Housefull Foreign Policy

The Truth About Anarchy

An explainer on foreign policy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 2, Solomon Lane misunderstands Anarchy.

Spoilers ahead! Be careful!

In the ultimate plot twist of Mission Impossible: The Fallout, August Walker (played by Henry Cavill) reveals his true identity when he goes to free Solomon Lane instead of guarding him. Walker turns out to be John Lark, the commander of the anarchist organisation called ‘The Apostles’. But Lane, instead of walking away to safety and freedom, chooses to stay put. An incensed Walker (alias Lark) says, “There cannot be peace without a great suffering. The old world order needs reordering and we have all we need to change it. All you care about is Hunt. That’s not anarchy, that’s revenge.”

Sure enough, there’s another plot twist and then a gun battle and then a car chase. (Or is it the other way around? I don’t think it matters.) Eventually Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise) wins. As he always does and always will.

But what intrigued me was Walker’s statement. What did he mean by anarchy? What did he mean by world order? This is the man who wanted to detonate three nuclear bombs in different parts of the world and fundamentally restructure it because the current world is flawed.

Walker and Lane were doomed to fail. And I’m not attributing this failure to Ethan Hunt whose superior intelligence or morality are on display over and over again. The problem with Walker and Lane is that they have failed to understand anarchy. The ultimate plot twist of the movie lies outside it: the international system is anarchic.

In another part of the film, Hunt’s sidekick Luther (Ving Rhames) explains why Hunt’s wife (Michelle Monaghan) chose to travel instead of tying him down, “She would wonder who was watching the world while Hunt was watching her.” The truth is that there are no checks and balances on the world stage except for a superhero who acts like he uses Kamala Prasad Pan Masala for toothpaste

In international relations, anarchy doesn’t mean chaos–it means the lack of a rule-enforcing authority. While different schools of thought argue why anarchy exists and how it impacts the system, they agree that anarchy is the reason that war ensues–because there is no one to stop conflict or to prevent a powerful State from carrying out its will. Anarchy is the starting point to understand why states act the way they do. As sovereign states are the fundamental entities in the international system, they are all considered equal (irrespective of size or population) under the Westphalian system. And in an anarchic system, power is currency.

The fundamental difference between domestic and foreign policy is that there is no world government that enforces laws or has monopoly over violence. International institutions like the United Nations are made up of member states who agree to abide by certain norms. But there’s nothing to stop States from defaulting. For example, consider the United States’ invasion of Iraq–it was in violation of the United Nations Charter. There was never a United Nations Security Council resolution that allowed for the war. But the US went ahead with it simply because there was no other power in the world that was willing stop it.

So does this mean that there is no world order?

No. Even in a state of anarchy, there is a world order. If you go by Henry Kissinger’s definition, a world order is an outcome of legitimacy and power. Legitimacy refers to beliefs in political organisations. This is the fundamental crux of the film as well. Walker and Lane no longer believe in the United States or the way the world works. But the world order is dynamic. The rules are set by the most powerful States. After World War II, the order was bipolar (with the US and the USSR forming a pole each.) After the fall of the USSR, the world was considered as unipolar because the United States was the most powerful actor. There is now a lot of talk about a multipolar world (many different centres of power) in different regions around the world.

There is someone who argues that Walker and Lane were not completely wrong. This is Alexander Wendt, who is considered one of the pioneers of the school of Constructivism. In a famous essay, he argued that “Anarchy is what States make of it.” Wendt says that anarchy existed not because that was the way the world was ordered but because of the processes and practices of States who didn’t know better. For Wendt, there is always a possibility that tomorrow, three plutonium bombs could explode in different parts of the world and then it could change the world order. This is because anarchy is not a given but changes according to what States want and how they act.

Unfortunately for Walker and Lane, they do not have a State backing them. The real tragedy is that the end that they seek already exists. Perhaps they should shift their aims to something less achievable?

About the author

Hamsini Hariharan

Hamsini Hariharan is the Associate Editor at Pragati. She is the host of the the States of Anarchy podcast. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy, Asian geopolitics, and India's worldview.