Liberal institutionalism

The chief ‘external’ mechanism that liberals believe is needed to constrain the ambitions of sovereign states is international organizations. This reflects the ideas of what is called liberal institutionalism. The basis for such a view lies in the ‘domestic analogy’, the idea that insight into international politics can be gained by reflecting on the structures of domestic politics. Taking particular account of social contract theory, as developed by thinkers such as Hobbes and John Locke (1632–1704), this highlights the fact that only the construction of a sovereign power can safeguard citizens from the chaos and barbarity of the ‘state of nature’. If order can only be imposed ‘from above’ in domestic politics, the same must be true of international politics. This provided the basis for the establishment of the rule of law, which, as Woodrow Wilson put it, would turn the ‘jungle’ of international politics into a ‘zoo’. The League of Nations was the first, if flawed, attempt to translate such thinking into practice. The United Nations has attracted far wider support and established itself as a seemingly permanent feature of global politics. Liberals have looked to such bodies to establish a rule-governed international system that would be based on collective security and respect for international law. Modern neoliberals have built on this positive approach to international organizations, practising what has been called ‘neoliberal institutionalism’. Distancing themselves from the cosmopolitan dreams of some early liberals, they have instead explained growing cooperation and integration in functional terms, linked to self-interest. Institutions thus come into existence as mediators, to facilitate cooperation among states on matters of common interest. Whereas neorealists argue that such cooperation is always difficult and prone to break down because of the emphasis by states on ‘relative’ gains, neoliberals assert that states are more concerned with absolute gains. Instead of constantly engaging in one-upmanship, states are always willing to cooperate if they calculate that they will be better off in real terms as a result. Although neoliberals use such arguments to explain the origins and development of formal institutions, ranging from the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to regional economic blocs such as the European Union, they also draw attention to more informal institutions. In this, they embrace what has been called ‘new’ institutionalism, which defines institutions not so much as established and formal bodies, but, more broadly, as sets of norms, rules and ‘standard operating procedures’ that are internalized by those who work within them. This explains the stress within neoliberal theory on the role of international regimes.