Hedley Bull: International Society and Flag Friday

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has persisted since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In recent weeks, Palestinian refugees in the Gaza strip have reignited this issue by orchestrating large protests along the Israeli border. Israel’s response, once again, has caused controversy. Hedley Bull’s theories, as primarily articulated in his 1977 book ‘The Anarchical Society’, are used in this essay to analyse this topic. As part of the English School of International Relations, he champions the idea of an ‘international society of states’. In many respects, his theoretical lens provides insight into this conflict. The influence of an ‘international society’ become clear in both the Israeli and Palestinian responses. However, there are also several shortcomings using Bull’s lens. These are found in its assumptions and in important factors that it omits or discounts. Overall, since they can explain more than they cannot, the utility of Bull’s theories are relatively useful on this topic.

Explanation of Issue:           

The issue being considered in this paper is the ‘Flag Friday’ demonstrations in the Gaza Strip, undertaken by tens of thousands of Palestinians protestors along the Israeli border.[1] These demonstrations are proposed to continue until the 70th anniversary of Nakba on May 15th 2018.[2] Organised by the radical Islamic militant group Hamas, but also driven by desperation, this event is primarily a resurgence of protests against the border blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza.[3] This blockade has pushed Gaza further towards poverty with nearly 50% unemployment[4], and it has been labelled “the world’s largest open air prison”.[5] The protestors are also calling for the “Great March of Return”, which is asserting the Palestinian refugees’ ‘right to return’ to their ancestral home in what is current day Israel.[6] They were expelled by Zionist militias in 1948, in what they call ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe), and Israel has ruled out any right of return.[7]

Although largely peaceful, protestors have used explosives, thrown stones, and burnt tyres to move closer to the border fence.[8] Since the start of the protests, more than 3000 people have been injured[9], and over 30 Gazan Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops in a two week period.[10] This has drawn international criticism against Israel. For example, human rights groups have accused them of violating international law by using lethal force against unarmed protestors.[11] In response, Israel has claimed that they only open fire in accordance with its rules of engagement, and that it is simply defending its right to protect its sovereign borders.[12] They also claim that Hamas orchestrated these protests as a cover to launch attacks against the state.[13] Israel has warned that if Hamas do not stop the violence, they will attack Hamas positions within Gaza. The UN subsequently issued a statement calling for all sides to “exercise maximum restraint”.[14] Such a protest is not a new phenomenon in the broader Israel-Palestine conflict, but is one in a series of recurring events that have occurred (especially since the 1967 war). Hedley Bull’s perspective on this issue provide a unique vantage point from which to view the unfolding events.

Hedley Bull is an Australian academic who is a leader of the ‘English’ school of thought in international relations. He believes the international system reflects Hobbesian, Kantian and particularly Groatian traditions.[15] This has coalesced into a theory that is a via media of sorts. At the heart of his book ‘The Anarchical Society’ (1977) is the notion of the presence of an “international society” of states.[16] This is characterised by anarchy, in which commonly accepted rules contribute to international order between sovereign states.[17] Certain ideas from Bull’s works as adapted to current day context, provides an unusual lens from which to analyse this issue.[18]

Strength: Israel’s Response.

Bull’s theory is useful because it can explain some of Israel’s response to the ‘Flag Friday’ demonstrations. To some extent, Israel has limited its retaliation measures because as a member of the international society, it adheres to a framework of agreed rules on the restraint of violence, whether this be against the contested “state” of Palestine or against the violent non-state actor Hamas.[19] Israel has acted in accordance with this rules-based order by using non-lethal forms of deterrence such as tear gas or verbal warnings, and claiming to act within its ‘rules of engagement’. This control of violence is a clear function of a working anarchical society and Bull would argue that the international society’s promotion of this idea helped to shape Israel’s response.[20] He contends that conflict is a feature of international politics that cannot be eliminated, but rather must be managed by rules.[21] International law institutionalises such an idea. These are norms mutually agreed upon in an anarchical society[22] that place self-imposed limits on state behaviour by creating a “clear conception of the kind of conduct” expected within the international society.[23] For Bull, international law states “the basic rules of coexistence” within international society, and “facilitates compliance” with these rules.[24] This follows the Groatian perspective that all states are “bound by rules and institutions of the society they form.”[25] States operate within the framework of such principles, and obey them often out of habit.[26] This explains one part of Israel’s response, however it does not explain their lethal actions.

