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II. The Intellectual Roots of Idealism and Liberalism
A. Liberalism and Enlightenment Thought
B. Idealism and the Twenty Years’ Crisis
III. Contemporary Liberal IR Theory
A. Liberalism in the Postwar Era
B. The Liberal Revival After the Cold War
C. The Main Strands of Contemporary Liberal Theory
IV. Conclusion: Applications and Challenges
Most textbooks on international relations (IR) characterize liberalism as one of the main theoretical schools of the IR field—typically alongside realism and perhaps some other less mainstream approaches like international society, Marxism, constructivism, or feminism. As such, liberalism is commonly considered to be the main competing theoretical approach to the dominant IR theory of realism. The frequent comparisons made between realism and liberalism in the IR literature typically entail realism advancing a pessimistic view of human nature, versus the more optimistic view espoused by liberalism. Realists therefore see conflict as the norm in international affairs, while liberals are more hopeful about the prospects for peace and international cooperation. Realists seek to explain international politics by examining state-to-state relations within an anarchical system of mutual distrust and suspicion, while liberals consider other international actors, as well as actors and institutions within the state, as the underlying causes of a more interdependent and law-governed world.
This broad understanding of liberalism represents the approach as it has developed throughout the post–World War II era. Although contemporary liberal theory can be divided into different strands, which this research paper discusses in a following section, the notion of idealism as it pertains to IR is a slightly different and older idea that played an important role in the evolution of what is now recognized as contemporary liberal IR theory. Idealism—sometimes referred to as utopianism—was a popular approach to analyzing international politics in the period immediately following World War I. It was identified as a theoretical tradition of IR largely in hindsight, with the various attempts by realists at discrediting its central tenets, which were caricatured as utopian or idealistic (see Carr, 2001; Morgenthau, 1993). Although it is true that what is recognized as liberal IR theory has intellectual roots in the idealist tradition of the interwar period, both idealism and contemporary liberalism have their origins in European Enlightenment political thought. This research paper thus traces the intellectual origins of contemporary liberal IR theory to the modern liberal philosophers who theorized about the state. It then describes how liberal theories of the state came to be applied to international politics, subsequently caricatured as idealist, and how the liberal-idealist approaches informed attempts at creating international institutions and organizations. The paper then discusses how liberal theory enjoyed a revival after the end of the cold war and outlines the different strands of liberal theory that have emerged since World War II. This research paper concludes with a discussion of the main international issues and challenges that confront contemporary liberal IR theory.
II. The Intellectual Roots of Idealism and Liberalism
A. Liberalism and Enlightenment Thought
The driving force behind liberalism as a political theory of the state is the centrality of individual liberty. The liberal ideal entails a limited or conditional government, whose legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed, over whom rulers may not exercise coercion except through means established by law. Liberalism thus espouses a concept of the state whose job it is to remove obstacles to freedom and protect individuals from even majoritarian oppression. To prevent governments from exceeding these limits, of course, requires the familiar array of institutional constraints, checks and balances, and individual rights that underlie the constitutional arrangements of nearly every liberal-democratic polity that exists today.
The English philosopher John Locke (1980) advanced this idea of a limited government using a common state-of-nature argument, whereby all individuals in the state of nature—the prepolitical existence of humans before we lived under the authority of government—had “natural rights” to life, liberty, and property. It is through the human capacity for reason that individuals are aware of such law, though without government to enforce it, transgressors of natural law may be pursued and punished by any person who lives according to the laws of nature, not just by those whose rights were unjustly deprived. The problem, of course, is that such individuals are unlikely to be fair and impartial when punishing transgressors, which is precisely why Locke argued that rational individuals would establish civil government, though one that would preserve and protect the freedoms that individuals had in the state of nature. The idea of a liberal state as it emerges from this Lockean analysis is therefore characterized by political freedom, democracy, constitutionally protected rights, as well as private property.
