Lechner, Silviya. Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy

In: Hobbes Studies
Theodore Christov Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington DC, USA,

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Lechner, Silviya. Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. Cham: Palgrave Macmillin, 2019. xiv + 200 pages. isbn 978-3-030-30692-2.

One of the most obvious facts of our political life today is the persistence of the state. Its emergence from a former world of empires has been largely uneven in its spread across the globe ever since it took a strong hold of politics, both domestically and internationally. Despite its many shortcomings, the state remains the definitive common denominator that both the more powerful and less powerful share in a world of presumptively equal states. To find oneself outside the confines of a state, as many worldwide continue to face the plight of statelessness, is a condition that was itself created by states themselves.1 The mere fact that the number of states has more than quadrupled in the span of just a few decades after World War ii speaks to both its desirability and contagiousness.2 Few of us today could imagine what a world without states might look like, although viable political alternatives to the state would have been less surprising as a promising project to people in the period of decolonization in the 1950’s than is commonly acknowledged.3 And yet its mere triumph and persistence suggests that, with all its problematic characteristics, the state does create the clearest conditions for both coercive public authority and the possibility for individual freedom.

To speak of the modern sovereign state is also to confront its Janus-faced nature: domestically, it establishes authority and commands order over its subjects, while internationally it projects its equality in a world of other sovereigns without a single sovereign over all of them. The distinction between home and abroad has witnessed a lively resurgence as the conversation between political theorists and international relations scholars has become more vigorous and mutually instructive for both fields. The proliferation of academic work centered on the intersection of the internal and external has called for a renewed interest in and, in some cases, a reconsideration of some canonical thinkers. Previously associated exclusively with the domestic order, some of those figures were largely of interest to Political Theory scholars and have only recently become more familiar to those in International Relations, and vice versa.

The name of Thomas Hobbes occupies a most distinctive position in this development of rapprochement between the disciplines of Political Theory and International Relations. The idea of sovereignty is not only shared, in varying degrees, by both but it also serves as a major analytical tool for constructing the architecture of their respective fields. Yet the respective visions for how it functions could not be more different: for students of Political Theory, Hobbes is widely seen as the preeminent defender of the absolutist model of domestic order, whereas in International Relations he is used as one of the main founding figures of anarchy among states. Sovereignty at home can be seen to clash with those abroad. To speak of Hobbesian Internationalism can be seen as a truly quixotical task in the attempt to reconcile these two realms.

Such a reconciliation is the goal of Silviya Lechner’s book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. Given the coercive nature of the political state, what justifies its existence? Hobbes (among many other political philosophers) provides one influential response to this question and Lechner engages with his many works as a way to investigate his response in her quest to address “the fate of political philosophy.” While she does not dwell at length on formulating the precise parameters of the dilemma facing political philosophy beyond the seeming paradox of coercion and obedience, one can surmise that the conflict consists in the struggle of how to reconcile freedom of genuine value with obedience as self-rule. The answer the book provides to this puzzle is that freedom is worth preserving even at the cost of inescapable anarchy.

Maintaining that hers is “a book about Hobbes,” rather than “a book about books about Hobbes,” Lechner structures her overarching argument along three main axes (p. viii). In Part i, she situates what she considers to be the central concern for political philosophers, namely the coercive nature of the state and for that reason she examines Hobbes’s understanding of authority. Part ii takes a broader view of how the state of nature is variously employed in Hobbes’s three major political works. And finally, Part iii orients us toward the international sphere, first by defending a “Hobbesian internationalism,” followed by an expose of Kant’s federation for perpetual peace, and finally concludes by addressing the challenges states face in a largely privatized global sphere.

The reader is introduced to the debate over authority as a normative category in the opening of the book’s main argument. To what extent should authority as a purely legal term also carry a moral foregrounding? In weaving a series of analytical philosophers, including H.L.A. Hart, Joseph Raz, and John Simmons, among others, Lechner is primarily concerned with linking authority to coercion and identifies two strands: the authority-based view, where authority “precedes” coercion, and the coercion-based view (that of Hobbes), where “coerciveness is a constitutive feature of state authority” (p. 26). The remainder of Part I turns on the centrality of authorization in Hobbes’s architecture of the sovereign. How does the state arise and what justifies its existence? Chapter 16 of Hobbes’s Leviathan is crucial in showing how the artifice of the sovereign is constructed. Against any assumptions about a pre-existing political body, Hobbes instead asserts that there are only individuals deciding “to appoint one man or assembly of men,” as he famously says, and thereby transforming an amorphous multitude into a single person with a will. The so-constituted sovereign is not merely a result of a relinquishing of rights, but also represents an act of authorization.

