Ready: 3.9.18, Editors: Simone Redaelli, Robert Ganley.

Share this post

2 thoughts on “How language shapes the way we think of the international system

  1. Wow, this was usefull. Keep writing this kind of texts, you will get a lot of people to this blog if you continue writing this.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our newsletter

Fill in your details to be always updated

%d bloggers like this: