The Yale Law Journal

January 2016

The Domestic Analogy Revisited: Hobbes on International Order

International Law

abstract. This Essay reexamines Thomas Hobbes’s understanding of international order. Hobbes defended the establishment of an all-powerful sovereign as the solution to interpersonal conflict, and he advanced an analogy between persons and states. Extending this “domestic analogy,” theorists following Hobbes have supposed that a global sovereign would prove the solution to interstate conflict. Yet Hobbes himself never proposed a global sovereign, which has led some scholars to diagnose an apparent inconsistency in his philosophy.

This Essay seeks to resolve that inconsistency, drawing on Hobbes’s theory of the passions and his hope for radical political transformation. Hobbes believed that the solution to international disorder was not analogous but rather identical to the solution to domestic strife: both would be overcome through the establishment of a “well-ordered commonwealth.” Hobbes argued that a state capable of securing peace within its borders was unlikely to make aggressive war outside them. The radical transformation he envisaged in domestic politics would thus in itself mitigate and perhaps even overcome international conflict.

This “realist-utopian” position aligns Hobbes more closely with later social-contract theorists, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls. It also invites a reconsideration of the foundational principles of international law, with implications for contemporary problems from humanitarian intervention to economic integration. Hobbes’s realist-utopianism provides a needed corrective not only to the narrowly defined realism that has long claimed his imprimatur, but also to realism’s rivals, which unwittingly share its premises.

author.Associate Professor, Yale Law School. For comments and encouragement across various drafts, I am especially grateful to Richard Tuck, under whose direction this project began, and also to Stefan Eich, Oona Hathaway, Madhav Khosla, David Kim, Amnon Lev, Odette Lienau, Itamar Mann, Isaac Nakhimovsky, Jedediah Purdy, Aziz Rana, Scott Shapiro, and Peer Zumbansen. The Essay was much improved by the insights and criticism of Daniela Cammack, the wonderful research assistance of Cory Adkins and Georgios Dimitropoulos, and the thoughtful suggestions of the editors of the Yale Law Journal.



In modern discussions of international relations, the ideas of Thomas Hobbes are usually encountered in the context of the so-called realist position developed in the mid-twentieth century by political scientists such as Hans Morgenthau.1 According to realists, the international domain is anarchic and therefore dangerous, exemplifying the “state of nature” that Hobbes famously described as a “war of all against all.”2 Realism posits that each state struggles for survival and preeminence against all others.3 Temporary global stability may be achieved through the power of one dominant country, strong alliances, or an international balance of power, but realists analyze these episodes assuming competitive states in a potentially dangerous anarchy.4 A conceivable way to escape from this condition, some have supposed, would be to establish an overarching coercive authority or global hegemon.5 However, realists generally consider that solution infeasible, at least as a permanent condition.6

The realist vision of the international order is frequently contrasted with the so-called liberal view, which sees states as cooperating to construct a framework of cosmopolitan law, perhaps even building to a pacific global federation.7 This position is often seen as anticipating contemporary democratic or liberal peace theory, which argues that liberal-democratic states are less likely to make war against other liberal democracies.8 Liberalism distinguishes itself from realism by arguing that the spread of representative democracy, commercial interdependence, international law, and human rights contributes to a more pacific and stable world.9

The grand figures of the social-contract tradition are commonly drafted into the service of these two dominant approaches to international relations: Hobbes is foundationally associated with realism and Immanuel Kant with liberalism. Discussions of Hobbes in legal scholarship tend to follow the characterization of his work in political science.10 With respect to international conflict, scholarly attention has focused on whether international law can convert interstate anarchy into an orderly system.11 A “Hobbesian” position in international relations is associated with skepticism about the legitimacy or effectiveness of international law, usually owing to problems of enforcement. By contrast, scholars supportive of international lawmaking, whether international or supranational,12 often adopt an anti-realist stance, which they associate with Kant. Cosmopolitan legal theory, of which Kant is considered the founding theorist, proposes a global order built on shared law and morality, in stark contrast to so-called Hobbesian realism.13

This Essay reexamines Hobbes’s views on international order. It takes as its starting point the view developed in recent historical scholarship that the use of “Hobbesian” as a synonym for “realist” is a distortion. This view, however, has yet to make its way fully into the international-relations literature, not to mention international legal scholarship.14 As the preeminent Hobbes scholar Noel Malcolm has put it: “[T]he interpretation of Hobbes put forward by modern international relations theorists . . . has become fixed and ossified, functioning at best as an ‘ideal type’ and at worst as a caricature.”15 By contrast, intellectual historians have recently offered more scrupulous accounts of Hobbes. Along with his criticism of contemporary international relations theorists, Malcolm has reconstructed Hobbes’s views on international law and interstate relations, emphasizing their complexity and subtlety.16 Richard Tuck has offered a sustained examination of the political theory of international relations, prominently including Hobbes’s work, convincingly identifying its influence on later authors in the social-contract tradition such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Kant.17 As part of a recent history of international thought, David Armitage has sought to explain the twentieth-century caricature of Hobbesian realism in light of Hobbes’s commitment to several distinct and seemingly unreconciled theses on international order.18 And in a forthcoming volume on the history of “perpetual peace” discourses both before and after Kant, Béla Kapossy, Isaac Nakhimovsky, Richard Whatmore, and others show that the question of how to achieve a pacific order among potentially bellicose modern states was central to eighteenth-century political thought and was developed partly in response to Hobbesian theory.19 None of these scholars accept the caricature of Hobbes as the founding father of international realism, and further work in this vein will surely consolidate a more sophisticated historical understanding of Hobbes and of post-Hobbesian political thought.

The Hobbesian caricature matters not only because the widely peddled distortion makes Hobbes’s actual understanding of international relations more difficult to discern but because that understanding is distinctive, provocative, and deserving of serious consideration. Elaborating Hobbes’s account of international order will accomplish more than just clarifying his views;20 it should also contribute to ongoing reorientations across several scholarly disciplines. Most importantly for legal scholarship, a genuinely Hobbesian approach to international relations offers a compelling way to reconsider the foundations, governing principles, and expectations of modern international law. The scholarship on international law was transformed by an interdisciplinary opening to international relations theory in the 1990s,21 and one may hope that the new dialogue between international relations and international political theory will prove fruitful for scholarship on international law as well.22 For example, recent historical work has revealed the conceptual debt owed to Hobbes by others in the social-contract tradition, including Kant, to whom he has been conventionally opposed in the stylization of international relations theory.23 This historical reassessment bolsters efforts to reduce the distance between realism and its alternatives in international relations theory, which should reorient the legal scholarship that has adopted these categories.24

Any elaboration of Hobbes’s theory of international order requires coming to terms with a central problem that has prompted centuries of reflection on the relations among modern states. The source of this problem is the “domestic analogy,”25 an analytic maneuver of enduring influence that draws a parallel between the relations of persons in the state of nature and those of states in international anarchy. An overemphasis on the domestic analogy has contributed greatly to the misreading of Hobbes and may help to explain why even repeated historical critiques have not prevailed against the caricature of his thought.

The domestic analogy asserts a fundamental parallel between individuals and states, and hence between interpersonal and international relations.26 Hedley Bull, the leading theorist of the “rationalist” school of international relations, first brought the domestic analogy into general academic discussion.27 In Bull’s words, it is “the argument from the experience of individual men in domestic society to the experience of states, according to which states, like individuals, are capable of orderly social life only if, as in Hobbes’s phrase, they stand in awe of a common power.”28 In Hobbes’s own presentation, importantly, the parallel between individuals and states is only partly drawn. While he asserts the similarity of individuals and states in the state of nature, Hobbes never claims that the way to avoid international conflict is to establish a coercive agent capable of serving as a “common power” at the international level. “In the case of Hobbes himself and his successors,” Bull explains, “the domestic analogy takes the form simply of the assertion that states or sovereign princes, like individual men who live without government, are in a state of nature which is a state of war.”29 As Bull recognizes, Hobbes did not argue that an international social contract, analogous to the domestic social contract, “either should or can take place.”30

Nonetheless, many readers of Hobbes have taken just that step.31 Convinced by the power of the analogy between persons and states as they exist in conditions of anarchy, readers have postulated the necessity of a “social contract among states”32 in order to achieve international order, and they have assumed that its absence means the continuation of an international state of war.33 Indeed, schemes that suppose world government to be the solution to conflict among modern states go back to some of the earliest readers of Hobbes.34 In the twentieth century, the experience of the two world wars and the threat of nuclear devastation during the Cold War made many thinkers favorable to schemes of world government on the grounds that the system of sovereign states had become outmoded and dangerous.35 Proposals for reform centered on models of “world federation,”36 or an ambitiously expanded role for international law in the hope of achieving “peace through law,” as Hans Kelsen put it.37

Importantly, this interpretation of the domestic analogy did not remain in the realm of theoretical speculation alone. The postwar burst of international institution building, which led to the United Nations and other international organizations, should be understood as reflecting a theoretical orientation in international legal liberalism toward world federalism.38 The project of postwar European unification was justified on similar grounds.39 The end of the Cold War brought another period of international lawmaking focused on global economic liberalization, visible in the formation of the World Trade Organization,40 the North American Free Trade Area,41 and the Maastricht Treaty creating the European Union and the Euro currency,42 along with new attention to international human rights and new justifications for international humanitarian intervention.43 These new forms of global governance were often analyzed as steps on the path to global or cosmopolitan democracy,44 a “post-national” political regime,45 or similar conceptions of a global polity46 or transnational political order.47 The domestic analogy has continued to provide the background framing for these proposals, which are predicated on the idea that the deficiencies of the system of sovereign states, including but not limited to their potentiality for violence,48 must be corrected by forms of global governance.49

Yet while much has been made of the domestic analogy theoretically and institutionally, it remains something of a puzzle in Hobbes’s own thought. The analogy is closely identified with him, and for good reason: his theory of the formation of civil order, to which he was deeply committed, provided its foundation. Indeed, Hobbes repeatedly advanced the parallel between natural individuals and states, describing the international order as anarchic, just as he did the state of nature in civil society before the institution of political sovereignty.50 The idea of a global sovereign as the solution to interstate conflict thus seems to be secreted in the very logic of his argument. Yet where one would expect to find this proposal, one finds instead a lacuna. Indeed, Hobbes was so far from endorsing a global sovereign that he never addressed the topic of interstate conflict at length, and he famously took civil war as his paradigm for war.