And it is precisely at this point where the reader could get more guidance from Lechner’s analysis on the delegated nature of the act of authorization. This aspect of delegation must have preoccupied Hobbes ever since he first wrote The Elements of Law, so that he expanded his understanding by the time he wrote Leviathan and subtly incorporated accounts of authorization advanced by parliamentarian authors without admitting their radical conclusions. The sole goal then was to show that the sovereign magistrate is a delegate of the people in a theory that would be consistent with his initial thinking defended in both The Elements and De Cive.4 Any exercise of sovereign power is fully attributable to the commonwealth, including—not without its own difficulties—the appointment of a successor or the transfer of sovereignty to a foreign ruler. The sovereign does so in the name of the commonwealth.

From one perspective, the artificial person of Leviathan is a machine geared to produce law, from another it is the creation that is awe-inspiring enough to incline us to obey. And even though the discussion in the book helpfully directs the reader to consider how the nature of “authorizing” leads to obedience, it omits to address, what constituted for Hobbes, the most essential element of obedience. The original dominion of parents over their children, universally experienced by everyone, serves as a model for the other two types of dominion (master-servant and victor-vanquished). In considering the “normative structure of [the] covenant,” Lechner concludes that “the obligation to obey the civil law” is entirely “artificial.” But on Hobbes’s account, artifice does follow nature: what marks as distinctive the original dominion of parents is precisely its educative capacity to instill the kind of propensity to be obedient towards the state as we all originally have towards those who raise us. Obedience to the sovereign’s laws already begins in household obedience.

Outside obedience to authority reigns the lawlessness of nature and in Part ii Lechner turns to the realm of “anarchy,” where she presents “three models of the state of nature,” each characterized by ideas of “race” (in The Elements), “uncertainty” (in De Cive), and “infelicity” (in Leviathan). Taking each in turn, Lechner considers Hobbes’s account of the passions in The Elements and how they function in their cognitive capacity. Vainglory holds particular significance for the main argument, where it serves to underscore the fundamentally competitive nature of human interaction. On Lechner’s reading of the passions, “race” (as a competition, rather than a socially constructed category) captures the interpersonal dynamic in the state of nature as based on “a common understanding of social power and its value,” rather than on enmity and antagonism. It remains unclear, however, how this new language of “race” advances our understanding of the state of nature as one of competitive struggle.

The following chapter on the state of nature in De Cive is similarly structured, beginning with an account of the passions before proceeding to the rights and laws of nature and concluding with the nature of our obligations in the state of nature. While such a parallel presentation of the development of Hobbes’s arguments—as Lechner suggests, from “the sleek structure of The Elements” to the “baroque” De Cive—potentially holds value in drawing out the substantive connections between the texts, the lack of a systematized use of these texts leaves the project ultimately wanting. The use of Deborah Baumgold’s recent Three-Text Edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Political Theory, for example, would have allowed for a more attuned method of easily moving between narrower arguments and broader conclusions.5

The following chapter on the state of nature in Leviathan engages the invaluable works of Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott, but it remains unclear why the more recent and diverse literature on the subject has not made its way into the analysis. The broad conclusion is that Hobbes presents two parallel accounts of the state of nature in his most famous work: the first one is rooted in the passions and the second one in the “external relations between free and equal agents.” Hobbes is clear, though, that the state of nature is simply the condition outside sovereignty, and for this reason it manifests itself in multiple ways, depending on the context. Soldiers who serve in different places, masons who obey different architects, clashes over (especially religious) doctrines, Amerindians who live outside the rule of small families, civil war, the international domain of states: all of these instantiate life outside the unity of sovereignty. Hobbes’s own revisions and modifications of the state of nature (including, for example, the one in his self-translated Latin Leviathan) can further challenge Lechner’s (what she calls) “structuralist account” with its five factors affecting agents (properties, motives, goals, means, and interaction) (pp. 94–103). The crucial point for Hobbes is to instill fear in his readers to think twice before dismantling existing political order and thereby induce citizens to obedience to civil authority.