By using live bullets to kill largely unarmed Palestinian civilian protestors, their deadly attacks undermine international society by breaching international law.[27] However, Israel argues that Hamas’s refusal to disarm is the main reason for the blockade of Gaza.[28] Here, Bull would argue that Israel’s need for security trumps the concept of an ‘international society’.[29] After all, the international society is characterised by anarchy with no greater power to control action. For example, the UN’s call for restraint has largely been ignored by both sides. Because in the global arena there is no governing body to enforce the law, Israel can themselves interpret and enforce it as suits their interests.[30] It also proves Bull’s point that order is imperfect. Consequently, Bull’s theory is also useful because it can explain why Israel has also violated standards of the international society.

Lastly, Bull points out that “few things can unite the anarchical society of states [more] than problems from outside that society,” for example the universal concern about terrorism.[31] From this perspective, Israel would have international support to use force against Hamas instigators, however not against the civilian population – which is deemed inappropriate by the international society.[32] Agreement on this issue illustrates a ‘pluralist’ understanding of international society.

Strength: Palestinian/Hamas’s response.

Interpreting Hedley Bull’s theory is also useful because it describes why some Palestinians, and especially the non-state actor Hamas (which is also the governing body of the Gaza strip), do not abide by the rules made by the international society. Although Bull’s work takes a state-centric approach that may seem unable to deal with the modern context of violent non-state actors,[33] this statist perspective allows us to observe that certain non-state actors use “violence…to establish [a] new state, or gain control of [an] existing one.”[34] Therefore, violent protests, and the wider attacks from Hamas against Israel, are intertwined with the influence of international society because their aim is the achievement of statehood (ie. to become part of the international society). On the other hand, the Palestinians have adhered to global norms by attempting a “peaceful” protest. This behaviour ultimately is again in pursuit of becoming a fully-fledged sovereign member state of the international society. Bull accurately notes the power of international society to bestow the attractive status of ‘state’ – and by extension sovereignty.[35]  In this way “international society exerts socialising pressures” on non-state actors such as Hamas.[36]  Hamas and the Palestinian people pursue statehood because it guarantees them self-preservation and self-determination. It also substantiates their power. Hamas legitimises their actions by emulating the discourse of the international society.[37] For example, they accuse Israel of violations of international law and human rights abuses stemming from the blockade. Bull notes that Palestinian use of violence as a means of struggle may thus be seen as “legitimate by a substantial proportion of the international society”.[38] He would also see this conflict as part of a continued ‘revolt against the west’ and a pushback against the imposition of western values and power on an Arab population.[39] Therefore, international society has been used by Hamas to source legitimacy for their cause by gaining recognition among members of the international society.[40] However, Bull observes that should their actions be too extreme, they could be viewed as ‘enemies’ of the international society that should be isolated and dealt with (rather than being an actor capable of socialisation and integration).[41] Either way, non-state actors interact with the international society by exploiting, interpreting, and contesting its norms.[42]

Limitations:

On the whole, Hedley Bull cannot adequately explain this event because too many crucial factors are absent in his theory. Some actors in this issue fall outside the boundary of inquisition explored by Bull. Bull’s state-centric international society has a grey area in terms of how Palestine itself can be classified. Is it a self-governing territory, a sovereign state, a population of refugees or the territory of a non-state actor (Hamas)? For example, there is no mention of refugees in international society, despite this conflict being perpetrated primarily by Palestinian refugees. Thus, his theory is founded on basic assumptions which inherently discount the importance of other actors. This rise of actors outside those of states and state institutions is one of the biggest changes in historical context since the time of Bull’s writing.[43] Confusingly, Bull claimed that the state system was not in decline, but contradicted this by saying that states were becoming part of a “wider world political system of which the state system is only apart.”[44] Therefore, new issues involving such actors cannot be specifically dealt with using his theory.

Bull also largely overlooks historical and internal factors. He focuses on widely scoped international dynamics, such as justice, international society, or ‘revolt against the west’, when in reality the causes are more regional and domestic. The primary reason for this conflict is grounded in economic hardship suffered as a result of the Israeli blockade, which led to civil unrest. This is not explored by Bull. If unemployment in Gaza was not at 50%, it would remove a driving force behind this conflict.  Likewise, he largely does not account for factors such as the claim of a ‘right to return’ to Palestinian homeland. Additionally, Bull’s conception of an international society has problems when non-state actors do not observe its informal rules about the use of violence.[45] Hamas provocations and their historical record of attacks are case in point. Also, Bull sometimes contradicts himself with his beliefs by creating a paradox. On one hand he said it was important for groups like Hamas to use Western terms to elicit a sympathetic response from western dominated international society.[46] However, in his writings of the ‘revolt against the west’ we see the rejection of such action by the same actors.

