Idealism And Liberalism: International Relations Theory in Brief

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Liberalism (also known in American circles as idealism) is generally considered the second great body of theory in contemporary international politics, although technically it is the first (the first generation of international relations scholars in England after the First World War were predominantly what we would now call liberals). Note that this body of theory does not necessarily bear any significant relationship to people described as “liberals” in contemporary American politics; while some idealists are politically liberal peace activists, the theory also technically incorporates American neoconservatives who see the mission of the United States as spreading democratic systems around the world.

Effectively, where realists see competition and conflict, liberals see opportunities for cooperation. This is particularly so in their defence of international law, economic cooperation, and the spread of democracy as the most important mechanisms for building world peace. (There are also further differences between realism and liberalism.)

Basic Principles

According to idealism, a state’s foreign policy is not determined entirely by the international system around it, but rather by its own internal order – democratic, communist, dictatorial, etc. In general, liberals have observed that the least aggressive states tend to be ones with democratic governments and capitalistic economies — the so-called “liberal democracies,” most of which are industrialized countries. The controversial claim that no democracy has ever truly gone to war against another democracy lies at the heart of the Democratic Peace Theory. Another insight drawn from the linking of internal and external affairs is that non-state actors, like civil society, multinational corporations, and international organizations, also play important roles in world politics.

Reflecting its origins in the post-World War I period, liberals have argued that the chief goal of foreign policy should be to promote world peace (although many accept that wars can be just if world peace is the ultimate goal). One mechanism for doing this is to promote the growth of international organizations and international laws, which, according to liberals, should be generally effective provided that they reflect existing balances of power. Important liberal projects have included the promotion of universal human rights and conflict prevention in the United Nations, and market liberalization through the World Trade Organization. Some branches of liberal theory insist that domestic and international reforms must be linked, and that world peace will require democratization of currently authoritarian states.

Liberalism does not deny that serious international conflicts occur. However, following the neoliberal turn, theorists have generally argued that states should and usually do concern themselves first with what economists and game theorists call absolute gainsrather than relative gains – in other words, they are concerned with achieving a measurable increase in their own power and prosperity on their own terms, rather than more narrowly with increasing their power and prosperity relative to other states.

The recent rise of American neoconservatism under the late Clinton and Bush administrations owes much to liberal idealism. Neoconservatives argue that the United States is a unique wellspring of classical republican liberalism, and that its special destiny is to achieve the revitalization of American culture as well as the creation of a stable, peaceful international order by spreading this vision of democracy to other countries, including through military interventions in the role of “world police.” (Neoconservative interventionists have clashed with so-called “paleoconservatives,” who argue that the revitalization of American culture should be an independent project and that foreign policy should be essentially defensive and isolationist.)

Strengths and Weaknesses

In its idealist variant, liberalism is the first major body of international political theory to focus explicitly on the problem of war and peace with the goal of implementing sufficient reforms to end war and create a democratic world peace. In its neoliberal and trade-oriented variants, liberalism offers a powerful but still traditional body of theory that allows for the analysis of non-state actors like corporations and social movements. The democratic peace theory, while still unexplained in specific terms, is one of the strongest claims to truth in all of international relations theory.

At the same time, critics allege that liberalism suffers from theoretical incoherence and a Western-centric perspective. Realists argue that liberals are naive to think that world peace is achievable, and wrong to include corporations and international organizations as important actors in international politics. More radical scholars argue that liberalism ignores the frequently violent foreign policies of imperial democracies (like the British Empire and, arguably, the current United States), as well as the limitations of concepts like “human rights,” which are merely Western rather than truly universal.

Important Scholars

Contemporary liberal academics tend to search for their intellectual antecedents in the European Enlightenment, when philosophers first concerned themselves with international peace and human rights. Important inspiration is drawn from such sources as Immanuel Kant (Perpetual Peace), John Locke (Two Treatises of Civil Government), Hugo Grotius (On the Law of War and Peace) and Emerich de Vattel (The Law of Nations).

Several prominent neoliberal scholars currently form the intellectual leadership of idealism. These include Robert Keohane (After Hegemony) and Joseph Nye (Soft Power). Neofunctionalists, focused on international unity through international institutions, include Ernst Haas (The Uniting of Europe).

The neoconservative movement includes influential scholars as well as non-scholarly journalist commentators. The latter include Robert D. Kaplan (The Coming Anarchy) and Max Boot (The Savage Wars of Peace). Neoconservative intellectuals include Robert Kagan (Of Paradise and Power). At different times in their careers, Samuel P. Huntington (Clash of Civilizations and Who Are We?) and Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) both identified as neoconservatives. Several prominent neoconservatives played a role in the creation of the Project for the New American Century, which formed the basis for early Bush Administration foreign policy.


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