Liberalism And War Research Paper

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Liberalism is the label attached to the philosophies, doctrines, and political movements that are concerned with the relationship between the exercise of political authority and the pursuit of welfare by individuals and groups governed by that authority. No other political and philosophical tradition has sustained as intense and long-standing an effort to eradicate war from modern political life, or at least mitigate its affects on the welfare of societies. Liberal ideas continue to attract thinkers and activists around the world as they struggle to overcome deadly conflicts within societies and the possibility of large-scale war across the globe.

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1. The Liberal Tradition

With precedents running back at least to the seventeenth century, liberalism became an established intellectual and political movement from the last decades of the eighteenth century onward. Figures as famous as Thomas Paine, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Richard Cobden, L. T. Hobhouse, Woodrow Wilson, and Thomas Dewey are among the ranks of public intellectuals associated with the liberal tradition.

Liberals have addressed a diverse range of social issues from economic life to education. Common to that diversity is the self-understanding of liberals that their goal is to maximize the well-being of members of society through increased freedom, equity, or security. Political and civil rights, economic and market freedoms, and provisions for the redistribution of wealth have been turned to as means to achieve this well-being. The varying and sometimes contradictory nature of the values—freedom, equity, and security—within the liberal tradition means that liberalism is not reducible to any fundamental principle or doctrine, despite common concerns with political authority and human welfare. Indeed, states and societies that can be counted as liberal have taken quite different forms depending on whether individual economic rights are stressed over the redistribution of wealth or the social security of families.

Liberals have naturally been focused on the political and social life of individual states and societies, since the perfection of civil and political society has been so central to their aspirations. But many liberals, recognizing that domestic life is shaped by forces and processes external to national boundaries such as war, have focused their attention on the nature of international life.

In the international realm, liberal concerns have been concentrated in a number of areas. Most famously, multilateral economic exchange and the relatively free movement of goods and capital across state boundaries (or international ‘free markets’) have preoccupied liberals. Open economic relations tie states, civil societies, and domestic market economies into complex networks of international economic relations. These relations and networks are taken by liberals to expand the economic freedom of market actors and limit the restrictions to that freedom inherent in state-defined borders. From Adam Smith in the late eighteenth century and the Manchester School of free traders in the nineteenth century, to the architects of Bretton Woods during World War II, liberals have generally assumed that economic openness is essential to well-being within and across national borders.

A second area of liberal concern has been the advancement of liberal forms of government across the globe. From Kant and Woodrow Wilson through Francis Fukuyama (1993), liberals to varying degrees have considered the global spread of representative government, the rule of law, constitutional limits to executive power, and democratic processes as essential to their social vision. Viewing political liberalization as an international process, spreading from nation-state to nation-state, has been compelling for liberals most basically because any discussion of liberalism as a real political and social force in the world has little meaning without the presence of at least some liberal social spaces within it.

Liberals, especially in the twentieth century, have also made the international spread of human rights—political, civil, and economic—a process critical to the promotion of liberalism. Indeed, rights are essential for all areas of liberal concern, from markets to political representation. While the struggle for rights has mostly taken place through political movements operating within individual nation-states, there has been a quite robust international effort to advance a wide range of rights. In the twentieth century human rights were encoded in myriad international declarations at the UN and addressed by many nongovernmental organizations operating on an international basis. Precedents in the nineteenth century include the transnational struggle against the slave trade and protections for minorities and citizens of other countries living abroad through international treaties.

A fourth area of focus in the international realm is national self-determination, which involves the legitimation of claims made in the name collectivities to establish and maintain independent states for self-government. It is the only area of social action in the international realm where there occurred anything like the sort of struggle against authority and power that liberal political and social movements undertook within individual domestic spheres. John Stuart Mill (1991) expressed the liberal belief that without independence it is not possible to fashion ‘free institutions.’ Liberals in the nineteenth century often supported nationalist movements for independence within Europe at the same time that they overlooked the contradictions posed by the empires their own states and societies pursued outside of Europe and its immediate periphery. Nationalist leaders emerging from the colonial world were, however, able to exploit the principles of self-determination to make claims against these very empires in the mid-twentieth century.

Also, some liberals have believed that human welfare can be advanced by the formation of an international community of states linked for the common purposes of peace, economic progress, or the strengthening of systems of international law. Others have gone further in advocating the construction of a transnational or universal community of humankind within which rights, entitlements, and human security are realized.

2. War And Society

A sixth area of concern to liberals has been war. For over 200 years advocates of liberal principles and practices in government, the media, the academy, and public life have treated most war as inimical to human welfare. At the same time that liberal movements and practices became more widespread across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the range and extent of destruction associated with war expanded. By the first half of the twentieth century states had devised new strategies to extract massive levels of material resources and human capital from society for war, and to apply them more effectively on the battlefield and ultimately against civilians living in rural and urban settings.

