International Political Theory, Chapter 2, Sample Exam Question 1

Hi all. Well here it is, my first essay of the year. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. I'm not that happy with it, I think its too long, and not really sure if I interpreted the question correctly. But its a start! See what you think.
1. Discuss the relation between domestic and international politics in the thought of one of the following: Thucydides; Hobbes; Rousseau; Kant.
Thomas Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, had little to say explicitly about international politics, but his theory on the source of domestic political theory- most famously spelt out in his classic book Leviathan– has significant implications for international political theory. For Hobbes, domestic political theory i.e. the sovereign state, came abouts as a means by which individuals were able to escape the insecure, violent world of no political authority- the “state of nature”. Conversely however, the effect was to create an international “state of nature” as the state system that arose was one of no absolute authority, and so for those states resembled the bleak world experienced by individuals before the creation of the state. Of course, as with any political thinker, Hobbes’ thoughts should not be divorced from the historical context in which were developed, and it should be noted how that context is likely to have shaped Hobbes’ theory. It should also be noted that that theory rests on several highly contested and questionable assumptions which others, such as Grotius, Rousseau, and Durkheim have rejected. Nevertheless, Hobbes’ work raises important questions about the connection between domestic and international politics which remain relevant in today’s world.
The starting point of Hobbes’ work is his powerful, bleak vision of a world without political authority- the “state of nature”. In the state of nature, Hobbes argued, self-preservation was the sole consideration for all individuals, with no recognition of rights of/obligations to others as no authority existed which was capable of protecting/enforcing such principles. As a result, the state of nature equated to a “state of war”, with violence an ever present possibility as individuals sought security through the maximisation of their power at the expense of others. The sovereign state was the means by which individuals were able to escape their “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” existence in the state of nature. By transferring power to the sovereign, it was now possible to enact systems of rights, obligations, and justice, as there was now an absolute power which could enforce them.
It is here that we reach the link between domestic and international politics in Hobbes’ thought. In creating domestic political authority, individuals brought into existence the international sovereign state system. However, whilst at domestic level individuals were able to escape the state of nature, they simultaneously created an international “state of nature” of independent states which answered to no higher power. if Hobbes’ view on the state of nature is correct, it thus holds that the sovereign state system will be one of insecurity and war, in which there can be no universal concepts of rights and justice, as no power exists to enforce them. And it follows that states will only be able to escape such a situation by, just as individuals had, coming together to enact a contract creating an absolute power at international level equivalent to the sovereign state at domestic level. However, Hobbes pointed out that there would be less incentive to do this for states, as the international “state of nature” was less violent and destructive- due to the fact that states were reliant on self-interested individuals to wage wars, and that states- unlike individuals- came in vastly different sizes and capabilities.
It is vital that Hobbes’ work should be positioned in its historical context in order to appreciate the experiences that may have shaped his thoughts. Of particular note is Hobbes’ personal experience of the English Civil War (1640-50’s), which is likely to have shaped his conception of the “state of nature”, whilst the fact that Hobbes’ lifetime saw the birth of the sovereign state system is likely to have influenced the orientation of his work towards understanding the nature of sovereignty.
At the centre of Hobbes work are several key assumptions on human nature, the “state of nature”, and the source of political authority which have been rejected by, among others, Grotius, Rousseau, and Durkheim. Grotius, for instance, in contrast to Hobbes, identified universal natural laws which applied to all individuals even in the state of nature. Rousseau rejected Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature, arguing instead that humans were by nature solitary and inclined to avoid conflict, and that it was society which corrupted them. and Durkheim dismissed Hobbes’ notion of the “contract” as the means by which the state, and thus society, came into existence, arguing that as a contract relies on common moral and social norms if it is to have any meaning, and thus society must pre-exist contractual political authority. If these alternate positions are accepted, the state of nature, the source of political authority, and thus the relation between domestic and international politics begins to look very different.
Despite the vulnerability of Hobbes’ work to such critisisms, his position raises important questions on the nature of the relationship between domestic and international politics which remain relevant in the contemporary world. Most pertinently is the question of whether the instability of the international state system is a product of the very creation of that state system, that will only be overcome by abolishing that system in favour of a global “sovereign” power.
To summarise, Thomas Hobbes saw domestic political authority- the sovereign state- as a means by which individuals escape a brutal world of no political authority, but what came into existence was an equivalent state sytem in which no higher power existed, and thus one which was destined to be insecure, violent, and in which concepts of rights and justice could not be established. Whilst Hobbes’ work was clearly shaped by the particular historical epoch in which it was created, and also rests on several highly contestable assumptions, it remains a powerful and relevant theory in our contemporary world, a world in which the state system remains an unstable one and in which international norms of rights and justice remain frail and often unenforcable.


3 thoughts on “International Political Theory, Chapter 2, Sample Exam Question 1

  1. kitzing says:

    Hi George,

    I think that your essay captures the ideas and reception of Hobbes very well. However, the question also asked for Thucydides, Rousseau and Kant. If this was a real exam question I would suggest to go less into detail as regards Hobbes and to give equal weight to the ideas of each of the political thinkers.

    All the best,

  2. bowles4455 says:

    Hi Andreas,

    You are completely right in what you say- but actually I have just realised that I missed a key word out of the question when I typed it up. The question should actually read ” Discuss the relation between domestic and international politics in the thought of ONE of the following: Thucydides; Hobbes; Rousseau; Kant.”

    So actually I think my answer should look a little better now- it is just my typing that was the problem! What do you think?

    I will go back and correct the mistake now.


  3. kitzing says:

    Then I think that your answer is pretty good. The information provided is accurate and shows detailed insight into the topic, and the structure of the essay is also good.

    I have been looking ~5min to find something profound that leaves room for improvement, but I didn’t find anything.

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