Ethics & International Affairs Volume 22.4 (Winter 2008): Book Reviews: After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council [Full Text]

Dec 30, 2008

After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council, Ian Hurd (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007), 221 pp., $35 cloth, $22.95 paper.

Wendy H. Wong (Reviewer)

Scholars of international relations have long argued that the international system is characterized by anarchy and that states are the central players, and only recently has this orthodoxy been challenged by new thinking about hierarchy and nonstate political actors. In an innovative modification of this debate, Ian Hurd's After Anarchy ties together the core arguments of two major schools of thought, realism and constructivism. Hurd argues that perceptions of legitimacy undergird how states act, both vis-à-vis one another and in relation to international institutions; in other words, legitimacy creates international order. Furthermore, if legitimacy is necessary to compel state action and shapes how states perceive the world, then states cannot be the only bearers of such power: it is also held by international bodies, such as the United Nations Security Council, the empirical focus of the study.

Hurd's argument about legitimacy can be broken into two major strands. The first is an argument that anchors legitimacy firmly in debates about the rational state. Hurd hopes to undo the current dichotomy between those who believe states to be rational actors engaged in shaping the world according to their interests and those who argue that interests are shaped by underlying understandings of how the world "ought" to be. In other words, he shows that James March and Johan Olsen's "logic of consequences" and "logic of appropriateness" are mutually dependent in explaining international relations. The second strand is that states not only respond to one another's claims of legitimacy but that international organizations, such as the UN, may also affect how states conceive of their own interests, and of right and wrong actions. In other words, states have lost their exclusive claims on making the rules of international politics.

The task Hurd undertakes is by no means an easy one. By classifying legitimacy as a "governing concept" (p. 29) over the use of symbols and authority, Hurd reveals the problems that have plagued theories about legitimacy in international relations. If he is right, and legitimacy in fact is a meta-concept that ultimately determines the behavior of states in the international system, current theories about anarchy and state sovereignty need serious revision. Yet few scholars have offered either clear explanations of what legitimacy is, how one goes about attaining it, or how legitimacy affects international politics. Hurd's theory of legitimacy attempts to address all three questions, and he does a remarkably good job thinking through extant scholarship.

However, the effort to pull from a variety of fields results in a theory-heavy read that disappoints in its empirical portions. For example, in a chapter dealing with the sanctions levied against Libya by the Security Council, Hurd does not quite convince his reader that it was the legitimacy of Libya's counterarguments, rather than the natural attrition rate of economic sanctions, that brought about their eventual removal. Similarly, in his analysis of the 1945 San Francisco conference that founded the UN, Hurd does not establish whether the new organization received the support of small states because of the legitimacy of the idea forwarded by the Allies, or because the small states desired some kind of international body in the aftermath of World War II. While the first half of the book develops a very impressive conceptual framework for understanding how legitimacy affects international politics, the theoretical intricacies are lost in the second half, when Hurd applies his arguments to the Security Council.

One of the more surprising theoretical omissions in Hurd's discussion of legitimacy is a conceptualization of international norms, including questions of how they interact with and whether they are similar to (or the same as) legitimacy, as well as whether an understanding of international norms furthers the study of legitimacy and, by extension, of political authority in international politics. Those familiar with the discussion of international organizations, both nonstate and intergovernmental, have become accustomed to thinking about the normative contributions of international institutions. In Hurd's theory, however, norms take a backseat to legitimacy. This is particularly apparent in his chapter about the evolution of UN peacekeeping and the contestation over the symbolism of such practice.

True, the Security Council under international law has a monopoly on the use of peacekeepers. Hurd asserts that even those who do not want to follow the UN's peacekeeping rules, as in the case of Russia, will try to get the Security Council’s blessing, or call military actions "peacekeeping" even when they are clearly not. That said, it may not be an issue of the legitimacy of peacekeeping, as Hurd wants us to believe, but an issue of the normativity of peacekeeping in the post–World War II world. Prior to the establishment of the UN, states engaged in peacekeeping activities, but under different names, albeit for the purposes of maintaining order in colonial and former colonial territories. In the empirical chapters, the reader gets the feeling that Hurd uses his very insightful theory as a hammer with which all things must be struck. This results in the assertion of evidence, rather than demonstration.

All in all, Hurd's book makes a significant theoretical contribution to the way international relations scholars think about the world. Legitimacy receives a thorough rethinking through an extension of Alexander Wendt's work on the social construction of anarchy and international politics. In terms of thinking about how the international system functions, Hurd's contribution is a move away from statecentricity to a view that addresses the effect of international organizations on how states conceive of the world, and how they respond to the claims of legitimacy made by nonstate actors.


The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled "Centralizing Principles: How Amnesty International Shaped Human Rights Politics through its Transnational Network."

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