Another assumption that realists would point out as a weakness of Bull’s theory is the idea that institutions such as international law are independent factors that can guide state conduct. Realists would argue that this is not true in reality because states are engaged in a competition for power and security, with no regard for morality.[47] Since Israel and Palestine exist in anarchy, they are actually unrestricted by international law because there is no need to follow such rules if it is not in the national interest. Therefore, self-help and struggle for power and security define the Palestinian endeavour of ‘Flag Friday’ and Israel’s harsh response, not the basis of international law.

A final limitation is that Bull largely does not explain the impact of the creation of a Western state in Palestine, and the subsequent expulsion of the original inhabitants. Critics of international society such as Frantz Fanon would claim the protests are a symptom of the violence of decolonisation. But Bull cannot account for this, beyond his conception of the ‘revolt against the west’. Linked to this is the influence of ideology and religion. Hamas is a radical Islamist organisation fighting against western influence and repression, whilst Israel is a Jewish state that faces an existential threat from several hostile actors. The ethnic pride felt by both actors often supersedes rationality. This unique condition is again something that remains unexplained by Bull.

Conclusion:

Hedley Bull’s perspective gives insight into the ‘Flag Friday’ demonstrations because it captures the broad themes that explain the event. Israel’s membership in the international society explains parts of its response to the protests. Likewise, Palestine and Hamas’s pursuit to become full members of the international society guides their behaviour. However, Bull’s theory is limited in analysing this particular event because of the restricted scope of the theory. It does not adequately factor in actors outside of states, and ignores internal factors such as economic and civil unrest. The state-centric assumption is not very useful in such a complex and dynamic issue. Furthermore, he ignores the role of ideology and decolonisation in explaining this issue. Overall, the plurality of Bull’s via media approach is both a strength and a weakness, and since it does help to understand this topic, it provides utility.

Bibliography.

Allain, Jean. “Anarchy and International Law: The Approaches of Hedley Bull and Noam Chomsky.” Review of Contemporary Philosophy. Vol 13, (2014): 17-47.

Ayson, Robert. “The Anarchical Society and the Control of Global Violence.” In The Anarchical Society at 40: Contemporary Challenges and Prospects, edited by Suganami, Hidemi and Carr, Madeline and Humphreys, Adam, 111-127. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.

Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1977.

Bull, Hedley and Watson, Adam. The Expansion of International Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Embury-Dennis, Tom. “Thousands of Palestinians protest at Israeli-Gaza border amid fears of further bloodshed.” Independent, April 13, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/gaza-protests-israel-palestine-border-protests-live-fire-idf-dead-violence-hamas-a8302556.html

“Fierce Clashes Continue at Gaza-Israel Border Fence.” BBC, April 13, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43757898

 “The Great March of Return: Thousands of Palestinians charge border in protest.” SBS, April 14, 2018. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-great-march-of-return-thousands-of-palestinians-charge-border-in-protest?cid=trending

Hoffman, Stanley. “Hedley Bull and His Contribution to International Relations.” International Affairs. Vol 62, 2 (Spring, 1986): 179-195.

Hurrell, Andrew, Hedley Bull, and Kai Anderson. Hedley Bull on International Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, 2000.

“Israeli forces kill two Palestinians as Gaza protests continue.” AlJazeera, April 13, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/israeli-forces-kill-palestinians-gaza-protests-continue-180412175612461.html

Linklater, Andrew. “The English School.” In Theories of International Relations, edited by Burchill, Scott, Linklater, Andrew Linklater, Richard Devetak, Jack Donnelly, Terry Nardin, Matthew Paterson, Christian Reus-Smit, Jacqui True, 88-112. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Linklater, Andrew and Scott Burchill. “Introduction.” In Theories of International Relations, edited by Burchill, Scott, Andrew Linklater, Richard Devetak, Jack Donnelly, Terry Nardin, Matthew Paterson, Christian Reus-Smit, Jacqui True, 1-31. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Suganami, Hidemi. “Hedley Bull and The Anarchical Society Now at 40: Introduction.” In The Anarchical Society at 40: Contemporary Challenges and Prospects, edited by Suganami, Hidemi and Carr, Madeline and Humphreys, Adam, 10-16. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.

Toros, Harmonie and Dionigi, Filippo. “International Society and Islamist Non-State Actors: The Case of the Islamic State Organization.” In The Anarchical Society at 40: Contemporary Challenges and Prospects, edited by Suganami, Hidemi and Carr, Madeline and Humphreys, Adam, 145-161. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.