Given the logic of Hobbes’s most emblematic argument and the lacuna in his account of international affairs, scholars are presented with a dilemma. They must either extend his argument beyond where he took it, thus departing from a genuinely Hobbesian account, or they must find some way of explaining the lacuna. Many scholars, especially those more interested in theorizing international relations than in reconstructing Hobbes’s thought, have taken the first option. They have postulated, on purportedly Hobbesian terms, the necessity of a global sovereign (or a functional analogue thereto) as the solution to interstate conflict.51 As discussed above, these ideas have not remained restricted to academic settings but have been extremely influential in international lawmaking and policymaking.52

Others, most prominently Bull, have taken the second option, seeking to explain why Hobbes did not suppose that the analogy between persons and states held completely. According to Bull, the reason why Hobbes did not endorse a complete version of the domestic analogy was that states do not suffer the same threats to their security as natural persons.53 States and persons are different kinds of agents; in particular, Hobbes thought, states do not pose as profound a risk to other states as individuals do to each other in the state of nature, and so they do not engender the same belligerence.54

The first approach to the puzzle of the domestic analogy essentially wishes it away: Hobbes’s failure to espouse a global sovereign is left unexplained.55 The second approach takes the puzzle seriously, and Bull’s explanation in particular has been highly influential. Indeed, it has become a central tenet of the rationalist school of international relations and informs many of the most faithful and sensitive accounts of Hobbes on international order.56

The interpretation of Hobbes presented in this Essay is compatible with this rationalist approach, but it seeks to accommodate features of Hobbes’s thought that Bull and those who follow him have left unexplored.57 Most significantly, the rationalist interpretation does not engage the radical or utopian qualities of Hobbes’s project—in particular Hobbes’s claim that he had discovered the “royal road to peace.”58 As a result, rationalists may fail to appreciate fully why, in Hobbes’s view, the behavior of persons and states in anarchy must differ, resulting in a dangerous state of war in the one case but not the other. The effects of international anarchy are moderated, as Bull notes, because states and persons are different kinds of agents, but one reason for this difference is that the persons who compose a well-functioning state are markedly different from those in a state of nature in ways that conduce to international peace.

On this view, Hobbes should be understood, like Kant, as a theorist of international peace. He believed that sovereign states were more secure than natural individuals, and therefore less belligerent. But he had a deeper reason for refusing to countenance a global sovereign: the solution to interstate conflict was already embedded in his account of civil sovereignty. On Hobbes’s understanding of the political transformation engendered by the establishment of civil sovereignty, the solution to disorder at the international level was already available, and it was not analogous but identical to the solution to domestic disorder. Both domestic and international disorder would be addressed in a single step: the establishment of the “well-ordered commonwealth.”59

In the well-ordered commonwealth, Hobbes believed, the passions of the citizenry would be transformed, and he expected that a world composed of such states would be a peaceful one.60 The establishment of sovereignty solves the problem of epistemic uncertainty and the interpersonal conflict it engenders, but it also alters the domestic calculations that lead to interstate conflict in the first place. It can thus put an end to conflict not just among persons but also among sovereigns, at least similarly situated ones, which explains why Hobbes used the domestic analogy to describe the problem of international disorder, but never claimed that a global sovereign would be its solution.

Hobbes thus didadvance a theory of international order, but he did not analyze the international sphere as a distinct domain with its own dynamics. Instead, he saw interstate relations as dependent on the character of the domestic regimes within individual states. This account puts Hobbes close to today’s constructivist scholars in international relations, who regard the interplay of “identity and interest” as central to international politics.61 Like these constructivists, Hobbes believed that states without a common sovereign do face an epistemic problem, but unlike many constructivists, he would not have thought that the creation of transnational ideologies or “epistemic communities” would overcome the problems of anarchy among states without a political transformation of domestic society.62 Rather, Hobbes seems to have supposed that in a world of domestic fear and uncertainty, the state of nature would also obtain in the relations among states, but that in a world of well-ordered commonwealths, foreign wars would cease to be necessary or advantageous.

Hobbes’s provocative thought, then, was that the kind of state that can secure genuine peace within its borders is unlikely to make aggressive war outside of them. By contrast, the argument that a world-state is inevitable as the solution to interstate strife—recently revived by leading constructivist scholar Alexander Wendt in a “teleological theory of the ‘logic of anarchy’”63—reveals the presupposition, even among some constructivists, that a “Hobbesian” world of insecurity among states can be solved only through a global extension of Hobbes’s domestic political solution. On the account I offer here, Hobbes may be regarded as an even more thoroughgoing constructivist than such contemporary scholars, for he considered a world-state superfluous in a world of properly constructed states.

This interpretation of Hobbes also puts him closer to what has been deemed the “Kantian” position in international thought, and indeed closer to liberalism more generally.64 Hobbes advances the construction of a particular kind of state as the solution to international conflict: the well-ordered commonwealth. Similarly, according to Kant, the solution to both domestic and international disorder is through the establishment of a world of sovereign republics capable of making and following law, including international law.65 In both Kant and Hobbes, then, we find the argument that a transformation of politics at the domestic level would provide a sufficient basis for the achievement of a peaceful international order—and that the logic of the social contract would not need to be transposed to the global level to achieve it.

One aim in excavating these dimensions of Hobbes’s thought—showing him to be more “Kantian” than “Hobbesian,” more “constructivist” than “realist”—is to put pressure on these conventional demarcations, thereby revealing some deep and neglected continuities in modern international thought. It suggests as well an ongoing commitment in the social-contract tradition to developing a “peace theory.”66 For Hobbes, the building blocks are well-ordered commonwealths; for Kant, properly constructed republics. But both theorized a pacific international order developing through domestic political transformations. Modern scholars have largely failed to follow the links Hobbes drew between the institution of civil sovereignty and the achievement of international peace, or to note the parallels between Hobbes’s analysis and the later Kantian elaboration of the same connection.67

Reviewing these theoretical foundations should lead legal scholars to reassess the foundations of international order. What I call the “realist-utopian” approach,68 drawing on both Hobbes’s starting point of a dangerously anarchic world and his hope for radical political transformation, offers a way to reconsider the foundations, governing principles, and expectations of modern international law. While such a broad theoretical framework cannot provide specific policy recommendations, it does illuminate the ways in which the changing dynamics of sovereignty are implicated in contemporary problems of international law and politics, including the role of human rights in the legitimation of the international legal order and the dynamics of international economic integration. Reassessing Hobbes’s analysis of the domestic analogy should thus prompt a rethinking of our own views on international order in an era of intensifying cross-border relations.

In Part I of this Essay, I present Hobbes’s argument concerning the creation of political order, both domestic and international. Discussing the “well-ordered commonwealth” at the heart of Hobbes’s political theory, I consider how an “instituted” commonwealth differs from other hierarchies of command that Hobbes analyzed. I also examine his usually neglected argument that the original form of an instituted commonwealth is a democracy. From this overview of Hobbes on domestic order, I turn to the problem of international order, examining the textual foundations of the domestic analogy in Hobbes’s writings.

In Part II, I consider the puzzle posed by the domestic analogy, noting Hobbes’s failure to espouse an international extension of the domestic solution to anarchy in the form of a world-state. Hobbes rejected this extension, I argue in Part III, because he believed that the institution of civil sovereignty would provide the solution to both domestic and international anarchy; the solution to international and domestic disorder is not an analogy but an identity. Understanding how this can be requires recognizing that Hobbes believed the achievement of a well-ordered commonwealth would alter the passions of the commonwealth’s citizens, which would in turn alter the commonwealth’s behavior toward other states.

This psychological dimension of Hobbes’s theory is explored in greater detail in Part IV. Characterizing Hobbes’s politics as “realist-utopian,” I reconstruct Hobbes’s account of the transformation of the passions in domestic society. Far from an idiosyncratic concern of Hobbes, I show in Part V that the social-contract tradition has been centrally concerned with the problem of international peace by examining Hobbes’s influence on later authors, including Rousseau, Kant, and John Rawls. I close in Part VI by considering several current problems of international law and governance in the realist-utopian frame, including international humanitarian intervention and economic integration.

I. the problem of domestic and international order

Hobbes has been known since his own time as a theorist of social disorder and its solution. He famously argued that individuals overcome the dangerous anarchy of the state of nature by constructing a civil sovereign. Although his argument changed slightly in his later works, particularly on the question of whether the civil sovereign has the authority to interpret scripture,69 the broad outlines of this argument remained consistent throughout his long life. However, as I describe in Section I.A, many of the details of his political theory are less well known, such as his often overlooked commitment to a democratic account of sovereignty. Hobbes’s argument for the domestic social contract is what later authors have relied on in drawing the domestic analogy. As I explain in Section I.B, they have done so by using Hobbes’s own writings, since he used both interpersonal and international examples of anarchy in illustrating the state of nature.

A. Instituting the Commonwealth

Hobbes’s political theory begins from the supposition of a “state of nature,” a condition of man outside (before, or without) political society. In this condition, Hobbes claimed, “Nature has given each man a right to all things,”70 but because this right is useless without the protection of civil laws, this universal grant is tantamount to giving no rights at all. “Outside the commonwealth every man has a right to all things, but on the terms that he may enjoy nothing.”71 It is this circumstance that makes the state of nature one of constant conflict, the war “of every man, against every man.”72 To escape from this condition, natural individuals covenant with one another to establish a civil order.

This much of Hobbes’s thought is familiar, but less so is his argument concerning the causes of this condition. The mutual war that characterizes the state of nature is spurred not by any inherently aggressive or acquisitive aspects of human nature, but by mutual fear, which makes men arm themselves against one another and strike preemptively.73 Such fear, which Hobbes defined as “any anticipation of future evil,”74 is ultimately driven by an uncertainty about what constitutes a genuine interpersonal threat. As Tuck explains, “Hobbes’s men are primarily fearful rather than aggressive creatures, who are led into conflict by their differing judgments about what will protect them.”75 Epistemic uncertainty conduces to fearful anticipation and to defensive preemption.