Many subsequent theorists in the liberal tradition took up Locke’s arguments about the proper structure of commonwealths and began applying them to relations among commonwealths. Modern legal theorists such as Emmerich de Vattel (1863) have been associated with a distinctively Lockean analysis of international relations in that states have no government to rule over them or enforce their rights but are governed by a universal natural law (which Vattel termed the necessary law of nations) that is binding on all states and obligates them to respect the rights of one another. Indeed, Vattel uses this general framework as a way to conceive of what we would today refer to as international law and collective security, both of which are widely recognized as liberal prescriptions for international relations.
Immanuel Kant was another important figure in the application of liberal theory to international relations and is commonly cited as one of the founding fathers of idealism (Hutchings, 1999). Building from the Lockean liberal ideas of individual liberty and popular sovereignty, as well as the Enlightenment credo of human progress and perfectibility, Kant is best known for arguing that states with republican constitutions (i.e., liberal, democratic states) are inherently more peaceful and will thus design international laws to regulate interstate behavior and to promote the conditions for peace. The fundamentally Kantian insight that the domestic politics and institutions of states are critical factors in explaining their international behavior is perhaps the defining feature of liberal IR theory and is the central component of what is widely known as the democratic peace theory (DPT). Kant also argues for the creation of an international federation of democratic, peaceful states that will expand its membership over time and make the world more peaceful. Kant is not calling for a world government, but rather a sort of loose union of states that maintains itself, prevents war, and steadily increases its membership (Kant, 1991).
Locke’s conception of private property was likewise an important starting point for much theorizing on the ideas that free and open societies should have an open marketplace. This is not only because market capitalism was thought to best promote overall welfare by efficiently allocating scarce resources within society, but also because of the supposed pacifying effects that this has internationally. According to liberal thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith, free and open trade among nations has a general harmonizing effect since it is mutually beneficial and contributes to the happiness of one another’s society (see Howard, 1978). The basic idea was twofold. First, since many wars were fought by states as a means to enrich themselves yet these wars still proved to be costly and did not benefit the society as a whole, free trade would be a more peaceful and efficient means of achieving wealth, which is a common interest of all states. As a corollary, the free movement of commodities, capital, and labor across borders would break down divisions between states. This would open up lines of communication between them to reduce uncertainty, binding countries together using the common tie of economic interest (Ricardo, 1911). Thus, what Michael Doyle (1997) refers to as “commercial pacifism” is simply the idea that market societies are fundamentally against wars.
What emerges from this discussion of international liberalism as it evolved from Lockean liberalism throughout the Enlightenment is a set of ideas about international relations that include (a) a strong preference for a law-governed society of states, (b) cooperation in international organizations to collectively enforce this law, (c) the spread of democracy and liberal values (therefore bringing about peace), and (d) the pursuit of free trade to enhance global prosperity and help bring about peace. Thus, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, liberal Enlightenment thought had produced the broad contours of what would become known as idealism and set the stage for the emergence of IR as an academic discipline.
B. Idealism and the Twenty Years’ Crisis
The calamity of World War I and the horrific human toll it brought about led to new efforts to try and understand, prevent, and ultimately eliminate war. As a result, the academic discipline of IR was born. For liberal thinkers of the time, the war was largely a result of the egoistic and reckless miscalculations of autocratic rulers in heavily militarized countries, as well as the outdated system of alliances based on a balance of power that had dominated Europe for centuries (see Jackson & Sorensen, 2007). Since liberal thinkers had some clear ideas and strong beliefs on how to avoid such disastrous wars in the future, the emerging discipline of IR was highly influenced by these liberal principles and was guided by a desire to replace the malfunctioning European balance of power with a system of international law and collective security, as well as to reform the structure of autocratic governments in order to make them more peaceful.
Prominent among this group of liberal intellectuals was British writer Norman Angell (1913), whose book The Great Illusion argued that war was no longer a profitable and useful tool for the conduct of state foreign policy. Angell argued that wars of conquest between industrialized states had become futile and that the best solution to aggression was “third party judgment” within a collective system (Miller, 1995). For Angell, states’ single-minded pursuit of their own security in a condition of anarchy (i.e., the absence of a world government) led to war; thus, security needed to be provided internationally. After the Great War, he became an ardent supporter of the League of Nations, suggesting that “the military power of the world should be so pooled by international agreement for supporting a common rule of life for the nations as in fact to make it the police power of civilization” (cited in Miller, 1995, p. 112).
