Principles of Liberalism in International Relations


Anthropological Liberals’ Optimism 

The main opponents of realists were and still are the liberals. At the same time, the liberal paradigm shares some basic options. Like the realists, the liberals usually regard the modern West countries as the universal standard, which is used in their theoretical thinking. However, the liberals differ from the realists on several positions.

First of all, contrary to the realists, liberals think that the nature of human society, and its political representation as the State, is exposed qualitatively to changes (supposing in a good way).  Therefore, the political form of society can evolve and at some point leave the State’s grasp, national egoism and individualism. And, in turn, that means that cooperation, interaction and integration between different States on the basis of “moral ideals and common values is possible under some circumstances.

In their philosophical works, the liberals are inspired by Locke’s ideas on human nature’s      neutrality, its ability to be improved through education, like the realists’ being inspired by Hobbes' concept that the human is naturally egoistic, aggressive and evil (his famous affirmation “homo homini lupus est”).

Contrary to realists who regard the State as the main actor in the processes that pass in International Relations independently of one or another political regime, system or ideological specialty, liberals themselves pay attention to the issue of whether a political regime in one or another State is regarded as democratic or not, based on the facts created in their IR concepts. The decisive factor is whether the State is democratic or not (this includes parliament, market, freedom of the media, separation of powers, elections etc.). For the adherents of the liberal paradigm, relations between democratic States offer the other structures the relations between other non-democratic States and between non-democratic and democratic States. Liberals are sure that developed democracy in the home policy radically influences the foreign politics of the State.

The IR theory of liberalism is based on an important statement: “democracies don't attack one another”. This means that democratic regimes concern each other as the citizens in the State: instead of aggression, constraint, violence or hierarchy etc., relations are based on peaceful competition, concerning the right priority, the rationalization of relations and actions. Democracy can be repeated at the International Relations level, liberals say. That means this IR theory is not the fight of all against all and satisfying one’s own egoism, but the so-called “Locke’s anarchy” (or “Kant’s anarchy”, according to A. Vendt), i. e. peaceful and open partnership between different States, even if their national interests contradict each other  (on the contrary to “Hobbes’ anarchy” claiming that the State is a wolf, which the realists believed in). On the basis of the democratic platform, it is possible to create traditional structures[i] to turn the system into chaos. 

Main Principles of IR theory of Liberalism

·         The IR school of liberalism opposes the main thesis of the IR school of realism. For the liberals: national states are important, but they are not the only, and in some cases not the main, actors in International Relations;

·         A special institution may exist which may have control over sovereign national States;

·         The anarchy can be, if it is possible, eliminated or harmonized, pacified and modernized;

·         The State’s behaviour on the world stage does not only submit to the logic of the maximum implementation of the national interests, but also to the common values, recognized by all (of course, democratic) states;

·         The State government is not the only single institution responsible for foreign policy, its comprehension and implementation (the ordinary citizens of the democracies cannot be ʎ-individuals, but the “skilful individual”, according to J. Rosenau[ii], and in this case they can efficiently understand the IR processes and even have influence on them partially);

·         The State’s security against potential foreign threats is the objective of all society, and the most direct way is the democratization of all countries in the world (as “democracies don't attack each other” and seek for a way to eliminate the disputes and contradictions peacefully on the basis of compromise);

·         Democratic states are in a state of relatively firm and guaranteed peace, and only non-democratic states and other world political actors (such as terrorists) threaten them with war;

·         The State and human nature change permanently, improving and developing the growth of freedom, the strength of the democratization process, the increase in tolerance and civil responsibility (it may be a chance to evolve the whole world political system and gradual refusal of the strict hieratical structure and material technologies and resources);

·         The last level of International Relations and the comprehension of event structures, is finding out standard and ideological motivations and values, as well as objective factors and mechanisms, which have a material and rational basis.

As we can see, liberalism adherents are completely opposite to the representatives of realism. The disputes between them mostly support the development of the IR theory as a science.  

[i] Woolf Leonard. International Government. London: Allen & Unwin, 1916.

[ii] Rosenau J. Turbulence in the World Politics: A Theory of Change and Continuity. Princeton, 1990