Hobbes’s solution to this problem was the establishment of a sovereign with the power not only to suppress internal conflict but, more crucially, to solve the epistemic problem whereby each person is left “his own judge”76 as to what constitutes a threat. Hobbes argued that the instability of the state of nature drives individuals to seek civil society by transferring to the political community their natural liberty to judge threats. This loss of natural liberty is compensated by the gain of liberty that is usable within society. As Hobbes put it in Leviathan, “Feare of oppression, disposeth a man to anticipate, or to seek ayd by society: for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty.”77 It is a necessary consequence of coexistence that life in society requires collective restraints on natural liberty.78

The kind of state that comes into being through this mutual covenanting among persons is what Hobbes defined as a “commonwealth by institution.” He often called this state simply a “commonwealth,” but sometimes a “well-ordered commonwealth,” to signal his commitment to the modern theory of state sovereignty following the lead of French jurist Jean Bodin.79 The well-ordered or properly formed commonwealth comes about through “institution,” and Hobbes’s general analysis of commonwealth (or, the Latin civitas)80 presupposed such an instituted republic, formed through common consent.

The illustrative contrast to the commonwealth by institution is a commonwealth established on the basis of natural inequality: either a commonwealth by acquisition (based on the master-slave relation) or a commonwealth by generation (based on parental authority).81 These routes to political order produce “despotic” or “paternal” dominion based on the authority of masters and parents respectively. Since generation presents a special case of acquisition—a child is born into the power of the mother, who may, in turn, be under the power of the child’s father—the real contrast Hobbes wished to draw was between commonwealths that are deliberately created among equals (that is, instituted) and those that are created by inequality (that is, acquired or generated). Hobbes’s claim that these social groupings founded on unequal interpersonal relations were “commonwealths” reflects a politicizing conceptualization of the constitutive relations of the ancient oikos, the master-slave and father-child relations that Aristotle had identified as natural prepolitical hierarchies.82

By contrast, instituted commonwealths were argued to be not natural, but artificial, the deliberate product of construction by equals. According to Hobbes, what makes an instituted commonwealth well-ordered is that each of its members has, in “a quiet mind”83 free from troubling passions, recognized its advantages and consented to its construction. The resulting political state is, initially, nothing more than a common procedure for settling any controversy. Significantly, that initial procedure is majority rule: the collective decision to allow the majority to substitute its judgment for the whole on contentious matters.84

While Hobbes’s role as the first theorist of modern democracy is usually neglected,85 it is important to recognize that the founder of the social-contract tradition understood civil society to be a necessarily democratic construction.86 It is true that Hobbes argued that the civil sovereignty instituted through democratic means could later be surrendered by the inactivity of the democratic sovereign,87 or by deliberate (and democratic) transfer to a single ruler (monarchy) or the rule of a few (aristocracy).88 Nevertheless, as far as Hobbes was concerned, the well-ordered commonwealth begins with the democratic institution of sovereign power and remains in some foundational sense the collective construction of its citizens, even in the nondemocratic forms it may later assume. It is, by contrast, the “natural” forms of commonwealth that do not pass through at least an initial phase of democratic rule.

B. The Domestic Analogy

Hobbes’s political theory was expressly addressed to the problem of domestic order, and contains no extended discussion of international relations. Yet Hobbes was keenly aware of the problem of international disorder and frequently drew on international examples to illustrate elements of his broader political theory. In his “Preface to the Readers” in the 1647 edition of De Cive, Hobbes offered “a Principle well known to all men by experience and which everyone admits, that men’s natural Disposition is such that if they are not restrained by fear of a common power, they will distrust and fear each other” and defend themselves as they will.89 To illustrate this conception of anarchy, Hobbes summoned first the example of latent conflict in international relations: “We see that all commonwealths, even if they are at peace with their neighbours, still defend their borders with garrisons of soldiers, their cities with walls, gates and guards.”90 Then he gave evidence from domestic society: “Even within commonwealths, where there are laws and penalties set against wrongdoers, individual citizens do not travel without a weapon to defend themselves or go to bed without barring their doors against their fellow citizens.”91

Hobbes often used the problems of international and domestic disorder conjointly to illustrate the strife for which he counseled the creation of a civil sovereign. International affairs revealed the problem particularly clearly, as Hobbes explains in the following passage from De Cive:

For the state of commonwealths towards each other is a natural state, i.e. a state of hostility. Even when the fighting between them stops, it should not be called Peace, but an intermission during which each watches the motion and aspect of its enemy and gauges its security not on the basis of agreements but by the strength and designs of the adversary.92

As with the interpersonal state of nature, Hobbes’s claim was not that states are constantly making outright war—though that may be so—but that they are constantly subject to the threat of war, and consequently they must be engaged in preparations for it. This condition of constant fear and defensive preparation is the equivalent of war. With both states and natural persons, “the nature of War,” Hobbes explained, “consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.”93

Having established the logic of anarchy, which obtains both internationally and interpersonally, Hobbes then considered the conduct that reason obliges of states and persons (“natural law”), and which it permits to them for their defense (“natural right”):

[B]ecause commonwealths once instituted take on the personal qualities of men, what we call a natural law in speaking of the duties of individual men is called the right of Nations, when applied to whole commonwealths, peoples or nations. And the Elements of natural law and natural right which we have been teaching may, when transferred to whole commonwealths and nations, be regarded as the Elements of the laws and of the right of Nations.94

This parallel between the rights and duties of individuals and the rights and duties of states is what twentieth-century theorists, notably Bull, later termed the “domestic analogy.”95 It is important to be precise about what the analogy consists in, distinguishing it at the level of the problem and of the proposed solution. Malcolm explains, in a passage worth quoting at length:

[W]e are now in a better position to see what happens when people come together to form a commonwealth. When they authorize a sovereign to ‘bear their person’ and to legislate for them, their jural situation undergoes a radical change vis-à-vis their fellow-citizens; but their basic lack of jural duties to anyone outside the commonwealth remains the same. The only difference, where external relations are concerned, is that their relationship with outsiders is now managed for them by the sovereign: the sovereign decides when to go to war and when to make peace. The various commonwealths that exist in the world are in the same jural vacuum as individuals in the state of nature. At the jural level, therefore, the parallel between states and individuals holds precisely: each commonwealth is indeed like a giant person, acting with a universal freedom-right vis-à-vis other such persons in the state of nature.96

This parallelism, which grounds the domestic analogy, is deeply embedded in Hobbes’s thought, and in social-contract theory more generally. Indeed, as Tuck has suggested, although we commonly suppose that the idea of an international state of nature builds analytically on the logic of interpersonal anarchy—supposing states to behave like natural individuals, for example, as Hobbes put it in the passage from De Cive cited above—the insight may actually have been derived the other way.97 In order to explain the creation of domestic civil societies, early modern philosophers looked first to the actual anarchy they saw prevailing among princes, and imagined that individuals in the state of nature must all have been so independent and potentially bellicose at one time. Thus reflection on domestic anarchy did not inspire philosophical accounts of international anarchy, but rather international anarchy framed the theory of domestic order.

A famous passage from Leviathan illustrates the possibility that Hobbes’s own theory developed this way. After sketching the state of nature, Hobbes admitted: “It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now.”98 Hobbes goes on to suggest that “the savage people in many places in America99 may perhaps be understood as living in a prepolitical state. However, his best example—indeed, his only sure example—was the anarchy of states in the international sphere:

But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another; yet in all times, Kings, and Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall Spyes upon their neighbours, which is a posture of War. But because they uphold thereby, the Industry of their Subjects; there does not follow from it, that misery, which accompanies the Liberty of particular men.100

The idea of an interpersonal state of nature is thus as much a heuristic as an anthropological or historical assertion, a means of analyzing political obligation from the starting point of radical individual equality.101 It is perhaps most obvious in international relations, and yet, as the last line of the passage indicates, the parallel between international and domestic disorder is not an exact one. Understanding Hobbes’s approach to international order requires considering how far anarchy at the international level actually imperils the security of those living in well-ordered commonwealths and, in turn, how those living in such commonwealths may be expected to respond to such anarchy.

II. the refusal of a global leviathan

Hobbes’s solution to the problem of civil disorder may seem to have left unresolved the problem of international anarchy, particularly if we follow him in recognizing not just an interpersonal state of nature but an international one. Yet since Hobbes did not advocate a world-state, the analogy between interpersonal and international anarchy would appear to hold only in the diagnosis of the problem rather than the solution. This creates a puzzle. How may we reconcile Hobbes’s use of examples from both international and interpersonal conflict to illustrate the problem of anarchy with his apparent refusal to countenance at the international level the solution that he espoused at the domestic? To the extent that the interpersonal and the international states of nature are parallel, why do they not oblige an analogous solution, namely, the transferral of rights from individual states to a globalsovereign authority?102

As mentioned in the Introduction, scholars have taken one of two approaches to explain this puzzle: either they extend Hobbes’s argument beyond where he himself took it, thus departing from a genuinely Hobbesian account in proposing a global Leviathan, or they find some way of explaining the lacuna consistent with Hobbes’s theory. The first route is the most common in international relations and has motivated several scholarly volumes to examine whether, as Timo Airaksinen and Martin Bertman put it, “World Government is justified on Hobbesian principles.”103 While most scholars recognize that Hobbes did not support a global state, a common response nevertheless draws on his theory in extending the logic of anarchy from domestic civil society to defend a global Leviathan.104 Such an extension, however, raises the question of why Hobbes himself did not propose it. When this puzzle is addressed, the lacuna is often attributed to external obstacles that impinged on Hobbes’s thinking but which do not reflect the “political realities of our time”105: for example, that world government was not possible in the seventeenth century. But an updated Hobbesian analysis relevant to today, by contrast, is argued to countenance it: “what Hobbes considered inappropriate for his own time, world government, is now appropriate on essentially his basis for state formation: self-preservation.”106

This argument no doubt has its attractions, yet it suffers from a fatal problem. A global political order was in no way unimaginable to Hobbes, and yet he never indicated that it would be necessary to achieve international peace. The concept of a world-state was both logically obvious and historically available to any educated Western European of Hobbes’s time. Logically, the idea was surely as plain to Hobbes as it is to his latter-day interpreters. The domestic analogy is not difficult to trace from parallel problem to parallel solution, and Hobbes was more than capable of completing it himself. Historically, the idea of a “world-state” had been around in one shape or another for about two millennia before Hobbes. Any student of Roman history would have been able to imagine the world ruled by a single imperator,107 even leaving aside the more sophisticated renderings of a global legal order in Hellenistic and early Christian thought (as in theories of the cosmo-polis or the oikoumene).108 Indeed, several late Roman emperors and medieval Popes had even claimed dominion over the entire globe (dominium mundi), albeit without much credibility, as Hobbes would have been fully aware.109

Hobbes’s lack of commitment to world government should not be ascribed to any failure to imagine it. He must thus have believed either that the condition of war among states was inescapable for some reason, as assumed in many realist readings of Hobbes, or that his theory already offered a solution to international conflict without resort to an overarching international authority. Both interpretations find some textual support; I develop the latter interpretation in the following Part, and critically examine the former for the remainder of this Part.

