Leviathan, Sovereignty, Anarchy, and Peace

The polity takes us from the state of nature to prosperity

Special issues of Political Realism (POL422)

Hello, my name is Protesilaos Stavrou. This seminar is the third entry in a series about Realism in international relations. The first item was about the myth of the Ring of Gyges and exceptionalism in world politics. The second was about the Melian Dialogue, Power, and Justice. I recommend you study these two before following this presentation, as I will be making references to them.

Today I will talk about the relationship between sovereignty and peace. The main argument is that peace depends on the universal recognition of a supreme political authority by all members of the political collective. Where sovereignty is contested, there are incentives for circumventing the rules, for creating new conditions, setting up a new order, which ultimately lead to tensions and strife.

The first part of the analysis will cover some the ideas presented in Thomas Hobbes’ magnum opus the Leviathan. We will discuss Hobbes’ account of human nature and its relationship to political organisation. Then we will apply those findings to international affairs and conclude with some general remarks on Realism.

Leviathan and the war of all against all

Thomas Hobbes sees human nature as inherently individualistic. Humans promote their self interest and are distrustful of others. In their natural condition, individuals are not limited by laws, social norms, or morality. They can do as they see fit, because their nature does not prevent them from doing so. As such, in their default condition—in the state of nature—humans can abuse, loot, and destroy each other without any kind of greater force imposing restrictions or penalties on their actions.

By their very being, humans are equal in power. Not necessarily as concerns physical prowess, but the fact that anyone can ultimately harm anybody else, given the circumstances. Similarly, humans are equal in terms of want. They all desire to live and to satisfy their passions. And they all face scarcity, or else the finite supply of resources. For Hobbes these form the basis of the propensity to see each other as a potential threat and enemy. There is competition for survival. Left unchecked, human instinct results in a state of active or looming conflict; a constant existential threat; a war of all against all. The state of nature is, in other words, a life of misery.

Humans recognise the downsides of incessant conflict. They understand that doing things together can lead to greater gains, to division of labour and economies of scale, as the economist would put it. Yet they remain very much distrustful of their peers. To overcome the deep-seated, visceral fear of others, individuals enter into a grand agreement to live together. A pact which foresees that they forgo part of their natural freedom to do whatever they want, in exchange for assurances of non-aggression. They willfully abide by rules that limit their natural drives, in exchange for security. This pact is the foundation of society and the basis of political organisation.

The social contract can only be upheld by the presence of a universally recognised, undisputed, supreme political authority: the sovereign. The sovereign is not a person, nor an institution. It is an abstraction. It is the locus of power and the source of legitimacy within the political whole. In the modern era, the sovereign is the nation itself, which obviously is neither a person nor a group thereof. For more on this, I recommend you read my latest book: Structured Text on Sovereignty, Nationhood, Statehood.

This sovereign is what Hobbes sees as the key to peace and prosperity. It is what prevents our undoing. Humans need a higher authority to keep them in awe and to contain their natural propensities to disregard the rules and the wants of others. Within the polity, there is a modicum of security, and so humans can channel their power to activities and endeavours beyond those that are strictly necessary for survival. Sovereignty is what enables civilisation.

We can see how Hobbes echoes the views of the ancient thinkers we considered in the previous two seminars. His account of human nature and the origins of law and order starts from the same premise as that of Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, who holds that humans engage in society as a means of cancelling out each other’s propensity to do harm in pursuit of their own interest. We see in Hobbes’ work the lessons drawn from the Melian Dialogue, where the Athenians claim that the strong do what their power renders possible, while the weak suffer what their weakness entails. Or the fact that humans have a built-in inclination to rule and conquer whenever they can. Or, even, the claim that matters of justice are only relevant between those who are instituted as equals.

This comes as no surprise, as Hobbes was an astute student of political philosophy and had, among others, translated the History of the Peloponnesean War. Hobbes believes that matters of justice only make sense within the polity. They are instituted as such. They are codified in a corpus of primary law, which constitutes the political order. In the state of nature there is no right or wrong, because everything is permitted by human’s natural condition.

In short, it is fair to suggest that Thomas Hobbes articulated in a systematic, comprehensive way what earlier thinkers had developed in outline form.

The global order has no Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes remains as relevant as ever, especially in the domain of international relations. His insights make more sense in world politics than in domestic affairs, simply because the universal presence of nation states generally provides for the necessary minimum of internal peace that Hobbes had envisaged. Nation states are, to a degree, self contained compacts among individuals. They conform to the Hobbesian idea of a constitution that founds a sovereign for ruling over society.

For global affairs, however, there is no world government. No supreme political authority that rules over nation states. In the absence of such a sovereign, the international system consists of individual actors with competing interests and conflicting agendas. Obviously, things are much more complicated than that, due to the effects of global trade, information technology, the intertwined nature of economies and societies, the presence of all sorts of international covenants and institutional arrangements, and so on. Yet the system remains essentially anarchic, in conformity with the Hobbesian account of the state of nature.

We may argue that Hobbes is disproportionately pessimistic about the qualities of humankind. That he focuses too much on the negative aspects of human nature. Or that his individualism and the idea of a social contract are too idealistic, too much abstracted from the complexity of inter-subjective experience, in order to fit his narrative. Still, there is a kernel of truth in his work, which is clearly discernible in the relations between states.

