Liberalism Theory

Liberalism has been the dominant ideological force shaping western political thought. Indeed, some portray liberalism as the ideology of the industrialized West and identify it with western civilization itself. Liberal ideas and theories had a considerable impact on the discipline of international relations as it took shape following WWI, although they drew on a much older tradition of so-called ‘idealist’ (see p. 62) theorizing which dates back, via Kant’s (see p. 16) belief in the possibility of ‘universal and perpetual peace’, to the Middle Ages and the ideas of early ‘just war’ thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas. Marginalized during the early post-1945 period due to the failure of the liberal inspired Versailles Settlement and the ascendancy of realist thought, liberal ideas nevertheless attracted growing attention from the 1970s onwards, often in the form of so-called neoliberalism. This largely stripped liberalism of its idealist trappings. The end of the Cold War (sometimes seen as the ‘liberal moment’ in world affairs), the growing impact of globalization  and a new wave of democratization in the 1990s each gave liberal theory additional impetus. 

Liberalism Theory is in part a reaction to  realism, but also a response to a number of developments in the latter half of the 20th century that could not be explained by realism.

 • The decline in conflict: The number of deaths in battle had fallen to less than 10,000 in 2006 compared with 600,000 in 1951. The nature of conflict also had changed, from predominantly inter-state conflict (war between states) to intra-state conflict, or civil war.

• The rise in democracy: By 2006, over half of all countries had become democracies – a significant development as democracies tend to be less aggressive than authoritarian regimes. According to democratic peace theory, no two democracies have ever been to war with each other. Since 2010 however there has been a reversal of democracy in Hungary, Burma, Russia and China. These countries are more authoritarian and nationalist.     Problems with Democracy 

• The growth in world trade: Worldwide exports were worth $629 million in 1960. By 2010, they were worth $30 trillion. This suggests that states are becoming increasingly interdependent, which is thought to reduce the potential for conflict between them. States will not risk conflict if it jeopardises the sale of exports and the supply of imported goods. However, the policies of Donald Trump saw a return to some protectionist policies which restricted free trade with China.

Liberalism is governed principally by the belief that states can, and should, work together, and that international agreements, laws and institutions are both helpful and possible. The liberal viewpoint includes the following:

■ Nation States are increasingly linked by many organisations, from trade like the WTO or militarily like NATO or diplomatic like the UN.  They can help states become aware of different viewpoints and policy choices, adding to a richness of ideas and debate. The USA and China may be military competitors but have a shared interest in climate change.

■ International law is  desirable. Most nation states see considerable advantage in having in clearly agreed international rules. These can help to hold states accountable for their actions and ensure that all states conform to basic standards. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) sets out basic principles of human rights that all states should respect.

■ A state’s primary aim should not merely be to become more powerful, particularly not at the expense of other states. Liberals reject the idea of a zero- sum game, where global politics is a question of one state winning and another losing.

■ On the contrary, there is mutual benefit in states cooperating and working together on matters such as security, trade and development. IGOs, such as the EU and the UN, offer clear rules and forums for achieving this

■ Democracy plays a key role in keeping states safe and peaceful. Democratic states are less likely to fight each other.

■ International trade binds states together in common interests, making them more dependent on each other and reducing the likelihood of conflict.

Liberalism, complex interdependence and globalisation

This is the idea that states and their fortunes are inextricably linked. Globalisation is seen as a key factor in increasing states’ links to and dependence on each other.

Globalisation can be thought of as increased links between and dependence on states and all other non-state actors in global politics. It has primarily occurred due to improved communications links and technology. Liberals are convinced that globalisation is a reality that needs to be managed through increased cooperation. They believe that greater interconnectedness and cooperation is the direction of travel for global politics.

■ Economic: much-improved communication and transportation have increased trade between states. There is greater economic interconnectedness because more states are trading with each other as it becomes easier to do so. International economic organisations, such as the WTO, have played their part in this expansion of new trade agreements. Developed economies have invested heavily in many developing economies.