Yet it is perhaps the architect of the League of Nations—U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—who is most commonly associated with interwar idealism. President Wilson entered the United States into World War I on a decidedly liberal platform: to make the world safe for democracy. Wilson was highly critical of the European balance-of-power system and saw it as his mission to bring liberal democratic values to the rest of the world. Wilson’s Fourteen Points contained his vision for the new liberal foundation of international politics, which emphasized, inter alia, the promotion of democracy and self-determination based on the conviction that democracies do not go to war against each other. Another important principle contained in Wilson’s vision was the creation of an international organization based on a set of common rules in international law that would replace the unstable balance-of-power system that he argued had failed to prevent the war. The League of Nations was therefore created to promote peaceful cooperation among states based on the idea that there should be reason-based substitutes for war. Although the realists were content to allow the dangerous game of power politics to occur unrestrained based on an unstable balance of power, Wilson’s view was that the warlike impulses of states, statesmen, and other instruments of conflict could be controlled by an intelligently designed international institution. This notion of Wilsonian idealism was thus based on the liberal view that when rational human beings apply reason to international problems, they can establish institutions that can improve the human condition (Jackson & Sorensen, 2007).
Highly influenced by Wilsonian idealism, IR scholarship during the interwar period consisted mainly of forward-looking liberal conceptions of world federations, blueprints for a more perfect League of Nations, and the development of new international institutions and legal codes for interstate behavior, all amid a strong normative desire for the avoidance of great-power war (Wilson, 1995). Yet as we know, the League of Nations was doomed to failure, and the ideas being championed by the likes of Angell and Wilson came under intense criticism. The League was helpless against the onslaught of the Great Depression and the protectionist policies that ensued, as well as the expansionist policies of Germany, Japan, and Italy. Perhaps the best known critique of the interwar idealists is that of E. H. Carr’s Twenty Years’ Crisis (2001), which is most famous for its attempt to debunk the pretensions of the liberal thinking that dominated the international relations discourse during the twenty years’ crisis, between 1919 and 1939. Carr argued that liberal thinkers had fundamentally misread history and therefore misunderstood the nature of international relations (Knutsen, 1997). Although the idealists believed that international relations could be based on a harmony of interests among different states, Carr argued that this was wishful thinking (hence utopian) and that we should assume that there are conflicts of interests among states. In short, Carr accused the liberals of being too preoccupied with what international relations ought to resemble rather than what it actually resembled and for overemphasizing the role of international law and morality and underestimated the role of power (Carr, 2001; Wilson, 1995). This framework, which posed a dialectic between utopia and reality, would be highly influential in the development by later realists of a more scientific, fact-based way of studying IR that emerged in the 1950s with the behavioral revolution in the social sciences (Waltz, 1979). With the spread of autocratic and militaristic states and the failure of the League to prevent the outbreak of World War II, the liberal assumptions underlying Wilsonian idealism fell out of favor among IR scholars, and the field soon became dominated by realist thinking, with its pessimistic view of human nature and emphasis on international relations as a conflictual struggle for power within an anarchical system. Yet liberal thinking remained an influential part of IR theory and would soon reemerge as an important source of scholarship as it was refined in light of the realist challenge to its foundational principles.
III. Contemporary Liberal IR Theory
A. Liberalism in the Postwar Era
The bipolar structure of the cold war period put considerable stress on liberal theory’s ability to explain international politics, since realism arguably offered more explanatory power in the context of an anarchical system dominated by two powerful hegemons mired in a security dilemma (see Waltz, 1979). Yet as international actors emerged from World War II and were forced to confront pressing issues about the future international political and economic order, liberal principles continued to play a prominent role. The postwar order was fundamentally organized as a rule-based international order, wherein international cooperation was encouraged as a means to ensure peace, economic prosperity, and human rights. Such was the rhetoric of the founding treaties of many postwar international organizations (IOs), such as the United Nations (UN), European Community (EC), and the Bretton Woods institutions. Although not solving the world’s problems, the interstate cooperation that these organizations encouraged gave liberal IR scholars renewed optimism about the role international institutions could and should play in world politics and provided a whole new set of organizations, institutions, regimes, processes, and interactions that became the subject of investigation by liberalist IR scholars.
