by Ian Clark. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 280pp. Cloth. $65.00/£32.00. ISBN: 9780199297009.

Reviewed by Mark Rigstad, Department of Philosophy, Oakland University. Email: Rigstad [at]


Ian Clark’s INTERNATIONAL LEGITIMACY AND WORLD SOCIETY (2007) is an ambitious and quite successful attempt to answer questions that were raised but left open in his LEGITIMACY IN INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY (2005). In the earlier study, Clark examined how historically contingent norms of legitimacy have been periodically renegotiated by states from the Westphalian peace settlement to the post-Cold War era. In the present companion volume, he employs the same historicist methodology – which explicitly owes its pedigree to the English School of international relations theory – in order to investigate the extent to which “international society has been persuaded to adopt new normative frameworks because it has been persuaded that world society has a right to be heard, and for its values to be incorporated” (p.11). His investigation proceeds by means of a series of historical case studies in which the terms of international legitimacy were recast in the process of negotiating peace settlements following major wars. This focus on post-war negotiations as the seminal moments for periodic restructuring of legitimacy builds upon one of the general observations of his previous book (p.37). New terms of legitimacy tend to emerge as victors’ norms. Separate chapters detailing these negotiations cover the post-Napoleonic abolition of slavery among the eight European powers that signed on to the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the regulations of warfare that emerged at the Hague conferences of 1899-1907, the failed attempt to include a norm of racial equality in the League Covenant at Versailles in 1919, the successful attempt to include international norms of social justice governing labor in the same Versailles Treaty, the insertion of human rights provisions at San Francisco in the UN Charter of 1945, and the requirement of democratic governance among European member states in the post-Cold War Charter of Paris. These historical chapters, which are too richly detailed to treat fairly here, are bounded by theoretical chapters that outline Clark’s general findings about the nature of the relationship between international society and world society.

In the theoretical chapters, Clark brings together a plausible blend of insights from both the English School and constructivist approaches to international relations theory. “What both share is a view of inter-state relations as being shaped by common understandings and values that impact upon state behaviour” (p.208). Whereas international society consists of official government actors, world society comprises individual citizens and transnational networks of nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). To understand the nature of [*949] these societies qua societies is to understand their “shared values” or “normative beliefs” (pp.34, 176-177). Although these two societies are “analytically separate,” they share an “increasingly overlapping” history of mutual interaction and interdependence (p.7). What emerges from the central case studies – as well as brief concluding accounts of the Ottawa Convention on Land Mines, the Rome treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, and recent gatherings of the World Trade Organization and the G 7/8 – is a narrative of “normative integration between international and world society” (p.208).

Clark sometimes touches upon the ways in which international society has shaped the development of world society, sometimes by facilitating and sometimes by obstructing the efforts of INGOs. But these moments are only elaborated insofar as they serve his central aim, which is to trace the direction of influence that world society has exercised over international society by acting as a “norm negotiator” (p.192). Norms of legitimacy shape the identities and interests of the members of international society by setting conditions for inclusion and exclusion. These norms are not to be understood as the principles of some ideal theory, but as part of the historically contingent and evolving consensus of international society (pp.32-33, 211). And since these norms sometimes pull in different directions, legitimacy is best understood as the “equilibrium point around which international society develops a consensus” (p.208). When international society periodically renegotiates its norms of legitimacy, in part under the influence of INGOs, “a critical identity shift takes place at the interface of international and world society” (p.209). Contrary to classical realist accounts of international relations, Clark maintains that these changes in norms of inclusion/exclusion are at least as important for understanding international relations as the strategic interplay of state interests. Among other things, states want legitimacy. The normative conceptions of international society tell states how to acquire and maintain this good. While recent constructivist IR theory has been “preoccupied” with this question of “how states come to know what they want” in the context of international society, Clark’s monograph addresses an important lacuna in the literature by focusing on “how international society comes to know what it wants” (p.178). To some extent, however modest, international society sometimes learns what it wants by paying heed to the claims of world society.

If the influence of world society sometimes instructs international society about where its true interests lie, it certainly does no do so with anything approaching sovereign or hegemonic authority. Not only is Clark careful to avoid any such exaggerated claims about the influence of world society, he takes great pains to argue that international society is far from being passive in its exchanges with world society. Although “legitimacy enhances power,” it is also the case that “power facilitates the adoption of certain notions of legitimacy” (p.19). The society of states sometimes must listen to the claims of world society in order to learn what legitimacy requires; but it also tends to grant influence to precisely those world society actors that are most likely to [*950] advance its preconceived interests. The latter, somewhat neglected side of the story makes it mysterious, if not dubious that, as Clark claims, “in most of the cases reviewed in this book, international society appeared to have no particular ‘interest’ in the norm proposed for adoption” (p.21). This claim would indeed be misguided if it were taken to mean that world society has somehow managed to impose new norms against the interests of international society. Clark rejects such an account of the transformations of legitimacy norms, however. Instead, world society actors, with the crucial aid of sympathetic and powerful victor states, manage to persuade international society to embrace changes in its identity and “concomitant changes in its interests” (pp.204, 212). There is no static opposition of interests between world society and international society, but a “progressive integration” between them that yields “reciprocal benefits” (pp.210, 211). On the one hand, international society needs world society as a source of instruction about conditions of legitimacy, especially insofar as these conditions hinge upon human rights norms; and on the other hand, world society needs international society to enforce these norms (p.196).

The extent to which world society now penetrates international society has given rise to two important theses that Clark is especially concerned to repudiate. The first is the notion, popular among “second-generation solidarists,” that the rise of world society’s influence amounts to a displacement of international society (p.33). To the contrary, the patterns of historical change examined here show that we are not simply seeing a transition from a society of states to a new world society of individuals. Detailed analysis of the historical record suggests a far more complex process, which cannot be explicated in terms of a single theoretical model of international social transformation (p.206). The second thesis that Clark is concerned to repudiate would challenge his basic terms of analysis. If, as he admits, world society’s influence has arisen “only in proportion to its relative abandonment of a ‘separate level of existence,’” then one might reasonably wonder whether it makes sense to continue talking about how it confronts and engages with international society (pp.210, 187). His response to this objection has two prongs, one contemporary, and one historical. Since the process of mutual integration between world society and international society is still underway, it “may remain helpful to cling to a concept of world society as a tendency or incomplete process” (p.188). Moreover, if we were “to allow one concept to swallow the other,” then we would forsake “the language needed to convey the rich history of the encounters between these two societies at a series of formative moments” (p.213). The implication of both arguments is that there may or may not come a time when the distinction between world society and international society is no longer significant for understanding geopolitics. We shall have to wait and see.

Clark’s INTERNATIONAL LEGITIMACY AND WORLD SOCIETY is clearly written and organized, informed and fascinating in its historical details, and methodologically cautious in the articulation of its findings. The author carefully lays out his theses in relation to [*951] the relevant literature, and he is consistently fair in his treatment of those with whom he disagrees. The book should be of interest not only to historically-minded theorists of international relations, but also to INGOs and statesmen who wish to learn about the contingencies that lead to successful or failed norm entrepreneurship.

Clark, Ian. 2005. LEGITIMACY IN INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Mark Rigstad.

International Legitimacy and World Society