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Reviewed by Jul 26, 2021| Updated on
Anarchy is defined in political science and the study of international relations. It is the absence of any national-state superior authority willing to arbitrate their disputes and to apply foreign law. The word 'anarchy' is derived from the ancient Greek root anarchos ("without authority"), which signifies the absence of the rule of law or a settled government.
The prevalence of anarchy in the relationships between states is the fundamental assumption of realism, a prominent school of thought in the theory of international relations. International law in practice, according to realists, imposes few direct constraints on state behaviour, in part because there is almost no way to enforce it.
There are no enforceable rules of conduct in the absence of a supra-state power or arbiter, especially for the strong states. In the strict sense of lack of applicable international law and in the broader sense of being violently chaotic, the harsh inter-state environment is anarchic.
Some scholars believe that anarchy can be overcome, or "exited," through international institutions, such as the United Nations (UN) and widespread acceptance of international law, particularly by strong states. Such persons include particularly those associated with the liberal approach to international relations.
But for realists, the UN is incapable of fulfilling the pledge, at least in its present form, since it has no coercive power that is independent of the will of the major powers. So the state of chaos must continue, according to realists, unless the UN is radically changed or a real-world state is created.
Many realists have disputed that the prevalence of anarchy in the state system requires ruthless self-seeking of the individual states. Since there is no supra-state actor able to impose international law, each state has to provide for its protection.
Structural anarchy is, therefore, also termed as a self-help regime. In such a system, every government reserves the right to decide for itself what is rightful or necessary and to take up arms to follow or implement that decision. As being strong (both militarily and economically) is the best way to achieve stability under anarchy, self-help naturally leads to power-maximizing behaviour.
The amalgamation of chaos, relentless self-help, and power-maximizing actions by all states leads to another realist assertion. The American political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who as a leading realist theoretician, believed that "war is natural" in such a setting. In other words, the primary means by which states under anarchy settle conflicts of interest is war or threat of war.