Perhaps most realist readings of Hobbes advance a version of the first view, assuming that Hobbes thought international war was permanent and inevitable. These arguments usually rely on a few passages in which Hobbes seems to describe international anarchy as a natural state, emphasizing that what appears to be peace among states is actually preparation for war. In addition to the passage from Leviathan to this effect discussed above,110 which establishes the domestic analogy at the level of the problem, the main passage cited to support this claim comes from a late work, A Dialogue Between a Philosopher and a Student, of the Common Laws of England (Dialogue), in which Hobbes depicts a conversation between a philosopher representing broadly Hobbesian views and a lawyer with conventional and self-serving views.111

The target throughout the Dialogue is the common law position, represented by Sir Edward Coke, whose Institutes are frequently cited and examined in the discussion on the nature of law and its relation to political sovereignty.112 The passage in question comes from a discussion of the purpose of statutory law and is put into the mouth of the lawyer. It proves a minor interruption in the course of the philosopher’s effort to lead the lawyer to comprehend that statutory law’s ultimate authority lies in sovereign will. When the philosopher asks “[T]o what end were Statute-Laws ordained?” the lawyer answers with a pompous exposition on the unchangeable depravity of man and the necessity therefore of punitive laws.113 It is following this outburst that the philosopher asks, “What hope then is there of a constant Peace in any Nation, or between one Nation and another?” to which the lawyer answers that there is no hope for peace among nations.114 Because the first few lines of the lawyer’s response are frequently taken out of context to support a “realist” interpretation of Hobbes,115 it is worth reproducing it here in its entirety:

You are not to expect such a Peace between two Nations, because there is no Common Power in this World to punish their Injustice: mutual fear may keep them quiet for a time, but upon every visible advantage they will invade one another, and the most visible advantage is then, when the one Nation is obedient to their King, and the other not; but Peace at home may then be expected durable, when the common people shall be made to see the benefit they shall receive by their Obedience and Adhaesion to their own Soveraign, and the harm they must suffer by taking part with them, who by promises of Reformation, or change of Government deceive them. And this is properly to be done by Divines, and from Arguments not only from Reason, but also from the Holy Scripture.116

The philosopher does not then engage the lawyer on any of these points but instead turns back to the earlier subject, objecting that what the lawyer has said is “not very much to that I aim at by your Conversation” and inquiring again about the purpose of statutory law.117 The dialogue moves on to consider that question.

Does this brief interlude provide evidence of Hobbes’s commitment to a realist understanding of interstate anarchy? There are several reasons to be cautious about relying too much on this passage in reconstructing Hobbes’s views, particularly in preference to arguments from his earlier, canonical works. First, the interpretation of this passage is complicated by its being put into the mouth of the lawyer in the Dialogue. Hobbes disdained lawyers and was skeptical about their claims to special expertise, identifying law with the command of the sovereign rather than lawyerly constructions.118 Indeed, the central purpose of the Dialogue seems to have been to undermine the views represented by the common lawyer. Thus, while even the philosopher’s statements in this dialogue cannot be assumed to be Hobbes’s own, those of the lawyer should be viewed even more critically.

It is true that the lawyer initially repeats a point made in the passage from Leviathan cited above: that the international arena is anarchic, because it is lacking a “Common Power,” and that what looks like peace is nothing but preparation for war.119 However, the lawyer’s statement lacks the further suggestion given in Leviathan that the effects of this anarchy will be moderated in the case of interstate relations because states are different kinds of agents than natural persons.120 Indeed, the Dialogue does not examine the comparison between persons and states that the domestic analogy presupposes, and other central Hobbesian theoretical constructs (e.g., the state of nature) are also conspicuously missing from it.

Note, moreover, that the passage ends with a very un-Hobbesian thought: that domestic obedience is best secured through instruction of the masses “by Divines, and . . . from the Holy Scripture.”121 Hobbes was embroiled in conflict with ecclesiastical elites throughout his life, but the conflict had become particularly acute in his final decades; indeed, several scholars have argued that the prompt for the composition of the Dialogue (and several other late-life works) was the ongoing campaign against him and his followers on grounds of heresy.122 The most plausible interpretation of this passage is that the lawyer is rehearsing a set of conventional views about the basis of political obligation and interstate conflict which are not Hobbes’s own, and which the Dialogue was meant to undermine.

There are several additional reasons to be cautious about relying too much on the Dialogue itself as a source for Hobbes’s views, leaving aside the problems with this particular passage. The dialogue form raises obvious interpretive puzzles, and it is unclear what weight can be given to any single statement in such a conversation. Moreover, the Dialogue was written late in Hobbes’s long life, and remained unprinted until after his death.123 Indeed, the text breaks off at the end, and appears to be unfinished, which may be what Hobbes meant when he claimed it was “at the end . . . imperfect”124 and chose to withhold its publication after having delivered it to his printer. Modern readers have agreed that it does not show Hobbes at the height of his powers: the treatment of juridical and political themes is, in the words of its recent editor, “less full, less rigorous, and less well-organized than his more famous earlier treatises.”125 For all these reasons, it would be rash to place very much emphasis on the common lawyer’s stray remark—and it is misleading to cite it out of context as evidence of Hobbes’s realism about international war, as many scholars have mistakenly done.126

III. civil sovereignty and international anarchy

Hobbes’s earlier, canonical works of political theory provide much better evidence for his views on these matters, and I rely on them in developing a different interpretation of his lack of endorsement of a global Leviathan: that he considered his theory of civil sovereignty to offer a solution to both interpersonal andinternational conflict. In brief, if we are to take seriously a great deal of Hobbes’s writings, not to mention his stated reasons for writing, we cannot accept any presumption of constant war among commonwealths. Hobbes claimed that his work revealed the “royal road to peace,” and he understood that solving the problem of war was not merely a matter of avoiding civil war.127 Indeed, he supposed individuals would unite into commonwealths not only for protection from interpersonal danger in the state of nature, but also for common defense against external enemies. As he put it explicitly in De Cive, “It is useless for men to keep peace amongst themselves, if they cannot protect themselves against outsiders; and it is impossible to defend themselves if their strength is not united.”128 As Hobbes proposed to reveal the way that people can “keep peace amongst themselves,” we must assume that he offered, at least to his own satisfaction, some grounds for thinking that these gains in domestic order would not be undermined by international conflict.

Leaving aside Hobbes’s stated reasons for writing, there is a more basic argument that supports the contention that he must have supposed both international war and domestic strife to be solved through the creation of sovereign states: his endorsement of the domestic analogy at the level of the problembut not the solution. Williams argues:

[I]f states are identical to Hobbesian individuals—that is, if the purported anarchy of international relations relies upon a direct analogy to Hobbesian political theory—why does not the move to an international Leviathan also follow directly? Conversely, if it is argued that states-as-Hobbesian-individuals would not contract globally because none could trust the others, then the initial construction of the Hobbesian contract must also be cast into doubt . . . .129

Thus, if we do not conclude that Hobbes was confused—or at least vulnerable to an extension of his own argument, as Rousseau may have thought130—then we must suppose that he believed a solution to the problem of international anarchy was already present in the political program he proposed. The move to a global Leviathan would have to be possible for the same reason that civil society itself was possible, and yet he never counseled it, but still claimed he had solved the problem of how to establish peace.

Why, then, might Hobbes have thought both international and civil wars would cease with the institution of a well-ordered commonwealth? To take up this central question, we must first recognize that Hobbes did not view international relations as constituting a sphere distinct from domestic political arrangements. Constructing the state at the domestic level does not leave intact an international anarchy that tends toward war; rather, the dynamics of interstate relations depend ultimately on domestic political arrangements. Neglecting Hobbes’s view of the interrelation of domestic and international politics has made it appear that he missed a necessary international counterpart to his program of domestic peace. However, on a more detailed examination of Hobbes’s writings, we discover less anxiety about the international state of nature than the interpersonal one, even though he uses both to illustrate the anarchic condition.

Perhaps, as Bull observes, the major reason for this difference is that while commonwealths share the problem of natural men in a state of anarchy, they do not need to respond in the same way because they are not, Hobbes argues, at similarly great risk.131 This means that states are not uniformly bellicose agents. The analogy between the interpersonal and international states of nature breaks down once we recognize that not only can states defend themselves better against other states than natural individuals can against one another, but they can also gather more information about what other states are planning, thereby addressing the epistemic uncertainty that leads to preemption in the interpersonal state of nature. Hobbes claims that the “first requirement” of a state’s defense is intelligence gathering and espionage; the second is the fortification of borders and amassing of armaments and war monies for future emergencies.132 This is, of course, a far cry from genuine peace, as Hobbes recognized in denouncing preparation for war as war,133 but it shows that Hobbesian commonwealths can afford to be less bellicose than Hobbesian individuals because they are less at risk from the anarchy of the international system. They require not preemptive strikes so much as espionage and defensive maneuvers, which reflect a less dangerous international context. In other words, not every anarchy is equally a state of war.