■ Political: political decision making has become increasingly globalised, through the increase in international and regional governmental organisations. The increasing number of political challenges that require a collective response has also increased, including climate change, organised crime, health pandemics (such as the 2015 Ebola crisis) and global terrorism. The number of international and regional political institutions managing shared interests has increased, as has their membership.

■ Social: communities that were previously relatively self-contained have become increasingly connected in terms of shared media and culture. Increased global immigration has created much more diverse societies, although some argue that this has led to an erosion of national culture. It has also enabled ideas to travel quickly across borders. For example, the speed with which the Arab Uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt and other middle eastern and north African states has been attributed to the power of social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) and satellite news channels (such as Al Jazeera). An analogy often used to explain complex interdependence and liberalism is that of a cobweb. In contrast to Dalton’s Billiard Ball Model, the Cobweb Model represents the links between states. If one strand breaks, the cobweb may begin to disintegrate. This demonstrates the extent to which states are dependent and rely on each other.

Constraints on conflict

Unlike realists, who believe that global politics is naturally prone to conflict, liberals — notably the philosopher Immanuel Kant — identify three strands of liberalism that act as constraints on conflict.

1 Democracy: Conflict between democratic states is very rare and it may be that democracy acts as an important restraint on states fighting each other. This may be because governments in democratic states are more accountable to their citizens than in undemocratic states. Usually governments of democratic states have to seek the permission of their national legislature to engage in military action. For example, in 2013 the UK Parliament voted against military action against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons programme in Syria. (It has become increasingly common — but not compulsory — for the UK Parliament to be consulted before UK armed forces are committed to military action. The refusal of the UK Parliament to support military action was considered to be a factor in the Obama administration later deciding not to put possible military action in Syria to a vote in Congress.)  While wars can start with popular support the media coverage can quickly change public opinion against the war,  (particularly if there are large numbers of casualties).  E.g Vietnam. Democracies tend to avoid war where there is no clear exit strategy. Not only is this  not a concern that leaders of undemocratic states  but authoritarian leaders may seek war conflict to deflect attention from domestic problems or bolster their popularity, particularly if they have a limited popular mandate. E.g Putin's military actions in the Ukraine.

Democratic states offer a more stable base with which other states can trade. They are more transparent and are less prone to corruption, which is a factor that puts off potential foreign investors. Democratic states are more likely to be peaceful and more stable, making them more attractive to foreign investment.

2 IGOs:  'Jaw, jaw is better than war, war,' -Churchill.

 IGOs can act as a restraint on conflict because they are a means of peaceful dispute resolution between states. While IGOs do not have full authority over nation-states (and states can ignore them or opt out, or they can be locked in gridlock on more complex problems), liberals believe they are the closest possible challenge to the dangerous notion of an anarchical system of global politics. They may not resolve every dispute, but they offer a forum to defuse some disputes altogether, reduce tensions in some and keep open the possibility of dialogue in others.

Membership of IGOs can help to build democracy within states. The EU, for example, makes it a requirement for member states to meet certain democratic criteria. Turkey has so far failed to be accepted into the EU, partly because of weaknesses in its democracy.

3 Economic interdependence and trade: liberals believe that the more states are trading with each other, the more they are dependent on each other and the more likely it is that conflict would be mutually harmful. Liberals also believe that free trade in a global system governed by rules has formalised and legitimised the global sharing of resources. Previously, states fought each other for territory and resources, but in modern times, widespread global free trade has offered a peaceful means for states to gain from each other’s resources.

These three restraints on conflict are visualised through the Kantian Triangle. Even before IGOs and free trade existed in the sense that we know them today, liberal philosopher Immanuel Kant identified that:

republican constitutions [democratic states], commercial exchange [economic interdependence] and a system of international law would help foster peaceful relations between states. The Kantian Triangle helps us to understand the relationship between the three core elements, and how each: (a) helps to strengthen the others (b) contributes towards the overall outcome of a more peaceful status quo

 Many IGOs have been founded to make economic interdependence easier. IGOs such as the EU and the ASEAN offer their members a framework within which they can trade with each other freely, based on a commonly agreed set of rules. One state can potentially open up more trade links more quickly with other states through joining a bloc of nations, rather than acting alone.

