Liberalism (international relations)

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Not to be confused with Idealism (international relations).
International relations theory

Liberalism is a school of thought within international relations theory which can be thought to revolve around three interrelated principles: 1. Rejection of power politics as the only possible outcome of international relations. Questions security/warfare principles of realism; 2. Accentuates mutual benefits and international cooperation; 3. Implements international organizations and nongovernmental actors for shaping state preferences and policy choices.[1]

Liberals believe that international institutions play a key role in cooperation among states.[2] With the correct international institutions, and increasing interdependence (including economic and cultural exchanges) states have the opportunity to reduce conflict.[3] Interdependence has three main components. States interact in various ways, through economic, financial, and cultural means; security tends to not be the primary goal in state-to-state interactions; and military forces are not typically used.[4] Liberals also argue that international diplomacy can be a very effective way to get states to interact with each other honestly and support nonviolent solutions to problems.[5] With the proper institutions and diplomacy, Liberals believe that states can work together to maximize prosperity and minimize conflict. [6]

Liberalism is one of the main schools of international relations theory. Liberalism comes from the Latin "liber" meaning "free", referred originally to the philosophy of freedom.[7] Its roots lie in the broader liberal thought originating in the Enlightenment. The central issues that it seeks to address are the problems of achieving lasting peace and cooperation in international relations, and the various methods that could contribute to their achievement.

Areas of study[edit]

Broad areas of study within liberal international relations theory include:

  • The democratic peace theory, and, more broadly, the effect of domestic political regime types and domestic politics on international relations;[8][9]
  • The commercial peace theory, arguing that free trade has pacifying effects on international relations. Current explorations of globalization and interdependence are a broader continuation of this line of inquiry;
  • Institutional peace theory, which attempts to demonstrate how cooperation can be sustained in anarchy, how long-term interests can be pursued over short-term interests, and how actors may realize absolute gains instead of seeking relative gains;
  • Related, the effect of international organizations on international politics, both in their role as forums for states to pursue their interests, and in their role as actors in their own right;
  • The role of international law in moderating or constraining state behavior;
  • The effects of liberal norms on international politics, especially relations between liberal states;
  • The role of various types of unions in international politics (relations), such as highly institutionalized alliances (e.g. NATO), confederations, leagues, federations, and evolving entities like the European Union; and,
  • The role, or potential role, of cosmopolitanism in transcending the state and affecting international relations.


Early Beginnings[edit]

Liberalism originally arose from both deep scholarly and philosophical roots. With the theory’s prime principle being international cooperation and peace, early influences are seen in some bigger religious practices sharing the same goal. It was later in the 17th and 18th centuries in which political liberalism began to take form that challenged nobility and inherited equality.[10] Followed shortly after was the Enlightenment where liberal ideals began to develop with works by philosophers such as Voltaire, Locke, Smith, and German thinker Immanuel Kant.

In John Locke's Two Treatises of Government,[11] he discusses many ideas that are now attributed to liberalism. He believed that when man is in a State of Nature, he has freedom over his own actions.[12] Moreover, when it comes to the Law of Nature, man is more likely to act with reason because he is a rational being. These ideas have influenced many leaders, including the Founding Fathers of the United States Government, and are the basic root to Liberalism.[13]

In Kant’s To Perpetual Peace,[14] the philosopher set the way by forming guidelines to create a peace program to be applied by nations. This program would require cooperation between states as well as the mutual pursuit of secure freedom and shared benefits.[15] After seeing success in intertwining states through economic coalition, liberal supporters began to believe that warfare was not always an inevitable part of IR.[16] Support of liberal political theory continued to grow from there.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shiraev, Eric B. (2014). International Relations. New York: Oxford University Presses. p. 78. 
  2. ^ (Shiraev and Zubok 2014, 86)
  3. ^ (Shiraev and Zubok 2014, 88)
  4. ^ (Shiraev and Zubok 2014, 86)
  5. ^ (Shiraev and Zubok 2014,90)
  6. ^ Shiraev, Eric B., and Vladislav M. Zubok. 2014. International Relations. New York, NY:Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ Von Mises, Ludwig, and Bettina Bien Greaves. Liberalism. [Electronic Resource] : The Classical Tradition. n.p.: Indianapolis : Liberty Fund, c2005. (Baltimore, Md. : Project MUSE, 2014), 2005. Louisiana State University. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
  8. ^ The Democratic Peace Theory, Kevin Placek, Feb 18 2012
  9. ^ Democratic Peace Theory , Dan Reiter
  10. ^ Shiraev, Eric (2014). International Relations. Oxford University Presses. pp. 80–87. ISBN 978-0-19-974651-4. 
  11. ^ "John Locke: Two Treatises of Government (1680-1690)". Retrieved 2016-09-16. 
  12. ^ "Of the State of Nature - LONANG Institute". Retrieved 2016-09-16. 
  13. ^ "POST data". Retrieved 2016-09-16. 
  14. ^ "Immanuel Kant, "Perpetual Peace"". Retrieved 2016-09-16. 
  15. ^ Marguerite, La Caze (2007). "At the Intersection: Kant, Derrida, and the Relation Between Ethics and Politics". Political Theory. 35 (6): 782. doi:10.1177/0090591707307324. 
  16. ^ Shiraev, Eric B. (2014). International Relations. New York: Oxford University Presses. p. 80.