Moreover, a prudent policy of national self-defense is a very different matter from vainglorious aggression, which is at the root of interpersonal conflict in Hobbes’s foundational analysis. Indeed, in a discussion of the activities that lead to prosperity, Hobbes warned against “military activity, which sometimes increases the citizens’ wealth but more often erodes it.”134 He argued that militarism usually amounts to unprofitable adventurism: “[W]e should not take enrichment by these means into our calculations. For as a means of gain, military activity is like gambling; in most cases it reduces a person’s property; very few succeed.”135 Considering this assessment in light of his general view that “[a]ll society . . . exists for the sake either of advantage or of glory,”136 Hobbes evidently believed that military rivalry between states reflects the pursuit of glory and thus proves an unreliable means of pursuing a state’s real interest, the survival of the commonwealth. This circumstance stands in contrast to that of natural individuals who, lacking a sovereign, must judge threats and strike preemptively in order to defend their lives (even when seeking survival, not glory). As Tuck argues, “The power and industry which a state possesses give it a kind of security which no natural individual can possess, and as a result free it from ambition or vainglory.”137

This view of Hobbes is at odds with the realist reading, but has been emphasized by some scholars of international relations, especially the rationalist school, which takes Hobbes to have laid down rules for a tolerably peaceable international order.138 Bull argues that Hobbes’s “articles of peace contain within them most of the basic rules of co-existence on which states have relied in the international anarchy from Hobbes’s time and before it to our own,” and he emphasizes the difference between states and individuals under anarchy.139 Similarly, Williams explains, “Hobbes believes that rational sovereigns will not act in an unnecessarily aggressive manner.”140 He notes further that “[s]ubstantively, Hobbes’s ideas lend support not to contemporary analyses that focus upon the structural determinations of anarchy but to those that focus upon the interrelationship between domestic political structures and global processes.”141

As suggested above, this focus brings Hobbes closer to today’s “constructivism” than “realism” in refusing a dichotomous view of intrastate and interstate dynamics. Malcolm, in a systematic study of Hobbes’s views on international relations, agrees with this assessment: “Overall, Hobbes’s account contains many of the ingredients of what modern theorists describe as an ‘international society’ . . . .”142 Malcolm argues that the law of nature, which obtains as a single law at both the domestic and international level, continues to operate as a thin moralrequirement of state actors.143 This thin moral requirement, along with aspects of state self-interest, conduces to an international order that is not one of pitched battle, except in the limiting case: “The general picture that emerges here is of cooperation and interaction between states, and between the subjects of states, taking place at many levels.”144 Malcolm emphasizes that the jural analogy between persons and states in the interpersonal and international state of nature does not erase other obvious, practical differences between persons and states.145

It is important to recognize that these practical differences between natural individuals and states make the interpersonal state of nature and the international one susceptible to the same solution, namely, the domestic institution of a well-ordered commonwealth. As the rationalist reading has rightly emphasized, Hobbes believed states are different kinds of agents from natural individuals, and can more peaceably coexist with other states. Nevertheless, it may be possible to reconstruct a fuller picture of Hobbes’s views: the rationalist interpretation gives us a tolerable international anarchy, but not Hobbes’s promised “royal road to peace.”146

Hobbes was clear that the establishment of a well-ordered commonwealth would mean security for its own citizens against internal and external threats. Generalizing this condition requires inferring from Hobbes’s political theory what a system of such states—a world of well-ordered commonwealths—would be like. Such a reconstruction is necessarily speculative, but since Hobbes assumes that individuals in the state of nature will be able and willing to form a commonwealth to secure themselves, individually and collectively, it is not too great a stretch to imagine a world composed of such commonwealths, even though Hobbes himself does not explore that vision. As I discuss in Part V below, an idea of a world system of republics is made explicit in Kant’s argument for perpetual peace, with international peace emerging as the happy byproduct of the internal character of republican states. Along similar lines, we may suppose that a world composed of Hobbesian commonwealths would prove a peaceful one, since their well-ordered nature would mean they neither pursue aggressive wars nor suffer insurmountable risks from external enemies.

Reading Hobbes in this way suggests a two-stage vision of international relations similar to his view of civil society in its prepolitical and political phases. First, before the founding of properly constructed sovereign states, a state of nature prevails both domestically and internationally. Then, with the construction of well-ordered commonwealths, we achieve the end of civil strife and the pacification of international relations, all in the same move, and without the need for a global Leviathan set above national sovereigns. At the domestic level, peaceful civil relations prevail because citizens substitute a single sovereign judgment for their contentious private ones. At the international level, peaceful relations prevail because these transformed domestic polities do not make aggressive (glory-seeking) war and because they prove more easily defended in a state of nature than individuals; hence, they do not suffer the passions that lead them to bellicosity.

I argue in the next Part that this interpretation of Hobbes on international relations may best be understood in relation to the psychological transformation that citizens would undergo in civil society. This transformation would, in turn, determine the actions that states pursue, and thus the character of international relations. This suggestion becomes more plausible upon a deeper examination of two neglected elements of Hobbes’s thought: his theory of the passions and what I call his realist-utopian ambitions. But even without accepting any of these particular claims concerning Hobbes’s radically transformative ambitions, the general point should be clear from Hobbes’s repeated insistence that our own reason—and therefore the laws of nature—dictates that we seek peace. This requires, on the one hand, leaving the state of nature to form a commonwealth, and, on the other, avoiding unnecessary war—both civil andinternational—once we are secured within such a domestic political order.

IV. the radicalism of thomas hobbes

As mentioned above, Hobbes is rarely discussed in any depth in the legal-academic literature despite being a major jurisprudential thinker and arguably the founder of the modern tradition of legal positivism.147 However, recent scholarship in the history of political thought has brought renewed attention to the nuances of Hobbes’s political theory, including the radicalism of his agenda. A fuller excavation of Hobbes’s thought, particularly his radical or emancipatory ambitions, may help explain how he thought that the institution of civil sovereignty could be expected to generate both domestic and international peace. In Section IV.A, I discuss a relatively neglected area of Hobbesian moral theory, namely his account of the passions. In the second, I characterize his approach, both in general and with respect to international relations, as a form of realist utopianism, which combines what would later be called realism with the contemporaneous English utopian tradition.

A. Hobbes’s Theory of the Passions

The argument that Hobbes offered a theory of international peace may come to seem more plausible if we consider how he expected the establishment of the commonwealth to transform the passions of its citizens. Hobbes’s theory of the passions is often neglected in accounts of his moral and political theory, and I rely extensively on Tuck’s compelling reconstruction of it.148 Such a reconstruction is necessary in part owing to the fact that Hobbes’s most complete discussion of the passions is in his first major work on politics, The Elements of Law, which was not published in his lifetime and remains poorly known today.149 The Elements of Law was a kind of English-language edition of the later Latin De Cive; while most of its arguments were replicated in De Cive, it is in The Elements of Law that we find the best elaborated discussion of human psychology in Hobbes’s corpus.150

In its first section, Hobbes put forward a theory of the passions that connects the emotions to an apprehension of differences in interpersonal power. It is a sophisticated and compelling account, in part because it enables us to see how changes in the political organization of society can produce, and in turn be reinforced by, changes in the way people perceive one another. After first having distinguished the different types of cognition, Hobbes committed himself to “search out and declare, from what conception proceedeth every one of those passions which we commonly take notice of.”151 These passions “consist in conception of the future,” which links “conception of power past, and the act to come.”152 Power is understood as the capacity to achieve future ends; in Leviathan, Hobbes defined power clearly along these same lines: “The POWER of a Man, (to take it Universally,) is his present means, to obtain some future apparent Good.”153 The imagination of future possibilities stirs in us emotions or passions, and this imagination is necessarily the result of our projection onto the future of our past ability to effect desired outcomes—our past power. Crucially, this power to achieve desired ends must be understood comparatively, and it is in this comparative dimension that the passions arise. Hobbes explained, “[B]ecause the power of one man resisteth and hindereth the effects of the power of another: power simply is no more, but the excess of the power of one above that of another.”154 With this insight into the relativity of power, Hobbes could then “decode,” as Tuck puts it,155 the various passions “we commonly take notice of”156 into the contemplation of our excess or deficiency of power in relation to others.

For example, Hobbes explained, “Reverence is the conception we have concerning another, that he hath a power to do unto us both good and hurt, but not the will to do us hurt.”157 Similarly, “PITY is imagination or fiction of future calamity to ourselves, proceeding from the sense of another man’s present calamity.”158 Or, most importantly for Hobbes’s political analysis, “GLORY, or internal gloriation or triumph of the mind, is that passion which proceedeth from the imagination or conception of our own power, above the power of him that contendeth with us.”159 Even lust, and the emotions that produce either laughter or weeping, can be understood in this way, as a reflection on one’s power compared to others. Our passions, then, are governed by our sense of what we can and cannot attain by the exercise of our power, understood as a comparative capacity.160

This theory explains not only the passions, but also the social relations that flow from them. For example, Hobbes analyzed honor according to differential power: “[T]he acknowledgement of power is called HONOUR; and to honour a man (inwardly in the mind) is to conceive or acknowledge, that that man hath the odds or excess of power above him that contendeth or compareth himself.”161 This acknowledgment of power produces the various “actions, gesture, countenance and speech”162 with which honorable persons are received or recognized. “The signs of honour are those by which we perceive that one man acknowledgeth the power and worth of another,”163 including all the forms of supplication, praise, and glorifying that would have been intimately familiar to him in an aristocratic society. On Hobbes’s analysis, these passions produce appetites in people that govern their wills, and thus the actions that they undertake.164

The significance of understanding the passions in this way becomes clear once we understand Hobbes to be putting forward not just a cognitive theory of the passions in relation to differential power and individual will, but a theory of human psychology as susceptible to transformation through politics. For the comparative assessment of one’s own power in relation to that of another is not only the source of the passions but the source of politics as well. Political life offers a solution to the chaos of the passions roused by unequal power. On Hobbes’s account, the malevolent or aggressive passions are not inborn or inevitable but, like the other passions, the result of the variable social circumstances of power. Both glory and “vain-glory” (imagined glory), for example, arise from this comparative assessment of power, as Hobbes described in a passage from Leviathan:

Joy, arising from imagination of a mans own power and ability, is that exultation of the mind which is called Glorying: which if grounded upon the experience of his own former actions, is the same with Confidence: but if grounded on the flattery of others; or onely supposed by himself, for delight in the consequences of it, is called Vaine-Glory: which name is properly given; because a well grounded Confidence begetteth Attempt; whereas the supposing of power does not, and is therefore rightly called Vaine.165

He continues, “The vain-glory which consisteth in the feigning or supposing of abilities in our selves, which we know are not [present].”166 Glory and vainglory both arise from the imagination of one’s own (real or fantasied) power, and they are both targets for Hobbes, as they produce conflict.

