liberalism in international relations

Liberalism in International Relations

Liberalism is one of the oldest schools of international relations theory. Liberal IR theory is embedded in the social context, which decisively constrains the purpose and possibilities of government. It assumes that states are embedded in domestic and international civil society, which places structural constraints on the state behaviour by shaping the underlying preferences on which its foreign policy is based.

Liberalism rejects the realist notion of power politics as the only outcome of international politics. For they believe that even the concept of “power politics” itself is a product of ideas, and crucially, ideas are bound to change, with time. The liberal theory of IR proposes that international cooperation is beneficial for the international actors, and international organizations and non-governmental actors shape state preferences and policy choices.

Historical Background

The origins of the liberal theory are found in eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy, nineteenth-century liberalism, and twentieth-century Wilsonian idealism. The first wave of liberal theory began with philosophers such as J.S. Mill, Immanuel Kant, and Jeremy Bentham. These thinkers provided the language and concepts used by later liberals who embodied them in international practices. For instance, both Kant and Bentham reacted to the idea of barbarity in international relations, or what Kant would call “the lawless state of savagery”. Their abhorrence to such a system enabled them to provide theories and ideas about war and the international system.

Bentham coined the term “international”, which found its way into the political lexicon, like many other terms he introduced to the world. In his work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1780), Bentham argued for international jurisprudence based on the equality of sovereigns. He applied the utilitarian maxim of “the greatest happiness of the greater number” to the international, which would enable the greatest happiness among the greater number of nations.

Kant, on the other hand, belongs to the deontological school of philosophy, which supposes the morality of an action based on whether that action itself is right or wrong under what is known as “categorical imperative”. However, Kant understood the difficult of introducing morality in an anarchic international structure. Therefore, Kant argues that a “perpetual peace” could be achieved through the transformation of individual consciousness, republican constitutionalism, and a federal contract among states to abolish war. As he famously put it, what is required for the emergence of perpetual peace is not moral angels, but “rational devils.”

These ideas would go on to inspire two well-known theses of liberalism. In the 1980s, Michael W. Doyle’s “democratic peace” theory argued democratic states never wage war on one another. He draws heavily from Kant’s idea of perpetual peace. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote an article in the National Interest titled: “The End of History?”, where he argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the victory for liberal democracy. However, both these works have come under intellectual scrutiny for the years that followed, with critics pointing to the post-9/11 world order marred by terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

World War I & Idealism

The second wave of liberal internationalism began soon after the First World War as an “idealist moment” of reckoning. The First World War enabled the thinkers of international relations to recognize that peace is not a natural condition and that it must be constructed. It was Leonard Woolf who proposed for a “consciously devised machinery” to maintain peace and prosperity throughout the world.

However, the most elusive advocacy of an international authority to regulate international anarchy came from the then President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. In Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” speech address to the U.S. Congress in 1918, he argued that “a general association of nations must be formed” to preserve world peace. According to him, peace can only be restored with the formation of an international organization.

The League of Nations was formed in 1920 based on the collective security system, which enabled the states to accept security as the security for all. Article 16 of the League’s Charter noted that all signatory states, in the event of war, were obligated to cease normal relations with the offending state, impose sanctions, and if necessary, commit armed forces at the disposal of the League council.

What is, however, worth noting here is that the experience of the League of Nations during crises was a disaster, at its best. This is quite evident in the fact that the United States did not join the League, despite being the one to propose the idea. States were also driven by self-interest more than collective action. During the interwar period, the League of Nations proved incapable of maintaining collective security. The League’s death came in the form of the Second World War and its debacles.

In his classic work The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939, E.H. Carr provides an expansive critique of the league of nations and the idealist vision of post-war politics. He shows how liberal conceptions of rational and moral world order (utopia) needed to be replaced by an analytical approach to politics that held power at the centre (realism). Liberalism as a theoretical framework also fell out of favour and was replaced by realist theory that based its theory on the notion of “balance of power.”

Neoliberal Institutionalism

In the 1970s, a new branch of liberalism arose based on the observation that states in the international system cooperated most of the time.  Neoliberal institutionalists such as Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye explored the question, why do we see so much cooperation even under the anarchic conditions of the international system? Their response was, what they called, the idea of “complex interdependence” between states and non-state actors.

Keohane and Nye put forth three components of such interdependence: First, states are connected through multiple channels, not just through direct formal interactions. Here, they maintained that informal interactions between governments often take place, and actors like multinational corporations (MNCs) span boundaries, thereby connecting states in important ways. Second, they maintained that states are concerned not just about state security, but also other pressing issues, where collective action is a must. Third, there is a relative decline in the use of military force throughout the world. These three components make up for, what came to be known as, neoliberal institutionalism.

United Nations & liberal theory
The flags of the 50 founding nations fly outside the UN Building in Manhattan, New York City.

Neoliberal institutionalism accepts the realist notion that the states are key unitary actors in international politics that rationally pursue their self-interest in an anarchic international system. However, they divert from the neorealist notion of states seeking relative gains to states focusing on absolute gains. Neoliberals argue that cooperation arises because states are engaged in continuous interactions, and not solely focused on relative gains. They also seek absolute gains as a result of cooperation. More importantly, they also cooperate on issues that they share common interests such as environment and trade relations. Therefore, absolute gains are a key part of states’ interests.

To neoliberal institutionalists, international institutions – both organizations and treaties – play an important role in international politics. They provide a guaranteed framework for interactions, norms, and rules of reciprocity. For neoliberals, cooperation emerges because when actors have continuous interactions with one another, it is in their self-interest to cooperate.

Liberalism in Decline

John Ikenberry, one of the most prominent scholars of liberalism & its history, has outlined liberalism into three distinct, yet interconnected, phases, labelled “liberal internationalism 1.0”, “2.0”, “3.0”. Liberal internationalism 1.0 corresponds with the idealist moment in the international politics of the 1920s and 1930s. After the Second World War, two distinct ideologies emerged as superpowers: American Liberal Democracy and the Soviet’s Communist state. After 1945, America began constructing liberal internationalism in the form of the United Nations.

Ikenberry argues that this second phase of liberal internationalism is under crisis today, with American hegemony no longer adequate to support a liberal international order. This, he opines, has been due to America’s persistent control over the UN bodies and NATO. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it becomes even more evident that America cannot maintain the liberal world order into the future. The recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent rise of the Taliban is the latest debacle among many since the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Ikenberry also emphasizes that liberal internationalism 3.0 must move away from a sovereignty-based order towards one where the global institutions become the new rulers of the world.

To sum up:

Liberalism argues that the concentration of unaccountable power is a fundamental threat to individual civic liberty, therefore it must be restrained. The restraints on such power are through institutional norms at both domestic and international levels.


Key References:

  1. Baylis, J., Smith, S., and Owens, P., 2020. The Globalization of World Politics. 8th ed. London: Oxford University Press.
  2. Mingst, K., McKibben, H. and Arreguín-Toft, I., 2019. Essentials of international relations. 8th ed. Canada: W.W. Norton & Co.
  3. Schieder, S., Spindler, M. and Skinner, A., 2014. Theories of international relations. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
  4. E-International Relations. 2021. Introducing Liberalism in International Relations Theory. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 1 September 2021].



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