Liberalism, the international community and liberal interventionism

While realists believe that states should only act when their national interest requires it, there is a strand of liberal thinking that believes states should act regardless of their national interest. The media and political leaders often employ the phrase ‘international community’ to describe a coordinated response to a crisis, often referring to what the international community believes or what it ‘should do’. It is a notoriously vague expression, with no clear definition. Who is the ‘international community’? Do those using this term have a defined group of states in mind?

For liberals, the idea of an ‘international community’ does exist as an aspiration to work towards. They believe states share interests, values and attitudes. For example, human rights apply to all human beings regardless of where they live in the world. Consequently, liberals believe that human rights are worth defending, since they are a globally shared value and interest.

Therefore, if a state abuses basic human rights, the ‘international community’ should do something to prevent the abuse. Why? Because preventing human rights abuses is in the global interest — if human rights abuses go unchecked, the argument runs, the entire global system of human rights would be weakened.

Of course, realists disagree that there are shared global attitudes and values. They believe that attitudes, interests and values come primarily from states themselves and are not always aligned.

Tony Blair’s Chicago speech

The idea of an international community with shared interests and values to be defended was underlined in a key speech given by former UK prime minister Tony Blair, in Chicago in 1999. The speech came after the successful NATO-led military intervention in Kosovo, in former Yugoslavia, where Serbian forces’ expulsion of ethnic Albanians had prompted a humanitarian crisis. Blair argued that such an international community did exist, stating that ‘just as within domestic politics, the notion of community — the belief that partnership and cooperation are essential to advance self-interest — needs to find an international echo’. Blair argued that national interest and international interest were increasingly difficult to separate. Military intervention in another state should not be decided purely on whether there was a threat from that state to the outside world, but on the basis of the nature of the threat to the state’s own domestic population. Put simply, other states should intervene for humanitarian reasons, in order to prevent human suffering in its own right, rather than for narrow self-interest alone.

The UN and the Responsibility to Protect

The failure of UN peacekeepers to prevent a genocide from taking place in the African state of Rwanda in 1994 prompted the UN’s interest.

There was also agreement that the legitimacy of intervening in other states to protect lives needed to be made clearer. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, agreed by the UN World Summit in 2005, confirmed that states had a ‘responsibility to protect’ (see page 195) the populations of other states if they were suffering, or were likely to suffer, serious harm. Military action would be justified by several core principles of liberalism:

■ The purpose of military action was solely to protect civilians, rather than to pursue narrow self-interest.

■ The state/s could only intervene once it/they had made every effort to resolve the situation through non-military means, such as diplomacy and negotiation.

■ Intervention could only take place if a UNSC Resolution authorised it (thereby making the intervention legitimate in the eyes of international law).

■ The military action must be proportionate, must be likely to succeed and must not make the situation worse. Liberalism and the likelihood of global governance

Liberals disagree that global politics is naturally without order and instead believe that global governance is possible and desirable. They do not necessarily agree that a form of world government, with full authority to force states to comply, is possible. But they point to the huge number of IGOs that have been created since the end of the Second World War as evidence that a more informal type of governance can indeed work.

Impact and growth of intergovernmental organisations IGOs are a feature of the post-Second World War global order. Before 1945, very few IGOs existed. Apart from the League of Nations, states worked together by agreeing ad-hoc treaties with a flexible, rather than fixed, number of partner states.

After the horrors of the Second World War, during which nationalism had once again given rise to global conflict, world leaders believed that security and stability would be best delivered if states tried to find more ways of working together in a more formal and sustained manner.

Several of the world’s now most-established and influential IGOs emerged during the time immediately after the end of the Second World War. The UN, the IMF and the World Bank were all founded in 1945. NATO was founded in 1949, as divisions between the Soviet Union and the USA and its allies deepened.

Since the Second World War, international organisations:

■ have increased in number

■ have increased in the range of policy areas with which they are involved (for example, military, economic, trade and development objectives)

■ have seen the number of states joining them (member states) increase

■ have prompted the founding of other regional organisations (for example, the ASEAN, the AU and the Gulf Cooperation Council).