These passions—and the conflict that they engender—can be transformed by altering the background conditions of interpersonal power that generate them. This change comes about through political transformation: the unification of our diverse wills to construct a sovereign capable of equalizing the power differentials among us, which marks the transition from the psychological to the political in Hobbes’s theory.167 The institution of the commonwealth produced through such union was described in Leviathan as the greatest of all powers.168 This overarching power has the potential to alter the passionate nature of individuals by reducing the inequalities of power among them that produce passions and the quarrels to which they lead.169

The nature of the equality that Hobbes seems to be concerned with here is not merely formal, juridical equality, but substantive equality, understood in terms of power, where power is defined, encompassingly, as the “present means, to obtain some future apparent Good.”170 With citizens rendered equal in this respect within a commonwealth, the passions that they experience will not be those based on an inequality of power, such as glory or vainglory, but on its equality.171 In this new order, people will rather be animated by the passions of equality, which include what Hobbes calls “charity,”172 and would lack the passions, such as glory or fear, that stem from an inequality in power. As Tuck explains, since Hobbes’s “sovereign will enforce equality among the citizens, the strugg[l]e for domination with our fellow men will cease, and with it will vanish all the passions in which we imagine ourselves as superior to other men,” leaving only “the passions which stress equality” such as charity or “compleasance.”173

The end point of Hobbes’s analysis of the passions is a world without strife in which the bellicose and fearful passions have been transformed by a new political order.174 To posit that Hobbes argued for such a profound transformation, not just of politics but of the human passions, is to deny any reading of Hobbes, whether realist or rationalist, that stops with his diagnosis of the problem of disorder and does not move beyond it to his proposed solution. Arguing that Hobbes saw such a solution requires taking up an altogether different view—seeing him, in short, as a kind of utopian thinker.

B. Hobbes as a Realist-Utopian

The claim that Hobbes’s ideas represent an exercise in utopian political imagination challenges the dominant conception of him not only in international relations, but in much of political theory as well. However, Hobbes himself suggested the possibility of achieving radical transformation through a new kind of political understanding, as in the Dedication to De Cive, where he suggested the possibility of achieving lasting peace:

[I]f the patterns of human action were known with the same certainty as the relations of magnitude in figures, ambition and greed, whose power rests on the false opinions of the common people about right and wrong, would be disarmed, and the human race would enjoy such secure peace that (apart from conflicts over space as the population grew) it seems unlikely that it would ever have to fight again.175

Our lack of appropriate understanding of the “patterns of human action” forecloses this possibility: “But as things are, the war of the sword and the war of the pens is perpetual . . . .”176 And yet Hobbes thought these conflicts could be brought to an end with the elimination of “false opinions”177 and interpersonal fear, which was the purpose of the political union he advanced. Hobbes’s emancipatory theory thus begins with a violent and disordered world but looks forward to one of security and peace in the commonwealth.

This utopian strain is a neglected element in Hobbes’s thought, but it is arguably central to all of his writings on politics, theology, and moral philosophy. In a series of works, Tuck has emphasized this radical element, arguing that “Hobbes himself believed that the correct understanding and application of his philosophy would transform human life.”178 Tuck compares this transformative ambition to the explicit utopianism of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis,179 and reminds us that the young Hobbes served briefly as Bacon’s literary secretary.180 In discussing Hobbes’s intention to liberate us from unnecessary fear, Tuck explains that “the theory of Leviathan stands forth clearly as utopian, resembling very closely the utopias of the eighteenth or even the nineteenth century,”181 particularly in Hobbes’s advocacy of a civil religion with which to found a new and peaceable political order. Tuck interprets the second half of Leviathan—in which Hobbes proposes an alternative form of Christianity that rejects the immateriality of the soul and denies the existence of Hell—as a utopian project meant to overcome religiously induced fear.182 Relatedly, in an examination of early modern views on humanitarian intervention, including Hobbes’s, Tuck analyzes the discussion of the “kingdom of darkness” in the final book of the Leviathan.183 Here, Tuck diagnoses a “utopian tinge” to Hobbes’s views on international relations, explaining that “foreign war is as much a sign of darkness as civil war,” but “the well-founded commonwealths which Hobbes envisaged would not constantly be at war with one another.”184

Tuck is not the only contemporary scholar to note the utopian elements of Hobbes’s thought, though not all who recognize this aspect of it use that term. Malcolm, in an essay on Hobbes’s place in the European “republic of letters,” distinguishes Hobbes’s emancipatory political commitments from the quiescence and elitism of the intellectual circles in which he moved.185 Malcolm stresses Hobbes’s concern with the destructive role of false beliefs held by both common people and elites. Furthermore, he argues that Hobbes pursued a “negative programme of demystification” and a “positive programme of political education,” which, taken together, amount to a “cultural transformation.”186 While Malcolm avoids the label “utopian,” he stresses the radical, emancipatory character of Hobbes’s thought: “What this implied was, in other words, not utopianism, but enlightenment. Hobbes’s programme could even be described as a project of liberation—liberation, that is, from falsehood, and from the power of those groups, elites, and confederacies that manipulate falsehood for their own ends.”187

It is this transformative and radical character of Hobbes’s thought, linked to an unsentimental analysis of power and conflict, that makes it what I call a “realist-utopian” account. From a “realist” starting point, Hobbes goes further to imagine a profound emancipation that would offer the foundation for both domestic and international peace. We see both sides of this concern framing the dedication to De Cive, where Hobbes wrote, “There are two maxims which are surely both true: Man is a God to man, and Man is a wolf to Man. The former is true of the relations of citizens with each other, the latter of relations between commonwealths.”188 States are thus depicted as in a state of war, based on an analogy to the domestic “state of nature.” But the lack of parallelism between intrastate and interstate relations is telling: the difference between a godlike peace and a bestial violence indicates that a profound transformation has taken place within states, and thus that deep psychological transformation is possible through politics. Indeed, to claim that human beings can be as Gods or wolves to one another is to see a very wide range of human possibilities indeed—and hence, of possible transformation. Moreover, the fact that Hobbes suggested the possibility of attaining a “secure peace” a few pages later means that the expected end to conflict was not only within the state but also beyond it; thus, any division between godlike intrastate and bestial interstate relations appears difficult to sustain as a structural requirement of the international order, or as a permanent feature of human existence.

The claim that Hobbes’s account of international relations should be understood as a realist-utopian peace theory is meant to recall Rawls’s analysis in The Law of Peoples concerning “realistic utopias.” Rawls understands “realistic utopianism” as adapting Rousseau’s formula, which “takes people as they are (by the laws of nature), and constitutional and civil laws as they might be.”189 Rawls offers, in effect, a modified argument of the kind that Kant had made, with further reliance on arguments from contemporary international relations concerning democratic and liberal peace theory.190 While Rawls’s debts to Kant and Rousseau are clear, the origin of this way of thinking is, as I have argued, Hobbes’s foundational social-contract theory. This broad continuity should be unsurprising given that Rousseau and Kant were careful readers of Hobbes as well as inspirations to Rawls.191

We may note, however, several ways in which Hobbes’s realist utopianism differs from Rawls’s realistic utopianism. First and most obviously, Rawls takes as the core units of his peaceable international system “well-ordered” constitutional states of a highly specific liberal-democratic variety, which are not identical to the Hobbesian commonwealth. Furthermore, Rawls makes a point of emphasizing “peoples” and not “states,” a terminological and conceptual difference from Hobbes, who understood the “commonwealth” as the political form of a people rather than an anarchic multitude.192 Rawls’s professed reason for this emphasis was his frustration with the contemporary international-relations literature, which he saw as having a raison d’etat orientation and assuming that states as states have built-in drives, purposes, or rational strategies. His argument therefore focused not on international law, formally understood as an interstate legal system, but rather on a hypothetical “Law of Peoples,” which allowed him to diagnose the domestic character of “decent peoples” and prescribe their appropriate foreign policies.193 However, it is not clear that a “people” ever accomplishes its political aims except through an act of self-constitution that inaugurates “the state”; the term “peoples,” moreover, may well be subject to a different but equally complex set of variations and terminological disputes.194

Finally and perhaps most profoundly, Hobbes argued that the character of people as they are195 is not fixed in any simple sense, but depends upon the ways in which a political regime settles the question of interpersonal power and the allotment of reasons for fear (both genuine and spurious). In performing these functions, the commonwealth affects the composition of the citizens’ passions, which in turn influences the regime—at least where the regime is well ordered and in some sense the citizens’ own construction. Owing to this reciprocal fashioning of people and their political regimes, one might say that, for Hobbes, politics goes all the way down. It is not obvious that this is so for Rawls, who seemed to predicate his conception on a familiar liberal distinction between public and private that restricts political transformation to the public sphere.196

These differences aside, The Law of Peoples, Rawls’s final work, shows how a theory of international relations can combine both realist and utopian elements without contradiction, by focusing on the domestic character of the societies whose external relations are in question. A similar combination of perspectives appears in Hobbes’s political theory, as Hobbes recognized. Indeed, Hobbes appears to have been worried that his thought would come across as too theoretical and too utopian. In a telling passage from Leviathan, Hobbes answers his imagined critics, defending the necessity of absolute and undivided sovereignty in a proper commonwealth:

The greatest objection is, that of the Practise; when men ask, where, and when, such Power has by Subjects been acknowledged. But one may ask them again, when, or where has there been a Kingdome long free from Sedition and Civill Warre. In those Nations, whose Common-wealths have been long-lived, and not been destroyed, but by forraign warre, the Subjects never did dispute of the Soveraign Power. But howsoever, an argument from the Practise of men, that have not sifted to the bottom, and with exact reason weighed the causes, and nature of Common-wealths, and suffer daily those miseries, that proceed from the ignorance thereof, is invalid. For though in all places of the world, men should lay the foundation of their houses on the sand, it could not thence be inferred, that so it ought to be. The skill of making, and maintaining Common-wealths, consisteth in certain Rules, as doth Arithmetique and Geometry; not (as Tennis-play) on Practise onely: which Rules, neither poor men have the leisure, nor men that have had the leisure, have hitherto had the curiosity, or the method to find out.197

Although he acknowledged that there are a few historical examples of long-lived commonwealths, Hobbes thought that arguing from such examples was an inadequate way to understand political possibility. Instead, he suggested his new method of understanding politics as a way to get beyond the current circumstances, in which we all “build our houses on the sand.” In so doing, he offered a defense of the utopian or radical imagination against the weight of the status quo. This defense was repeated by later authors, notably Kant, who, in his late essay on the distinction between theory and practice, advanced a remarkably Hobbesian political account and made a similar defense of the role of theory in political reform as against the alleged value of historical precedent.198

V. international peace in the social-contract tradition

The similarities between Hobbes, Kant, and Rawls suggested at various points in this Essay are not accidental, but reflect abiding commitments of the social-contract tradition beginning with Hobbes. In addition to a primary focus on the civil constitution of modern states, the key theorists in this tradition—including Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls—have also been concerned with the foreign relations of these states. Specifically, the concern to achieve enduring peace has been central to these accounts, as recent historiography has revealed starting in the eighteenth century.199 Without pretending to a shared project across several centuries, it is nevertheless possible to see in Kant’s international theory, and later in Rawls’s, the development of a line of thinking that began with Hobbes. In this Part, I explore the evolution of social-contract theory after Hobbes in order to correct twentieth-century accounts that rely on a stylized opposition between “Kantian” and “Hobbesian” approaches to international law and policy.

