Liberalism in IR. Theoretical Preconditions


The second most important IR theory, along with realism, is liberalism. It is connected conceptually with the economy and politics, but in the IR, it represents something special. There are some cases when liberals don’t accept the IR liberal principles on the economy and politics, preferring instead realism or, on the contrary, those, who don’t strictly accept the principles of liberalism in the economy and politics, but follow the IR theory of liberalism. To understand this, we should discuss some introductory terms of liberalism in general.

In politics, liberalism is the acceptation of the individual as the top value, taking into consideration its isolation from the connections to the collective identity. The freedom that is promoted by political liberals is, first of all, the “freedom from” (J. Mill). In defining concretely what exactly the liberals want to get free from, we can mention consecutively the State, religion, social, ethnic and race identity, and, recently, citizenship and fixed gender identity (gender). In general, it is possible to say that political liberalism is aimed at individual freedom from all forms of collective identity. There is the liberal political strategy of always being against any forms and practices that restrict individual freedom.

There is “left” and “right” liberalism: “right” liberalism insists that implementing equality of opportunity, a social hierarchy based on economic inequality (winner vs losers), is a restriction of freedom as it has in its basis the same starting positions; the left liberalism supposes that actual inequality favors to increase the space of freedom of someone in place of the freedom of someone else, that’s why it must be improved.

Economic liberalism is the principle of the free market, with no governmental interference in the economy, laissez-faire (free competition, no interference in the economy, unlimited freedom of enterprise) and free trade. It is ruled by the invisible hand and is “self-regulated”, i.e. an arrangement of the economic processes in the event where any governing institutions don’t exist. According to liberals, in the economy, by following reasonable egoism and having no restrictions from outside, except from competitors, individuals, performing freely, choose the optimal strategy of self-enrichment and achieve maximum success.

Liberalism in politics and the economy usually go together, but there are some cases where the two kinds of movement can exist separately, for example, modern China unites the liberal economy with illiberal (in fact anti-liberal) policy (communism).

In International Relations, liberalism stresses other concepts. The IR philosophy of liberalism believes that human societies need to be improved and follow the progressive way. Human nature itself should be improved through education or without any help, thus it is possible to build the future based on intellect, cooperation and exchange without any restriction, compulsion and tools of violence. Peace is a rather acceptable state for a person than war, so soon or later the world will face the situation when war will simply disappear as a principle. It will happen because the society will become more modern, democratic, marketable and liberal. In this case, the State is not needed any more, and the first era of national world government is based not on the principle of political power, but rather on the principals of management and economic unity (firm, corporation, domain etc.) control.

The IR theory of liberalism supposes the export of democracy as the main content of foreign policy, i.e. the political liberalism norm of extinction of other countries. Moreover, it should be combined with the expansion of the market economy and replacement of political-economic and market relations between the States.

The main principle of liberals is formulated as: “democracies don't attack each other.” Liberals themselves regard it as the law of IR. They explain it by saying that in liberal-democratic regimes, the masses have great influence on the political elites. As war is a burden on the masses, they will always be inclined to peace. If a conflict starts between two democratic States, mass pressure would be aimed at the government for a peaceful solution to prevent war and to urge the governments to settle the issue by an agreement. On the other hand, liberal regimes, similarly, would favour the openness of the State and the permanent growth of the strength of communication between countries that will make the boundaries and the differences irrelevant. And finally, the free trade principle will balance the economies of all countries and would gradually create a common economic zone where a military conflict would be impossible.

Before starting to consider the main schools and authors representing the IR theory of liberalism, it is important to address the philosophers who formed the basis of the liberal philosophy at the early New Age.

First of all, liberalism finds its liberal Christian roots in the Christ’s salvation of the whole humanity. A new man appears, ready for spiritual progress and self-improvement. Such anthropological optimism of the New Age received secular comprehension in the Enlightenment’s humanism, where one of the main trends was putting faith in a person, in his perfection, consciousness and rationality. If the IR theory of realism, in its ideological precondition, more or less addresses anthropological pessimism, liberalism, on the contrary, created its theory on the basis of anthropological optimism.

John Locke: The Individual and His Perfection

The other principle author of the IR school of liberalism is the English John Locke (1632-1407). Locke offered a radically new human nature than Thomas Hobbes. According to Locke, human nature was primary provided by rationality and tolerance, i.e. inclination to mean well. At the same time, it is a blank state (tabula rasa), and, decisively, the human mind’s connotations are formed through the feeling of experience and education. Locke’s natural human state is not “the war of all against all”, as was said by Hobbes, but people’s peaceful disposal of themselves and their property. The individual enjoys safety and peace, as well as private property, which is the crucial part of his natural right. At the same time, Locke said that human nature has some egoism and vicious tendencies, which may worsen with the help of bad education.

Thus, true human nature, according to Locke, is neutral, even with some inclination to mean well and be peaceful. To fix the positive inclinations and to structure morality and human society’s mind, the policy of education must be conducted. The State, which is, according to Locke, the result of “social contact” (as Hobbes said), is aimed at the moral education of its citizens, providing good peace and the fight against evil. It is needed only at the level when there is a need to guarantee natural rights (freedom, private property, security). If the society provides it (Locke called it “civil society”), then the State is not needed any more. Moreover, if the State limits natural rights, the society may destroy it thought the democratic rebel.

Locke was the first who offered to introduce the principles of separation of power to limit State power over the society and set the branch of government under mutual control.

All these principles form the basis of the liberalism philosophy, from the most important statement on the principle of human nature’s “perfection”, i. e. the human and societal capability to become better, more peaceful, and more reasonable. At the same time, Locke unites societies progress with democracy and private property. The thesis on the instrumental sense of the State, serving “civil society”, became the liberals’ subject, on the contrary to Hobbes’ Leviathan, used in the realist ideology.

Immanuel Kant: Civil Society and Transcendental Mind

The other key author of the IR theory of liberalism is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s philosophy in general is based on the creation of the special institution of “Pure Reason” that is transcendental, i. e. characteristic principally for everyone. Thus, Kant formed the “Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. People realize their individuality better through rising to universal rationality. Thus, Kant is a supporter of  “positive anthropology”, insisting that any individual, developing in accordance with his nature, logically seeks common rationality, so society develops towards rationality, peace and mutual responsibility. The civil society is not just a society of individuals, according to Kant, but a society of individuals developing their reasonable characteristics, thus improving themselves.

Here is Kant’s political idea on “universal peace” as the optimal international order.

The State, according to Kant, reached its pitch in a Republic, whose sense is that it prevails with not one special category (not elite, not monarchy, not majority: Kant was against democracy), but “rule itself”. It is the principle of the “Legal State”, where the law expresses the whole rationality, i. e. performs as the direct form of “transcendental mind”. Rationality, appearing in the right, must be for the governments, elites and masses. But if both states follow this idea, they can substantiate their relations on the base of the norms of the common mind. Moreover, mind, according to Kant, promotes ethics, peace and rationality when settling disputes and contradictions. That’s why the two Republics practically guarantee peace. If two States are lawful, that will be a guarantee for universal peace. If their civil society realizes their universal potential, human progress will reach its peak.

For Kant, it doesn’t matter whether human nature is noble or egoistic, the most important thing is that it its reasonable. If it is like that, rationality will be opened and accepted by all individuals, and the peaceful “civil society” will be created on its basis.