In the basic form, an international society / international order / world order may be understood as a cluster (or club) of sovereign states or nations with shared values, norms and interest, expressed through a number of institutions both primary ones that are informal and evolved (rather than designed) and performed through fundamental and durable shared practices and secondary ones that are formal and designed and which perform specific administrative and regulative functions.
The ideal-type of international society/order covers:
- The power component: the material capabilities and resources available in the order, usually provided by the order’s leading state. The power component also includes soft power derived from non-material factors such as internal cohesion through a stable identity and shared interests and magnetism through attractiveness and legitimacy.
- The identity component: the order’s self-understanding, core values and vision expressed through shared norms and social practice. The identity may be rooted in religion, culture, ethnicity or ideology or other strong identity signifiers. The identity is also likely to be reflected in the internal domestic governance arrangements.
- The primary institution component: a number of durable and recognized patterns of shared practices such as diplomacy, international law and the conduct of war but may also be durable and recognized patterns of shared practices that are related to the identity of the order.
- The secondary institution component: an institutional architecture designed to manage relations between states within the order and provide an organizational setting for meeting common challenges and for providing public goods within the order and in the wider system. The institutional architecture may display a high or low level of constitutionalism either through many formal rules-based organizations or through less formal relationships.
The concept “international system” remains useful to denote overall “systemic” characteristics such as polarity and although systemic change is quite rare, it does occasionally take place and is likely to result in transformational change and to have significant repercussions at the level of international society. In addition, a “system” is qualitatively different from a “society”. An international system is always global in scope whereas international societies (orders) potentially come in all shapes and sizes where the current near-global scope of the American-led liberal order, must be assumed to be the exception rather than the rule.
In other words, what separates “society” from “system” is that
- “system” refers merely to contact between states and the impact of one state on another, whereas
- “international society (order)” also involves common interests and values and common rules and institutions.
The existence of both international system and perhaps several international societies (orders) suggest that international societies are nested within an overall international system. The history offers plenty of examples of co-existing international orders – most recently during the Cold War.