Despite the emergence of several new international organizations during the postwar era, the international security environment was dominated by cold war power politics. Yet at least in the West, the Bretton Woods institutions and the UN offered glimmers of hope to those still attempting international cooperation in a threatening, hard, power-dominated bipolar system. These key institutions were created to govern monetary relations among the world’s states, to encourage free trade among them, and ultimately to facilitate the spread of free market economics.
As IR scholars began considering the power realities of the postwar period—particularly the hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union—the idealism that dominated interwar thinking gave way to realism, particularly among U.S. academics, which was further fueled by the rise of behavioralism in political science. The rise of behavioralism in the social sciences was essentially a call for more rigorous methodologies that applied stricter, more scientific reasoning in IR scholarship that was to be less normative and ideologically driven and more interested in observable facts, measurable data, and the finding of “law-like” behavioral patterns (Knutsen, 1997). Although the supposedly more objective and dispassionate realism was perhaps a better fit to such a method for social-science scholarship, new formulations of both realism and liberalism emerged in an attempt to answer the call of the behavioralists for more methodological rigor.
Inspired by the scientific ambitions of behavioralism, Kenneth Waltz (1979) developed a new form of realism— dubbed neorealism—that focused on the structure of the international system comprised of unitary states, wherein he attempted to achieve law-like statements about international politics that could achieve scientific validity. For Waltz, the anarchical structure of the system leads rational states to be power seeking and inherently distrustful of other states, thus leading to the fundamentally conflictual character of international politics. Liberal theorists, such as Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, took a slightly different approach in their attempts to answer the behavioralist challenge. This work was largely based on the early functionalist research of those scholars studying European integration in the 1950s, who studied how cooperation in one issue area can “spillover” to allow for cooperation in other areas (Deutsch, 1957; Haas, 1958; Mitrany, 1966). This new brand of liberalism—or neoliberalism—sought to explain the various instances of cooperation among democratic states by reference to the idea of complex interdependence, which includes the various forms of connection between states in addition to the political relations of their governments, such as transnational links between businesses (Keohane & Nye, 1971, 1977). This leads to an absence of hierarchy among issues—that is, a condition where military security is not necessarily states’ top priority. Thus, in contrast to the neorealist vision of international politics, the neoliberals argued that there are other important actors in international relations that contribute to interdependence among states, which leads to less conflict among them.
In such an interdependent world, openings developed for international institutions and IOs to become influential actors that facilitate cooperation through information exchanges and the provision of arenas for resolving disputes. This became the basis for another wave of neoliberal IR scholarship that focused on the role that international organizations and regimes played in state behavior (Krasner, 1983). It was Robert Keohane’s (1984) After Hegemony that was perhaps the most influential publication on these general themes. Seeking to address the neorealist critique of neoliberalism head-on, Keohane adopts many of the foundational assumptions of neorealism. Whereas the neorealists argue that this rationality leads to conflict, Keohane demonstrates that it can lead to cooperation and the establishment of institutions. Building on hegemonic stability theory, Keohane seeks to explain why such cooperation persists even after the decline of the hegemon’s power relative to other states. While admitting that hegemonic leadership can be helpful in creating a stable order wherein cooperation flourishes, he develops his functional theory of regimes to explain why such cooperation persists “after hegemony.” According to Keohane, even rational, egoistic states will have an incentive to participate in regimes because they help states overcome obstacles to achieving optimal outcomes. In this sense, international institutions promote cooperation between states because they help alleviate the problems associated with international anarchy: distrust and uncertainty between states and the transaction costs associated with interstate cooperation. In short, regimes are developed because actors in world politics believe that they help them make mutually beneficial agreements that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to attain (Keohane, 1984).
