Liberal states, social bordering, and international order

A 15th-century reconstruction based on Ptolemy's projections of the world (Wikimedia Commons)

Event details

Department of International Relations Seminar

Date & time

Monday 02 November 2020


Online event
ANU Canberra


Chris Reus-Smit, Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland


Nicolas Lemay-Hebert

A vigorous debate is underway about the future of the liberal international order, but contributions to this debate commonly discount the order’s pre-1945 origins, ignore fundamental shifts in its organising principle (from empire to sovereignty), and while privileging the agency of liberal states, fail to address their changing institutional form, from empire-states to national-states.

Recent developments in Global Historical Sociology (GHS) offer a potential framework for addressing these deficiencies, but GHS, like preceding forms of historical sociology, fails to adequately theorise the liberal state. After detailing this failing, this paper advances a more adequate theorisation of the liberal state, clarifies the distinctive social bordering practices that attend such states, and explains how these practices structured the organisation of political authority within liberal states and the international order.

Liberal states, it contends, are ‘limited’ states, but crucially this stems from the primacy of formally equal, rights-bearing individuals. Far from universalist, such states have an imperative to inscribe social boundaries, fencing off the select community of sovereign individuals from undeserving others. Over the course of two centuries political struggles over the definition and location of inscribed boundaries transformed liberal empire-states into national states and the liberal imperial order into a universal sovereign order.

Chris Reus-Smit is Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland, Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Before joining UQ, Professor Reus-Smit held Chairs at the European University Institute and the Australian National University (where he was the Head of the Department of International Relations from 2001 to 2010 and Deputy Director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies from 2006 to 2008).

He is co-editor of the Cambridge Studies in International Relations book series, former editor of the journal International Theory, and editor of a new multi-volume series of Oxford Handbooks of International Relations. In 2013-2014 Professor Reus-Smit served as a Vice-President of the International Studies Association.

Click here to watch the Zoom recording.

Updated:  28 November 2021/Responsible Officer:  Bell School Marketing Team/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team