Nations do not trust each other, diplomatic rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. They form military alliances to dissuade aggressors, or to forward their own interests with greater efficacy. They enter into contractual relations with other states in an attempt to enforce mutual limitations on the means of promoting each side’s self interest. This is the case with trade agreements, where all parties agree not to impose impediments to trade on each other. A similar, but broader in scope, observation can be made about the European Union and the European integration process in general. The EU Treaties are, in a manner of speaking, an instrument for limiting the national interest of all Member States, in exchange for the benefits of peace, security, and social progress within Europe.

When we witness phenomena such as the multifaceted conflict in Syria, we cannot help but recognise in Hobbes some particularly accurate observations. In Syria there is no undisputed sovereign. Various forces seek to upset the status quo, to fill or to otherwise exploit the resulting power vacuum, in an attempt to forward their stratagems, establish their dominion, their own sovereignty. The lack of a supreme political authority to keep every side at awe, the absence of a power with uncontested rule over the area, is the starting point for this regional war of all against all.

In the same spirit, we witness the constraints imposed upon the United Nations’ capacity to enforce international law. The UN is not sovereign. Its power rests on the collective will of its member states. If the nations do not agree, the UN can do very little. A case in point is the powerlessness of the international community to restore order in Syria, despite all its good intentions. And the same is true for every multilateral agreement, which by its nature lacks a central authority to safeguard its provisions. For instance, see how the nuclear deal with Iran is currently threatened with jeopardy, due to the unilateral actions of the United States of America.

The absence of a universally recognised supreme political authority means that all sides resort to promoting their own interest, while being distrustful of the motives and aspirations of others. Under these circumstances, governance is contingent on a series of favourable conditions and of the decentralised coordination of implementing common norms. In essence, though, there are no ultimate guarantees. No greater authority can intervene to make sure that the rules are respected.

Anarchy leads to our undoing

If there is one thing to be learned from Hobbes, it must be that anarchy, or else rulelessness, is our bane. If there is no common set of rules, and no credible means of enforcing them with consistency, all sides opt to rely on their own devices.

And this ultimately leads to a paradox. By nature, we are free to do as we please. There is no constraint, no rules, no system of justice. But if we all do so, then we effectively cancel each other out, thus severely limiting the scope of this perceived freedom. In contradistinction, the entry into force of mutual covenants, limits a portion of our natural freedom in exchange for all the benign accoutrements of collective life. These enable the sharing of burdens, the division of labour, the creation of positive externalities that derive from cooperation and industry at scale. In the polity we have peace and we can prosper, which means that we ultimately enjoy far more freedom than we would in the state of nature. Freedom from want, freedom from existential fear, as well as all the liberties that are provided by a system that functions on the basis of the rule of law with the provision of fundamental rights.

That granted, we should clarify that the kind of anarchy we mention here is the literal absence of a political compact. This is not the same as what political anarchism, in all its variants, talks about. Anarchists do want a political compact. They just believe in a distributed system that does not rely on the paradigm of a centralised locus of power—the state apparatus—for enforcing the agreed upon norms.

With Realism we learn about the limits to what we think we can accomplish by mere good intentions. We recognise that promoting ideals is not as simple and straightforward as just preaching them. We have to account for human nature and the conditions that engender certain kinds of behaviour. As such, I would argue that with Realism we come to understand the starting point, or the lowest common denominator, of individual and collective action. We know what measures to take and what factors to account for.

For international politics, this means at least the following:

  1. multilateral agreements will only be respected if there are credible mechanisms in place for enforcing the agreed upon norms;
  2. there must always be a balance of power and effective constraints on the greatest forces, in order to prevent instances of exceptionalism, or else, to make sure that we are all equals and justice can apply;
  3. the old adage of preparing for war in order to have peace is essentially true, though we should keep military might as a residual measure that practically underpins means of soft power, such as diplomatic influence and the preservation of economic ties;
  4. whenever there are multiple sides to an agreement, the modes of governance and the procedures for corrective action, must be clearly stipulated and be effective in nature, else the agreement remains subject to abuses;
  5. the best way to have liberty and, by extension, national sovereignty is to engage with the international community, so as to establish covenants that limit the discretion of other states. Generalised unilateralism is the equivalent of anarchy.

Couched in those terms, Realism starts from what may seem like a negative view of human nature, to eventually pave the way for ambitious steps towards cultural progress. It is a wonderful paradox, that while, in the work of Hobbes, humans are to others like wolfs—the Roman proverb of homo homini lupus est—we achieve more together than we could ever do on our own, by giving up a portion of our freedom to a supreme political authority. Rulelessness results in a brutishly harsh existence. The polity is the way to collective flourishing. What matters is to find ways of applying those insights to the international domain where a state of anarchy is still present, even if only partially so and given the appropriate circumstances.

Thank you very much for your attention. Make sure to keep track of my website—protesilaos.com—where I will be posting similar analyses to this one, as well as longer form essays and publications.


This seminar was produced using only free and open source software.

  • The audio was captured and edited with Audacity.
  • The presentation slides were prepared in LibreOffice and converted from a .pdf into .jpg using Imagemagick.
  • The video editing was done with Kdenlive.
  • The transcript was written in Vim.
  • All working on a GNU/Linux machine, specifically Linux Mint