B. The Liberal Revival After the Cold War
The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war brought dramatic changes to domestic and international political structures and provided both challenges and opportunities for the various strands of both realism and liberalism. In a confident reassertion of the optimism and progressive outlook of liberalism, Francis Fukuyama’s (1989) essay, “The End of History?” proclaimed the ideological victory of liberalism over all other alternative theories of politics. For Fukuyama, the end of the cold war and the various democratic transitions in Africa, east Asia, Latin America, and eastern Europe represented the triumph of liberal capitalism and that there could be no improvement on its underlying principles and institutions, at least in theory. Fukuyama helped to revive the long-held view that the spread of liberal-democratic principles is the best prospect for a peaceful world order, spurring a vigorous scholarly debate on exactly how democracy, market economics, or both lead to peace, as well as the extent to which democracy needs to be consolidated within states in order for them to behave more peacefully.
Another related development in liberal thought in the post–cold war era was the proliferation of human rights norms, treaties and agencies, as well as a vigorous debate over what is known as humanitarian intervention. Although the principal human rights treaties predate the end of the cold war, the victory of the pro-Western forces in this ideological struggle made room for both state and nonstate actors to work more toward realizing human rights throughout the world. Although it is no coincidence that dominant international norms to a large extent reflect the values of the most powerful members of the international community, even though human rights are an essentially Western liberal idea, this idea has proven to be broadly appealing throughout the world—even in non- Western societies such as Japan and South Korea. Thus, the debate over human rights in international politics is not whether they exist or should be acknowledged, but rather when and how to implement them and how to enforce these protections when states violate human rights (Forsythe, 2006).
A final development in liberal thought that gained prominence in the post–cold war era has been the rapid globalization of the world economy. Economic neoliberalism— a term generally used to refer to global market capitalism and free trade policies—has always favored the free play of market forces and the minimal role of the state in economic life. Yet liberal IR scholars view these developments in the context of the state and the international states system and focus on developments such as the growth of free trade, the increased ability of multinational corporations to escape states’ legal jurisdiction, the supposedly increasing irrelevance of state boundaries to the conduct of economic activity, and how these developments affect states’ behavior internationally (Friedman, 2000; Held, 1999). The idea of free trade and the belief in its efficiency and pacifying effects have nevertheless been the governing ideologies of the various free-trade institutions such as the WTO, EC, NAFTA, the IMF, and World Bank that have proliferated in the past two decades.
C. The Main Strands of Contemporary Liberal Theory
Liberal IR theory is a long and varied theoretical tradition that draws on some common foundational principles, insights, and ideas that in some way, shape, or form originated with European Enlightenment thought. But how can one make sense of or try to organize these different approaches? Although different books offer different categorizations, schools, or strands of liberal theory, there is some, but not universal, agreement on how to categorize the different approaches. This research paper offers four main categories, or strands, of contemporary liberal theory: pluralism, interdependence liberalism, institutional liberalism, and DPT.
The first strand of liberal thought is categorized here as pluralism, also known as sociological liberalism or sometimes global governance theory. Pluralism draws on the discipline of sociology to enhance state-centered approaches to IR by understanding relations between substate actors, or transnational relations—that is, individuals, groups, and organizations within states alongside traditional focuses on relations among political elites (Rosenau, 1980). According to Karl Deutsch (1957), increasing instances of transnational relations over time, and the increasing intensity of these interactions, can result in the creation of “security communities,” wherein potential and actual points of conflict between states can be addressed effectively, thereby promoting cooperation and peace. Thus, for pluralist theorists, transnational relations have the ability to not only facilitate cooperation by the presence of security communities, but can also foster the development of norms and rules promoting stability and peace in relations among states (Rosenau, 1990). In short, for pluralists, IR is more than the study of relations among states and includes relations among private individuals, societies, and other groups. The more these nonstate actors interact, network, and become interdependent, the less inclined their governments will be to resort to conflict.
Interdependence liberalism comprises the second grouping of liberal theory. Attempting to develop the earlier functionalist theory of David Mitrany (1966), Ernst Haas’s (1958) groundbreaking neofunctionalist theory explained European integration in terms of political elites within Europe, identifying shared goals and interests and undertaking targeted cooperation on specific (economic) policy areas. Once integration of policy began, processes of cooperation and integration became self-reinforcing through the effects of spillover, whereby cooperation on a single policy necessarily leads to further cooperation on other policy areas in order to ensure policy effectiveness. Similarly, dealing with cooperation through institutions, Keohane and Nye’s (1977) institutionalism bred the theory of complex interdependence, discussed previously. Complex interdependence details an international system where economic and social issues have become at least equal in importance to security concerns of and among states. Transnational relations therefore serve to transform a world based on political transactions occurring primarily between political elites to a world system where relations between influential citizens and nongovernmental organizations can wield significant influence on state actions as well. As such, international politics were transformed to appear to function in a manner similar to domestic political relations within states, thereby creating what has been termed complex interdependence.