[1] “Fierce Clashes Continue at Gaza-Israel Border Fence.” BBC, April 13, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43757898

[2] “Israeli forces kill two Palestinians as Gaza protests continue.” AlJazeera, April 13, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/israeli-forces-kill-palestinians-gaza-protests-continue-180412175612461.html

[3] Tom Embury-Dennis, “Thousands of Palestinians protest at Israeli-Gaza border amid fears of further bloodshed.” Independent, April 13, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/gaza-protests-israel-palestine-border-protests-live-fire-idf-dead-violence-hamas-a8302556.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] AlJazeera, “Israeli forces kill two Palestinians as Gaza protests continue.”

[6] “The Great March of Return: Thousands of Palestinians charge border in protest.” SBS, April 14, 2018. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-great-march-of-return-thousands-of-palestinians-charge-border-in-protest?cid=trending

[7] Ibid.

[8] Embury-Dennis, “Thousands of Palestinians protest at Israeli-Gaza border amid fears of further bloodshed.”

[9] AlJazeera, “Israeli forces kill two Palestinians as Gaza protests continue.”

[10] SBS, “The Great March of Return: Thousands of Palestinians charge border in protest.”

[11] Embury-Dennis, “Thousands of Palestinians protest at Israeli-Gaza border amid fears of further bloodshed.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] BBC, “Fierce Clashes Continue at Gaza-Israel Border Fence.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jean Allain, “Anarchy and International Law: The Approaches of Hedley Bull and Noam Chomsky.” Review of Contemporary Philosophy. Vol 13, (2014): 22.

[16] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics. (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1977), 25.

[17] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 40.

[18] Stanley Hoffman. “Hedley Bull and His Contribution to International Relations.” International Affairs. Vol 62, 2 (Spring, 1986): 179.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 53-55.

[21] Andrew Hurrell, Hedley Bull, and Kai Anderson, Hedley Bull on International Society, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, 2000), 5.

[22] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 35.

[23] Allain, “Anarchy and International Law: The Approaches of Hedley Bull and Noam Chomsky,” 30.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 25.

[26] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 133.

[27] Andrew Linklater, “The English School,” In Theories of International Relations, edited by Burchill, Scott, Linklater, Andrew Linklater, Richard Devetak, Jack Donnelly, Terry Nardin, Matthew Paterson, Christian Reus-Smit, Jacqui True, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 92.

[28] Embury-Dennis, “Thousands of Palestinians protest at Israeli-Gaza border amid fears of further bloodshed.”

[29] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 49.

[30] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 46.

[31] Robert Ayson. “The Anarchical Society and the Control of Global Violence,” In The Anarchical Society at 40: Contemporary Challenges and Prospects, edited by Suganami, Hidemi and Carr, Madeline and Humphreys, Adam, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017), 120.

[32] Hurrell, Hedley Bull on International Society, 11.

[33] Harmonie Toros and Filippo Dionigi, “International Society and Islamist Non-State Actors: The Case of the Islamic State Organization,” In The Anarchical Society at 40: Contemporary Challenges and Prospects, edited by Suganami, Hidemi and Carr, Madeline and Humphreys, Adam, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017), 145.

[34] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 270.

[35] Toros, “International Society and Islamist Non-State Actors: The Case of the Islamic State Organization,” 160.

[36] Hidemi Suganami, “Hedley Bull and The Anarchical Society Now at 40: Introduction,” In The Anarchical Society at 40: Contemporary Challenges and Prospects, edited by Suganami, Hidemi and Carr, Madeline and Humphreys, Adam, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017), 15.

[37] Toros, “International Society and Islamist Non-State Actors: The Case of the Islamic State Organization,” 148.

[38] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 268.

[39] Hedley Bull and Watson, Adam Watson, The Expansion of International Society, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984, 223.

[40] Toros, “International Society and Islamist Non-State Actors: The Case of the Islamic State Organization,” 148.

[41] Toros, “International Society and Islamist Non-State Actors: The Case of the Islamic State Organization,” 160.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Hurrell, Hedley Bull on International Society, 55.

[44] Bull, The Anarchical Society; a Study of Order in World Politics, 276.

[45] Ayson. “The Anarchical Society and the Control of Global Violence,” 127.

[46] Bull, The Expansion of International Society, 6.

[47] Andrew Linklater and Scott Burchill, “Introduction,” In Theories of International Relations, edited by Burchill, Scott, Andrew Linklater, Richard Devetak, Jack Donnelly, Terry Nardin, Matthew Paterson, Christian Reus-Smit, Jacqui True, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 21.