When sovereigns take the place of natural persons they find themselves without a single sovereign above them all: the international domain for Hobbes is itself a state of nature. As equals, they are not bound under the rule of a single common power and can be said to instantiate the exercise of natural rights. Lechner uses the term “international anarchy” as “a label for Hobbes’s concept of an international state of nature which is internally complex and which does not match perfectly any current theory of international relations” (p. 112). The chapter engages extensively with mapping Hobbesian international theory onto traditions and paradigms of Realist thought, but what Hobbes actually says about the subject remains, in the end, scant. If the rights of sovereigns in the international state of nature are identical with the rights of individuals in the interpersonal state of nature, as Hobbes maintains, then a global state may seem to solve the problem of the anarchy of states. Lechner’s suggestion, that without a world state the international sphere can still be a “relatively tolerable condition” tells us only part of the story. The other part is that Hobbes not only discounts the extension from a single to a global Leviathan as unnecessary; he also passionately defends the imperative that states remain in the state of nature by all means necessary. The force of reasoning and need for preservation that require a natural individual to enter into a contract with others does not compel in the same way since the preservation of civil persons has already been ensured. But an additional reason, purely on Hobbes’s own terms, is that there can be no reasonable justification for an artificial person of other artificial persons and no defense of a single representor of multiple representors.

Lechner argues that Kant’s idea of perpetual peace, as shown in his freely federated states, is “the closest logical extension of Hobbes’s theory of the domestic state to the sphere of international relations” and the argument is built on the idea that “what brings Hobbes and Kant together is the idea of freedom” (which can be equally true of authors other than Kant) and their “theories of law and politics are remarkably similar” (p. 139, 141). The idea that “Hobbesian internationalism” is Kant’s international thought “superimposed on the fundament of Hobbes’s political philosophy” carries textual, methodological, interpretive, and historical risks (p. 140). If the goal is to establish a theoretical affinity in argumentation, then Rousseau and Vattel would seem to be the better candidates. Kant’s idea of a voluntary pacific federation based in the idea of a cosmopolitan right contradicts Hobbes’s idea of international right as a right to practice voluntaristic international law based in temporary truce rather than permanent peace.

The concluding chapter transitions to the detrimental effects globalizing forces exert on domestic politics. Globalization here is broadly construed as “the intensified exchange of goods, capital, services, and people across state borders” (p. 169). The recent privatization of security seems to pose a challenge to the Hobbesian state as the sole guarantor of public security. The distinction between private and public authority advances the idea that the privatization of public goods and services in fact undermines and threatens Hobbesian internationalism itself.

A greater threat, it seems to me, looming over the future of the international order is precisely the kind of domestic policies and rhetorical strategies that have been employed recently, both in the West and elsewhere, that purport to secure the liberty of their citizens but in fact erode fundamental commitments to free agency. And it is here that the Hobbesian sovereign can serve as a powerful reminder that the unity of our sovereignty can be dangerously close to its own dissolution not from without but from within. Civil war remains the gravest threat to existing domestic political order, reducing persons to the nakedness of their natural habitat, and to international order. For better or worse, our entire political existence has come to be defined in terms of the state, and that state carries some of the residue left behind from the Hobbesian sovereign. A return to Hobbesian internationalism can provide us more with the tools, rather than a blueprint, needed to address some of what we may have lost in a world of stubborn leviathans but also serve as an opportunity to reimagine political possibilities.


Mira L. Siegelberg, Statelessness: A Modern History (Harvard University Press, 2020).


David Armitage, “The Contagion of Sovereignty: Declarations of Independence since 1776,” South African Historical Journal 52 (2005): 1–18.


Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press, 2019).


Quentin Skinner, “Hobbes and the Purely Artificial Person of the State,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 7:1 (1999): 1–29.


Deborah Baumgold, Three-Text Edition of Thomas Hobbes’s Political Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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