More recent scholarship in this area can be found in the work of Anne-Marie Slaughter (2004) and focuses on what are known as intergovernmental networks. By looking within states at their different constituent institutions—that is, by disaggregating the state—Slaughter observes a complex web of networks between the various agencies of different states, such as law enforcement, environmental, financial, and a whole host of government agencies that are increasingly exchanging information and coordinating activity to address common problems on a global scale. Reminiscent of John Burton’s (1972) “cobweb model” of transnational relations among private groups, Slaughter’s networks are composed of government actors, which, unlike private actors, are more capable of being held accountable.
Institutional liberalism represents the third variant of liberalism and includes such approaches as regime theory and neoliberal institutionalism, which like interdependence liberalism, began with the observation that levels of international cooperation were much higher than could be explained by neorealists. The initial work that applied this institutional approach was that of regime theory, which focused not only on formal IOs but also on the broader concept of international regimes, defined as sets of principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures in a given issue area (Krasner, 1983). This included not only IOs but also informal and nonbinding arrangements. Focusing on the prospects of both formal and informal international institutions for facilitating international cooperation, institutional liberalism argues that institutions are not merely weak tools of the state, but rather can provide vital channels through which cooperation can take place if states perceive the benefits of cooperation to outweigh the potential risks (Keohane, 1989). International institutions, organizations, and regimes help states overcome a range of collective-action barriers to cooperation by increasing opportunities and methods for information sharing, providing arenas for open discussion and negotiation between political elites and state actors and fostering a culture of cooperation. This not only makes cooperation easier by helping overcome collective action problems but also provides assurance and shared expectations that make defection from agreements more costly over time for all involved (Keohane, 1989; Keohane, Nye, & Hoffman, 1993).
The work of Robert Keohane discussed previously was seminal in the development of this approach in that it attempted to respond directly to the neorealists by accepting the neorealist assumptions that states are the dominant actors in international politics and that they are rational actors—that is, that they calculate the costs and benefits of certain actions and take the action that gives them the highest payoff. This led some to accuse the neoliberals of essentially being neorealists in disguise, except with a focus on international (economic) institutions. Yet there are some subtle, yet important, distinctions. According to David Baldwin (1993), neorealists and neoliberals first disagree on the nature and consequences of anarchy, with neorealists seeing anarchy as placing more severe constraints on states than neoliberals. As a corollary, neorealists view international cooperation as both more difficult to achieve and maintain and more dependent on state power, and neorealists are therefore more skeptical regarding the ability of institutions to mitigate anarchy. Second, neorealists assume that states are more concerned about relative gains, whereas neoliberals have emphasized absolute gains. In other words, when states are faced with the possibility of cooperating for mutual gain, neorealists argue that states will be concerned how much they will gain vis-à-vis other states, whereas neoliberals believe states are concerned primarily with their own gains and are largely indifferent to the gains of other states. Third, neorealists and neoliberals differ on the priority of state goals in that the former emphasize security and survival, and the latter, following the interdependence liberals, argue that states are more concerned with economic welfare. Finally, the two schools differ on threat perception. Whereas neorealists assume that a state’s capabilities or power is decisive in how the state will behave, neoliberals argue that it is not just the capabilities of a state that matter, but also the state’s intentions. Thus, neoliberals emphasize intentions, interests, and information as explanatory variables, whereas neorealists emphasize the distribution of capabilities (Baldwin, 1993).
