Interdependence liberalism

Liberal theories about interdependence are grounded in ideas about trade and economic relations. Such thinking can be traced back to the birth of commercial liberalism in the nineteenth century, based on the classical economics of David Ricardo (1770–1823) and the ideas of the so-called ‘Manchester liberals’, Richard Cobden (1804–65) and John Bright (1811–89). The key theme within commercial liberalism was a belief in the virtues of free trade. Free trade has economic benefits, as it allows each country to specialize in the production of the goods and services that it is best suited to produce, the ones in which they have a ‘comparative advantage’. However, free trade is no less important in drawing states into a web of economic interdependence that means that the material costs of international conflict are so great that warfare becomes virtually unthinkable. Cobden and Bright argued that free trade would draw people of different races, creeds and languages together in what Cobden described as ‘the bonds of eternal peace’. Not only would free trade maintain peace for negative reasons (the fear of being deprived of vital goods), but it would also have positive benefits in ensuring that different peoples are united by shared values and a common commercial culture, and so would have a better understanding of one another. In short, aggression and expansionism are best deterred by the ‘spirit of commerce’. The stress on interdependence that is basic to commercial liberalism has been further developed by neoliberals into what Keohane and Nye (1977) called ‘complex interdependence’, viewed, initially at least, as an alternative theoretical model to realism. Complex interdependence reflects the extent to which peoples and governments in the modern world are affected by what happens elsewhere, and particularly by the actions of their counterparts in other coun tries. This applies not only in the economic realm, through the advance of globalization, but is also evident in relation to a range of other issues, including climate change, development and poverty reduction, and human rights (see p. 304). Such a view suggests that realism’s narrow preoccupation with the military and diplomatic dimensions of international politics, the so-called ‘high politics’ of security and survival, is misplaced. Instead, the international agenda is becoming broader with greater attention being given to the ‘low politics’ of welfare, environmental protection and political justice. Relations between and amongst states have also changed, not least through a tendency for modern states to prioritize trade over war and through a trend towards closer cooperation or even integration, as, for instance, in the case of the European Union. Nevertheless, there has been disagreement amongst interdependence liberals about the significance of such trends. So-called ‘strong’ liberals believe that qualitative changes have taken place in the international system which substantially modify the impact of anarchy, self-help and the security dilemma, creating an irresistible tendency towards peace, cooperation and integration (Burton 1972; Rosenau 1990). ‘Weak’ liberals, on the other hand, have come to accept neorealist assumptions, particularly about the implications of international anarchy, as the starting point for analysis, thereby highlighting the extent to which modern realist and liberal theory sometime overlap (Axelrod 1984; Stein 1990).