An Inter-national System


In the study of international relations, the term international system is used in two different ways- analytical and historical. Two scholars who have contributed rigorously in this field of study are Kenneth N. Waltz and Morton A. Kaplan. Very recently the terms ‘global governance’ and ‘international regimes’ are used academically in place of international systems but this term has not lost its significance. Hence, in this article we will discuss international systems.

Definition and Characteristics of International System

The term ‘international systems’ describes international politics or international relations which in specific circumstances may also include diplomacy and military actions. In simple words the term is sometimes used to describe a system but other times it is used to describe specific situations in international relations. This term has been accepted in academics since the late 1950s.

According to Hedley Bull, the international system is a ‘system of states’ which is created when more than one states have contact among each other and they impact each other's decision making so that the states can take decisions or act as parts of the whole international system.

Theoretical understanding of international system

Morton Kaplan is one of the scholars who contributed to the understanding of international systems. He never provided a definition of international systems, but he described international systems or various parts of international systems. He mentioned the rules that govern these systems and variables related to classification, information and capabilities He identified six international systems. They are

  • Balance of power system

  • Loose bipolar system

  • Tight bipolar system

  • Universal system

  • Hierarchical system

  • Unit veto system.

In 1969, he added four more types of international systems namely ‘Very loose bipolar”, "Detente", "Unstable Bloc”, “Incomplete Nuclear Diffusion System”.

Another prominent scholar named Kenneth Waltz, a system is made up of interacting components and a structure. A structure is determined by the way its elements or parts are arranged. According to his theory named ‘world systems theory’ the world is designed into a structure where nations are located at the core and periphery. His systems approach views the international system as an interaction between the nations located at the core and periphery.

Actors and structures of international system

The words "state" and "country" are frequently used interchangeably. All states share four common traits. They are that states are located within boundaries, they function through a system of rules, they have a government and a population. An important feature of the international system is that a state or nation has to be accepted into the international system through proper laws and regulations. This recognition is essential for a state to be part of the international system or community.

Intergovernmental organisations are groups of people or members from one country or different countries who cooperate according to a set of rules on the basis of common interests and goals. These organisations are created to advance the interests of certain nations and create an impact in the international platform. Controlling and regulating various sectors of the international systems can also be the aim of intergovernmental organisations. These sectors may include economic, political, and cultural.

These organisations can help powerful countries to maintain their power and become more powerful. One example of an intergovernmental organisation is the IMF which is International Monetary Fund.

Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are non-state actors who reduce the policy gaps or address issues that states are not able to address on their own. A nongovernmental organisation is typically thought of as a nonpartisan organisation which does not have the same goals like a state. Nongovernmental groups function as an important institution of a society that tries to bring positive change in society. NGOs provide timely needs to states or people in times of crisis like food, shelter and other kinds of help required in times of crisis. One such example of an international NGO is the Red Cross which provides medical assistance to poor countries and groups of people during times of need.


International system is a system which has a multiplicity of actors and are bound by a set of rules. These actors influence the presence and functioning and decision-making of each other according to the international standards. Hence, we can conclude that examining the international system means examining the international relations between them.


Q1. What is international society?

Ans. According to Hedley Bull, international society is created when more than one state comes together to form a group on the basis of common values, interests, goals. In such a society, states are bound by a common set of rules.

Q2. What are some of the characteristics of the balance of power systems?

Ans. In the balance of power systems, there should be more than five actors. These actors work towards increasing their capabilities. They counter any kind of coalition in the international system using various strategies.

Q3. Give an example of an intergovernmental organisation.

Ans. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is an intergovernmental organisation that is known to provide economic support to countries when they require funding or loan. The Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) consists of members from various nations and they provide assistance to nations on the basis of the role they play in the larger economic system.

Updated on: 11-Dec-2023


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started