The last strand of liberal theory this research paper discusses is DPT, also commonly referred to as republican liberalism, which has been given considerable prominence among liberal theories in the contemporary study of IR. Essentially, democratic peace theorists, including the early writings of Kant, observed that democratic states do not go to war with one another. Reasons given for the peaceful relations existing among democratic states include the argument that since democratic governments are answerable to their citizens, the risk of electoral ramifications for leaders undertaking war with another democratic state is fairly high; the observation that democratic societies tend to value peaceful resolution of conflict; and finally, the empirical observation in the tradition of the previous three strands of liberal theory that democratic states tend to be highly interdependent on one another through membership in international organizations, institutions, and regimes (Doyle, 1997; Gilpin, 1981; Lipson, 2003; Russett & O’Neal, 2001). Furthermore, the dramatic increase in the number of democratic and democratizing states from the 1970s to the 1990s, in what has been termed the third wave of democratic development, provided increased salience to DPT and has contributed to the prominence of this approach in the study of IR (Huntington, 1991).
IV. Conclusion: Applications and Challenges
With the end of the cold war, the continuing globalization of the world economy, and the atrocities caused by global terrorism, the traditional issues that occupied the liberal research agenda have been endowed with a new sense of urgency. Issues of trade and global economics remain central to research agendas of institutional and interdependence liberals, particularly the study of international organizations, both new and old. Since the collapse of the world economy in late 2008, there has been an urgent need for more knowledge on how IOs such as the WTO, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the various free-trade organizations such as the EU and NAFTA have either contributed, or may be used as a solution, to the current financial crisis. Likewise, research on international networks of banking and other international financial institutions requires further development as the processes of integration and transnational relations continue to intensify in places like western Europe.
Furthermore, especially since the 2003 Iraq War, there has been a renewed debate over the democratic peace and calls for more research on exactly how democracy leads to peace and whether or under what conditions it may be permissible to forcibly change the government of a state to make it more democratic and peaceful. The role of IOs in the area of international security is also a pressing concern, as NATO evolves from its cold war posture into a tool for democratic enlargement and an entity better equipped to deal with terrorist and insurgent challenges in places like Afghanistan. Newer institutions such as the African Union are likewise increasingly becoming the subject of analyses regarding how this entity, in conjunction with the United Nations, can become more effective at addressing the numerous crises on the African continent, such as in Darfur, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Likewise, the potential emergence of nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea has made collective efforts at nuclear nonproliferation a particularly important subject as states attempt to use the international nonproliferation regime to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Such questions that deal with the emergence, change, and effects of IOs therefore remain crucial to the institutional and interdependence liberal research agendas.
Finally, the attention given by governments to nonstate terrorism and the resources dedicated to combating it demonstrate an urgent need for more research by pluralist liberals regarding the threats of nonstate armed groups, including global terror networks like al Qaeda, as well as more regional groups such as Hezbollah. What is the best way for states to cooperate to combat this threat? What is the relationship between liberal democracy and terrorism? The current wave of Islamic militancy is profoundly antiliberal and therefore presents a threat not only to liberal states but also arguably to the global order over which liberal states have presided. Although some have argued that the emergence of al Qaeda and its affiliates is evidence of the deterritorialization of international politics and the further decline of the sovereign state, others argue that it has allowed the state to accumulate more power, including placing new restrictions on civil liberties, enhancing powers of surveillance and detention, and increasing military spending (Harvey, 2003). As Scott Burchill (2005) notes, the threat posed by Islamic terror has been met by an increase in military activity by powerful states that have been emboldened to intervene—even preventively—in other states’ internal affairs.
Liberalism as portrayed in this research paper is an inherently optimistic approach to understanding international relations that emphasizes the role of international institutions, free trade, domestic (liberal) political institutions, and nonstate actors as all having important influence on international politics. Virtually all liberal scholarship is imbued with a faith that there can be progress in human affairs. Although liberalism may have originated as a broad philosophical statement about human progress and perfectibility, it is today best understood as an analytical project concerned with exploring the possibilities for international peace and cooperation and for improving the human condition (Sterling-Folker, 2006). Although there has been reason to be optimistic about the outlook for international political life over the past decades—particularly since the end of the cold war—recent years have witnessed profound changes that continue to challenge this optimistic outlook. The task for liberal IR scholars today is to improve our knowledge of these various changes in order to gain a better understanding of their causes and consequences in the hopes that they can be better understood and ultimately overcome.
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