As suggested above, and against the conventional opposition, Kant and Hobbes should be understood as peace theorists, since both claimed that political changes at the domestic level could produce a peaceful world. Given the right kind of domestic political transformation, the motivation for aggressive wars would be undermined, even eliminated.200 More particularly, both Hobbes and Kant should be considered realist-utopian peace theorists, as they described the international implications of domestic political changes that we have yet to see realized, at least on a worldwide scale, yet began from the assumption of an anarchic and dangerous state of nature. Their analyses of international relations notably share two significant features. First, they avoid treating states as theoretical “black boxes” around which a theory of international relations can be built; rather, the nature of the domestic regime matters for the foreign relations that states pursue and for the legitimacy of international law. Second, both imagine, from a realist starting point, a transition to a peaceful world that we can now only describe as utopian. Contemporary democratic peace theory is, in this respect, much more continuous with prior social-contract theory than is usually recognized.201

Kant’s realist-utopian argument for a peaceful world of republics is more explicitly developed than Hobbes’s earlier account. Recognizing it nevertheless requires that we interpret Kant correctly: not as an advocate for “supranational” or global governance, but for international law understood as the construction of sovereign republics.202 As Patrick Capps and Julian Rivers note, “Kant rejects a global republic or a global monarchy” as well as “a federal international system along the lines of a ‘state of peoples.’”203 Instead, they explain,

Kant understands the ideal institutional form of the international legal order to be a weak, noncoercive confederation of republican sovereign states, with minimal or no suprastate forms of institutional governance, in which states have plenary jurisdiction. He thinks that properly constituted states through their collective actions could perform the administrative functions of the international legal order.204

Kant’s cosmopolitan legal theory elaborates the law of nations regarding conditions of hospitality (as in Perpetual Peace) and for regulating commerce among nations (as in Doctrine of Right), but it does not imply coercive global institutions.205 Indeed, while Hobbes did not discuss the possibility or desirability of a global Leviathan, Kant was explicit in rejecting it: he argued it would prove a “soulless despotism” bound to lapse back into civil war or anarchy.206 Instead, Kant supposed, like Hobbes, that analogues to domestic sovereignty at the global level would be simply unnecessary if properly constructed states could become the constitutive units of the international system. Indeed, on this account, a move toward global sovereignty may be viewed as counterproductive to international peace, for reasons I sketch in the next Part.

The prospect of international peace developing as the result of the well-ordered or republican character of the state must be understood in relation to a broader eighteenth-century preoccupation with how the modern European state system could be rendered pacific, particularly in the context of imperial expansion and commercial competition. Indeed, as several historians of political thought have recently shown, the Kantian argument for “perpetual peace” through the achievement of a system of sovereign republics was Kant’s particular take on a broader eighteenth-century trope. While it remains the most famous version today, it was, as Nakhimovsky explains, but “one contribution to a large and varied literature that extends back to the seventeenth century and proliferated after every major war in the eighteenth century.”207 While Kant’s proposal for perpetual peace was committed to a system of sovereign states, many eighteenth-century theorists supposed that the modern state system could never be rendered peaceful, and completed Hobbes’s domestic analogy by deriving the necessity of a global (or, at least, European) hegemon to prevent war. In fact, the term “perpetual peace” was popularized many decades before Kant’s essay, following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, by Saint-Pierre, who proffered a utopian plan for a kind of European Union of ancien regime monarchies.208 Saint-Pierre’s scheme was reworked and revised by later theorists, including the skeptical Rousseau,209 who was put in charge of the posthumous editing of Saint-Pierre’s papers in the 1750s.210 Rousseau’s own views on international peace were propounded in the midst of this complicated engagement with Saint-Pierre, and left mostly unpublished during his own lifetime.211 He seemed to have viewed Saint-Pierre’s proposal as naïve, given the character of ancien regime states.

Kant was a great admirer of Rousseau212 and, like Rousseau, a careful reader of Hobbes.213 In his understanding of international relations, Kant shared Rousseau’s worry that “the Hobbesian theory entailed no end to the state of war, for modern states are inextricably involved in a continuous and destructive warfare.”214 In this respect, it may be Rousseau, rather than Hobbes, who should be considered the father of “Hobbesian” realism, since it was Rousseau, rather than Hobbes, who suggested that the international sphere was an unconstrained anarchy—and therefore claimed that Hobbes had failed to see the limits of his own theory.215 If there is a stylized opposition to be had in international theory, it may be between the pessimism of Rousseau and the (constrained) optimism of Kant in analyzing the dynamics of peace and war in a world of modern states.216

It is important to note, however, that Rousseau’s criticism was not directed against a hypothetical interstate order of Hobbesian commonwealths. It concerned rather the interstate order of his own time, in which ancien regime monarchies had been made strong through political consolidation at the domestic level217 but remained violent and untransformed in the radical way Hobbes envisioned.218 Kant did not share Rousseau’s pessimism about international peace,219 even while he was no less convinced that states would engage in violent conflict, which, he thought, would lead them gradually to understand the necessity of peace.220

Kant’s optimism on this score came from his synthesis of the social-contractarian account of politics that began with Hobbes221 and its main eighteenth-century offshoot and rival. This rival view was not Saint-Pierre’s federation of kings, nor even Rousseau’s pessimism about the violence of modern states, but rather the faith that commerce would pacify the international order. Against the views of Hobbes, Rousseau, and others who feared that foreign entanglements had the potential to inflame international rivalries, theorists from Montesquieu to David Hume and Adam Smith argued that commerce had the potential to pacify interstate relations.222 Yet the imbrication of competitive modern states with a globalizing system of commerce was also understood to constitute a new and unsettled interstate order, a “jealousy of trade” with the potential to foment ever-greater violence.223 Kant’s proposal for perpetual peace combined these two views, starting from an essentially Hobbesian account of the social contract but including as a stabilizing factor what he called “unsocial sociability”224—the selfishly motivated, other-oriented actions constitutive of what Smith called “commercial society.”225

Crucially, Kant’s presupposition was that international commerce would not undermine the sovereign character of the modern state even while it provided pacifying connections across borders. However, it had become clear to observers even by the end of the eighteenth century that the ability of modern states to regulate the economy within their borders depended upon effective control over their external commercial relations, particularly for states pursuing national welfare schemes. As Nakhimovsky has shown, one logical extension of Kant’s analysis was the argument that state sovereignty and international peace required what Johann Gottlieb Fichte called the “closed commercial state,”226 or at least forms of national self-sufficiency that insulated states from international economic interdependence.

The question of how to enable effective sovereign regulation of the domestic economy against the backdrop of dense foreign commercial relations has never been fully resolved. A clear line of analysis runs from these late eighteenth-century theories through to the work of John Maynard Keynes and other architects of the twentieth-century postwar economic order,227 down to present-day concerns about the domestic policy space that economic globalization is foreclosing.228 What all these accounts attempt to work out, at bottom, is how the sovereignty of the state that Hobbes helped to justify and rationalize—and which, on his account, proved essential for a durable international peace—may be rendered compatible with the global commercial order that the state system made possible.229

VI. realist-utopianism in international law today

What does a realist-utopian theory suggest for analyses of international law and politics today? Broadly, it allows us to reassess the normative foundations of international law from a perspective that insists on the centrality of state sovereignty as its legitimating force. More specifically, the kind of state that Hobbes emphasized—and which would render international anarchy pacific—is a self-conscious, collective construction of its citizens, with overlooked democratic origins. The proper construction of this kind of domestic sovereignty grounds the legitimacy of all legal orders, including the international one. This position comes close to what Capps and Rivers describe as the Kantian position on international law.230

This perspective reorients the much-discussed question of why nations obey international law.231 The question takes its force from the presumption that states in the anarchical state of nature, lacking a common sovereign, are unconstrained like individuals in the state of nature. The domestic analogy thus inspires the suspicion that international law may not be law232 since there is no international sovereign. In response, legal scholarship has tended either toward skepticism about international law, owing to its perceived unenforceability,233 or toward proposing alternative mechanisms by which legal sanctions might be enforced internationally.234 However, once we focus on the political character of the well-ordered commonwealth, the question becomes not why states should obey international law, but how we can achieve the kinds of states that will work out their domestic commitments by constructing a secure international order.

This reorientation helps us understand a recent controversy over the normative foundations of international law, which has traditionally been understood as a construction of sovereign states. In the last few decades, some scholars and activists have suggested that the legitimacy of international law must be based not on a respect for the states that construct it, but instead on a commitment to universal human rights understood as traceable to individuals.235 This commitment may include a “responsibility to protect” as a duty imposed on states, which trumps state sovereignty,236 and justifies humanitarian intervention where states fail in this responsibility.237 In its strongest form, this view imagines the legitimacy of international law to regulate conflict among states on behalf of a normative objective that trumps the sovereign right of nations to judge threats and defend themselves—even though such self-defense was formerly understood as the foundation of the international order.238

Realist utopianism shows us that this controversy arises out of the traditional (and correct) view of international law as normatively grounded in the sovereignty of the states that construct it. The difficulty is that these states have not all undergone the internal political transformation that would make them capable of achieving a full peace, either domestically or internationally. Thus the problem lies not with the concept of international law itself, but with the difficulties of achieving a peaceful global order among unevenly constituted states: some are strong and obviously sovereign, while others are weak, even “failed,” or otherwise controlled by partial associations of the kind that Hobbes recognized would undermine sovereignty and partly replicate the state of nature within the state.239 The call for international law to recognize an alternative normative grounding beyond formal interstate respect becomes comprehensible in this light.240

The complexity, from a realist-utopian perspective, is in distinguishing those states that are genuinely failed—that is, whose citizens now exist in the functional equivalent of a renewed interpersonal state of nature—from states that are not well ordered but continue to function at least partly as a sovereign should. Humanitarian intervention into a genuinely failed state that has devolved into anarchy would be limited only by the thin requirements of natural law and considerations of prudence.241 By contrast, many of the controversies over humanitarian intervention in the last two decades have concerned interventions into stable but authoritarian states, sometimes justified on grounds of achieving peaceable international relations through forced regime change. A realist-utopian perspective would treat this project of regime change with great caution, where it is not a necessary feature of self-defense, and would be alert to the dangers of foreign policy based on what Hobbes understood as glory or vainglory.242

More broadly, to confront this problem is to recognize the limits of the realist-utopian framework under current political conditions—namely that the radical domestic transformation it calls for has yet to be achieved universally. Domestically, the hope for full political transformation may require a well-ordered commonwealth, but the protections of even an imperfect state are not lightly to be cast aside when compared with the anarchy of the interpersonal state of nature. Internationally, these limits reveal what might be considered a more general problem of transition affecting Hobbes’s realist utopianism and similar theories: even if we accept that a system of well-ordered commonwealths could achieve international peace, it remains unclear how states that are not currently well ordered can become so while simultaneously contending with a disordered international system. In other words, just as there may be a virtuous circle linking civil order and international peace, there may also be a vicious circle linking distorted or authoritarian domestic politics and international violence.243 International threats may hinder the ability of states to become well ordered internally, while, reciprocally, the transition to international peace may be forestalled while states remain disordered.

