The impact of liberalism in international politics

Essay, 2011

4 Pages, Grade: 84


The impact of liberalism in international politics

The following essay deals with liberalism in international politics. Although there are some variations, distinctions and at times even contradictions within the liberal theory (MacMillan, 2007, p.29; Macpherson, 1973, p.24), several main themes of a liberal approach can be distinguished. The essay sets out to establish what these themes are and further analyse how they have been reflected in practice.

Liberal though emerged as a political philosophy in the eighteenth century as a result of the search for a more peaceful world order. In general liberals advocated democracy, free trade and collective security over the alternatives, such as the aristocracy, autarky and the balance of power system respectively (Burchill, 2001, p.32). With regards to the international politics, liberalism is the projection of the liberal thought and the principles adopted in the domestic realms while operating at multiple levels (Dunne, 2008, p.110). Both, however, are built on the core liberal belief in the human reason, which includes both rational and moral principles and which is the basis for the liberal belief in progress, education and cooperation leading to a general harmony of interest and benefit for everybody (Burchill, 1996, p.31). Hence, according to the liberal approach, the principle of rationality can be also applied to international relations (Jackson and Sorensen, 2007, p.98-99).

The liberal theory aims to realise its core values – the liberal rights and freedoms of individuals globally by promoting human rights movements (Richardson, 2001, p.55). Although liberal attempts to establish a universal set of human rights and freedoms applicable to all nations and not only to the Western civilisations has been controversial, significant advances have been made in the development of the international humanitarian law (MacMillan, 2007, p.32). Despite this progress, human rights have been often abused, even in the most developed countries, such as the US, as the example of the abuse of the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay demonstrates.

Based on the support for liberal values, liberal-democratic regimes and the rule of law were advocated by the liberals as a means to secure peace (Brown and Ainley, 2009, p.20). In fact, as has been supported by extensive research, in practice democracies do not go to war with each other, even though the underlying reasons for this are more controversial (Doyle, 2007, p.88). Furthermore, this assumption has provided an idealistic as well as a national interest rationale for the policy of democracy promotion, most notably in the US foreign policy (Richardson, 2001, p.72,88). This has caused considerable criticism and rejection, particularly in some East Asian societies (Burchill, 1996, p.34).

Along the lines of individual liberty, liberals further promote the self-determination of the state and the principle of non-intervention. According to Richardson (2001, p.59), non-intervention was largely practised by the US and more irregularly by the British government during the nineteenth century. However, more broadly this principle has been adopted rather inconsistently in practice. As MacMillan (2007, p.28) points out, the question of humanitarian intervention has been often at the frontline of policy agenda during the 1990s, particularly when the lack of intervention in several cases, such as the genocide in Rwanda, caused considerable criticism. On the contrary, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 by the US has been very controversial and received a lot of criticism due to needless interventionism.

Further, liberal approach advocates, in analogy to the ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’ applied domestically, a distribution of power and influence also on the international level, known as pluralism. Liberals propose that the power should lie among a wide range of actors, such as national governments but also international organisations, MNCs, NGOs and various pressure groups (Steans and Pettiford, 2001, p.49-59).

They further advocate that in order to ensure peace the international system should be regulated through the international law and international organisations. According to liberals, institutions greatly enhance the potential for cooperation, facilitate the realisation of perceived interests as well as change the ways in which interests are perceived (Richardson, 2001, p.75-6). They argue that as a result of modernisation, the scope and need for cooperation across international borders has greatly increased. Hence, the transnational relations between states, organisations and individuals are becoming an increasingly important aspect of international relations (Jackson and Sorensen, 2007, p.99-103).

One of the first attempts to achieve a liberal transformation of the international relations was the League of Nations, which incorporated the principle of collective security. Although originally unsuccessful, the same principle was adapted later on with some modifications in the establishment of the UN (Steans and Pettiford, 2001, p.55). Perhaps liberalism’s most significant achievements are associated with the development of the EU. The European integration was mainly inspired by the liberal belief that the possibility of conflict between states could be reduced by creating common interests in trade and thus bounding the states to economic collaboration (Burchill, 1996, p.39).

Some authors argue that the growing importance of international organisations, such as the G7, IMF and World Bank indicate the influence of liberalism in the post-Cold War period (Burchill, 1996, p.57; Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, 1981, p.351). However, Richardson (2001, p.205) holds the view, that international institutions only act with agreement of governments as they are in fact agents of the major Western governments, which effectively control them. Furthermore, the institutions are broadly dominated by the wealthy industrialised societies of the north. Nevertheless, it has been suggested (Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, 1981, p.351) that both international law and international organisation have played an integrating function within the international politics. They have been useful in a peaceful settlement of disputes as long as the states involved have favoured such settlement. However, the authors also argue that, although states normally prefer to conform to the international law and norms, they not necessarily do so if their vital interests are at stake. This was clearly demonstrated in the transformation of the US foreign policy during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Another central proposal of the liberal approach is the free market system, which is seen as the most efficient means of organising human production and exchange. Liberals advocate limited state intervention and a free trade between the countries, including free movement of commodities, capital and labour (Steans and Pettiford, 2001, p.49). This would promote interdependence between people, groups and societies belonging to different countries (MacMillan, 2007, p.25). Hence, people and societies would be affected by what happens elsewhere in other countries (Jackson and Sorensen, 2007, p.103). Even further, the free trade would break down the divisions between states and unite individuals everywhere in one community. The result would be many and complex layers of economic interdependency between countries, which in turn would ensure that states cannot act aggressively without risking economic penalties imposed by other members of the international community (Burchill, 1996, p. 35-37). Also the external markets of other countries are seen as essential for the economic growth. In addition, interdependence also compels the states to cooperate even more extensively than they had done before leading to increased harmony and peace (Steans and Pettiford, 2001, p.62).

The increase of various free trade agreements and associations, such as the EU, NAFTA, APEC and GATT (now the WTO) and most notably, the manifestation of some liberal ideas in today’s widely globalised world economy, proves to some extent the existence of the liberal thought within the international relations. The recent financial crisis has clearly indicated just how interconnected the contemporary world has become.

As a result of the many processes associated with the globalisation, the role of the state has changed considerably although it has not disappeared. The growing importance of international organisations, NGOs and other pressure groups but most importantly the enormous influence of MNCs has led to a considerable reduction of the nation states power. Furthermore, as pointed out by Burchill (1996, p.59-60) the power of the limited finance capital in today’s world means the foreign investment community has an enormous influence over the course of a nation’s economic development, and constitutes thus a significant reduction of the country’s economic sovereignty.


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The impact of liberalism in international politics
Liverpool John Moores University
International politics
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ISBN (eBook)
Liberalism, Liberal thought, International relations, International politic
Quote paper
Linda Vuskane (Author), 2011, The impact of liberalism in international politics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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