There is no obvious solution to the problem of transition, which recurs in any theory that proposes domestic changes allegedly conducive to international peace. Kant relied on a philosophy of history to show how his project of international peace could be achieved,244 while Rawls focused on several key facts about present society that suggested to him the possibility of “reconciliation” between the status quo and the obviously unrealized demands of justice.245 A parallel problem of transition was debated after the Russian Revolution by socialists who followed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in supposing that socialist states would not fight one another,246 but who were divided over whether the transition to that new equilibrium would require world revolution (that is, coordinated change in the domestic constitution of all major countries) or could proceed via socialism in one country (that is, through the successful example of Communist Russia).247

Nevertheless, the realist-utopian framing suggests some courses of action where the well-ordered nature of commonwealths is uneven, and the international system as a whole is not yet peaceable. Hobbes’s general injunction was “to seek peace when some hope of having peace exists, and to seek aid for war when peace cannot be had.”248 Applying this injunction to a world of imperfectly constituted states might suggest a set of thin principles of genuinely universal international law, alongside a set of ad hoc strategies for dealing with the problems resulting from the malconstitution of so many existing states. Abstracting from his more detailed assessments, we can read Rawls’s The Law of Peoples in this vein, offering an attempt to distinguish those states among which an international peace could obtain and a set of principles for interacting humanely and prudently with the rest (including what he called “decent hierarchical” societies and “burdened” states).249

International law has a role to play in the construction of international regimes in a world in which states differ in their well-ordered nature and tendency toward peaceable external relations. However, in the realist-utopian frame, the legitimacy of international law must remain grounded in respect for state sovereignty, where sovereignty is understood as the construction of citizens within states and not merely an external-facing attribute of states. One further implication of this view of legitimacy would be a critical, cautious approach not only to humanitarian intervention (outside the special case of genuinely failed states, which are not sovereigns) but also to schemes of global governance that might undermine state sovereignty, understood in the fullest sense as a regime of collective coordination that enables citizens to make their own political decisions.250

Recall again the realist-utopian commitment to state sovereignty as the foundation of international law, visible in Hobbes’s (and Kant’s) resistance to global sovereignty, whether federated or unitary.251 This resistance is based not only on the prudential reasons that Bull diagnosed, namely that the “system of a plurality of sovereign states gives rise to classic dangers, but these have to be reckoned against the dangers inherent in the attempt to contain disparate communities within the framework of a single government.”252 It is also based on the conviction that the kinds of states capable of constructing a legitimate international sovereign would be precisely the states that would not need to do so. The demand for a global Leviathan or, more modestly, forms of sovereignty-trumping transnational governance, thus reflects the failure of the domestic political transformation that Hobbes envisioned, along with a lack of confidence in the mechanism that grounded Kant’s theory of international peace—which is, as Capps and Rivers summarize, that “properly constituted states through their collective actions could perform the administrative functions of the international legal order.”253

More worryingly, the push for many new forms of global governance may reflect an ambition to limit the reach of democratic control by trumping national sovereignty. Hobbes was deeply suspicious of experts who claimed to be above ordinary politics and to possess special knowledge: priests, lawyers, and professors all came in for his criticism.254 It is not hard to imagine him similarly denouncing the new agents of global governance, who presume to speak on behalf of the people at precisely the level where the people cannot assemble into a sovereign.255 Again, contrary to the caricatured “Hobbesian” view, this usurpation would constitute not the successful imposition of order but rather its negation.

Similarly, the move to incorporate nonstate actors into what has been described as “transnational legal process”256 must not be allowed to undermine or replace state capacities, including especially domestic political control by citizens over both state and nonstate actors. Otherwise, the result could be an erosion of state sovereignty, including the very capacity to protect international human rights, through what Itamar Mann has recently described as a “dialectic of transnationalism.”257 A related proposal that a realist-utopian analysis would approach with great skepticism is the effort to “disaggregate” sovereignty at the domestic level to construct a global legal order based on “constitutional pluralism”258 or “networked governance.”259 The problem with these projects is that they threaten to undo the tenuous construction of political sovereignty at the domestic level, which is, in the realist-utopian understanding, both the buffer against the dangers of the world and also the only plausible vehicle for achieving a durable international peace through radical political transformation.

Perhaps the most serious challenge to the realist-utopian project along these lines comes from the current drive toward global economic integration, which can have the effect of empowering elite nonstate actors at the expense of domestic majorities. Many of the forms of networked or transnational governance discussed above have been justified on grounds of functional economic necessity: the world presupposed by economic globalization is, in essence, a postnational one.260 Ironically, while the neoliberal economic globalization of recent decades is justified on deregulatory grounds, it depends ultimately on a deepening of state capacities, reconfigured for the benefit of powerful private actors.261 The problem with this kind of integration is not so much the generic fact of international interdependence as the way that some forms of interdependence may undermine democratic self-government, and thus threaten the political construction of sovereignty.

For example, international legal commitments to economic integration often entail new forms of transnational dispute resolution that bypass national courts, arguably posing new and increasing challenges to democratic sovereignty.262 The challenge of regulating the many forms of private cross-border activity that have emerged as international relations have become pacified263 seems likely only to increase as the juridical apparatus underlying cross-border commercial and financial flows is regularized and normalized in international law.264 This is not merely a problem for the European Union, though the financial crisis in Europe has made it all too clear how international economic integration can become an obstacle to democratic self-government.265

The realist-utopian perspective on international economic integration remains underdeveloped. Hobbes’s motivating concern was characteristic of the seventeenth century: state building in the midst of religious conflict. He did not, therefore, consider the puzzle of whether, and how, to maintain state sovereignty in the context of economic globalization,266 a problem that only became acute in eighteenth-century thought and political practice. Kant, as we have seen, sought to synthesize a contractarian political theory with new accounts of commercial pacification. Neither Hobbes’s original theory, nor Kant’s later proposal for perpetual peace, would seem to address squarely the challenge of current circumstances: understanding and limiting, where necessary, forms of international economic integration that require such an extensively shared cross-border administrative apparatus that the sovereignty of the commonwealth is fractured or usurped. Understanding the many dimensions of this problem in juridical detail suggests the need for further research at the intersection of public and private international law.267

None of this means that a realist-utopian analysis must oppose all projects of international institutional construction. However, this approach would alert us to the dangers posed by any such project that undermines state capacity, especially where state powers are transferred to unaccountable agents.268 Nor is it the case that all forms of networked transgovernmentality necessarily disaggregate or undermine state sovereignty. For example, a variety of mechanisms, from peer review programs conducted at the country level269 to forms of what Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro have identified as outcasting,270 may remain consistent with the goal of seeking the benefits of international cooperation while preserving the essential links between international law, state sovereignty, and political democracy.271 These mechanisms may help to generate order among states that are neither uniformly the belligerent agents supposed by the logic of anarchy nor yet the well-ordered commonwealths that we would expect to promote international peace. In sum, international lawmaking and global governance in this uneven world require constant vigilance against changes that would undermine state sovereignty and thereby limit the capacity of existing states to become the well-ordered commonwealths capable of constructing a genuine international peace.

Finally, a realist-utopian perspective may prove useful not only for assessing external relations, but also for the self-understanding of established polities as well. The global war on terror and the humanitarian problems emerging from failed or warring states offer today the most striking manifestations of international disorder. However, neither presents any obvious necessity of remaking the liberal-democratic orders of established states to put them on a permanent war footing,272 nor does either suggest anything more than a contingent accommodation within international law for the current problems of what Rawls called “burdened societies.”273 An appropriate response to these challenges no doubt demands both prudence and humanity, but the challenges themselves neither suggest fatal problems with the idea of national sovereignty nor require a comprehensive reassessment of the normative foundations of international law. It should not be forgotten that Hobbes lived in a time of civil war, failed states, and religious fanaticism, including cross-border acts of terror against civilians. The well-ordered commonwealth was, he thought, not an obstacle to effective action to address these problems but precisely its vehicle.


This Essay has considered Hobbes’s understanding of international relations as a realist-utopian account that expected far more from the institution of civil sovereignty than many modern scholars recognize. This interpretation seeks to account for Hobbes’s unwillingness to sanction a global sovereign alongside his keen recognition of international conflict. It thus revisits the domestic analogy that Bull identified and argues that Hobbes offered a solution to both civil and international disorder in the institution of the well-ordered commonwealth. Hobbes did not believe that in a world of sovereign states we must choose either the endless war of international anarchy or the evil of global tyranny. Rather, this way of thinking reflects our failure to consider domestic and international politics together in Hobbes’s realist-utopian relief.

In considering a range of problems from humanitarian intervention through to international economic integration, Hobbes’s realist utopianism continues to provide a powerful theory and a needed corrective, not only to the narrowly defined realism that has long claimed his imprimatur, but also to realism’s rivals, which unwittingly persist in its fundamental framing. Critics of the realist position may be surprised to discover that they have overlooked their greatest theoretical predecessor and ally: Hobbes.