Of course, by almost any account, war is a disruptive force. While the loss of life and resources due to war can be staggering, liberals have had other reasons to be troubled by its destructive effects having to do with their interest in the construction and maintenance of a liberal commonwealth. Their interest in effective civil society, representative government, economic and political freedoms, operational markets, and systems of wealth redistribution has made the stakes of disruption especially high for them. War can lead to the suspension of rights (such as habeas corpus); the restraint of activities in the public sphere (such as in media ‘black outs’); the rechanneling of economic life (such as in wartime command economies); the concentration of state power (such as in the enactment of martial law); and the restriction of individual access to basic necessities for physical survival (such as in the wartime rationing of food).

In addition, an issue for liberals regarding the effects of war that was prominent prior to World War I is the fear that the occurrence of organized, interstate violence reinforces the dominance of belligerent aristocratic classes over state and society. War and a militant aristocratic culture, in this view, provided an opportunity for the nobility to maintain their dominant positions within the war-making state and to prevent other forms of political and social organization attractive to liberals from becoming more prevalent. It was these very classes, forming an ancien regime of hereditary privilege, that liberals saw themselves struggling against in their pursuit of more diverse forms of political representation and more open economic relations based on robust markets.

While concerns with the impact of war on life inside individual states and societies have dominated the agenda of liberals, they have not ignored the effects of war directly on practices and structures in the international realm deemed relevant to liberalism. In the international realm war could cause disruptions and lead to injustices across a wide range of concerns. Established structures of international commerce and investment can be halted through attacks on trade routes; human rights can be violated across national boundaries through invasion; national aspirations to self-determination and sovereign independence can be undermined through military occupation; bodies of international law can be weakened through blatant disregard; and the international spread of norms of democratic governance can be constrained by subversion and conquest. For liberals concerned with the building of an international or universal community, war is seen as markedly debilitating since states typically take sides in exclusive alliances and wartime pacts that starkly define enemies and friends.

Alternatively, wars can stimulate significant forms of political and social change relevant to liberals. Most directly, liberal causes have been advanced by large-scale, organized violence in the name of liberty, from the American War for Independence onward. Wars can also provide political actors with new conditions and historical contexts within which to operate. For example, out of World War II emerged the Declaration of Human Rights, new international structures for trade and investment, a renewed and more broad-based commitment to democratic governance, a greater legitimacy granted to claims to self-determination by colonized peoples, and new forms of international political community among states in the West. Governments also experimented with new systems of income redistribution through welfare, progressive taxation, and social security. Some liberals like Immanuel Kant (1970) have argued that war can help establish—and strengthen existing—republics. Others have argued that war can be justified in the name of self-determination against tyranny and civil and political rights against oligarchies. But, as recognized by historian Michael Howard (1986), liberals historically have never really come to terms with the fact that war can be a productive force for social change and not just a practice automatically condemned.

3. Liberal Reforms For Peace

The long-standing critical attitude of liberalism to war has carried some force in public life in part because thinkers in the liberal tradition have typically combined their condemnations of war with broad-ranging and complicated programs for actually counteracting the conditions and forces that lead to it. These include changes in the political regimes of states; the structure of societies; the nature of the international economy; the character of international life; and the mechanisms available to foster peaceful interactions.

3.1 Domestic Regime Change

In 1795, Immanuel Kant made famous in his essay Perpetual Peace (1970) the proposition that certain forms of government are more prone to war than others. Specifically, he argued that if a regime could be organized along liberal lines (with a constitution providing for full-fledged representation, a separation of powers, and civil rights) it would be less likely to go to war based on the will of a monarch and more likely to enter into long-standing peaceful relations with other liberal states. Liberal states, Kant argued, allow for public discussion of the purposes and costs of war and require popular consent for it to be waged.

Although early-twentieth-century leaders like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed versions of the Kantian perspective, it would take 200 years for the proposition ‘democracies do not fight one another’ to become a central tenet of students of international relations and policymakers in the US government (see Doyle 1997). Convinced of its empirical reality, scholars are still searching for the exact factors that produce the ‘democratic peace,’ from the acceptance of norms of peaceful conflict resolution in democratic societies to the existence of robust forums for public opinion. Upon its strength, policymakers extol the virtues of promoting and sustaining democracy around the world as a means to help eradicate war. It is generally recognized by scholars, however, that while democratic states are less likely to wage war on one another, they hold out no special pacific tendencies when it comes to war with non-democratic states.

3.2 Transformations In Social Structure

Among the conditions that made the establishment of a liberal regime so crucial for Kant was its power to displace a system of absolutist monarchy that relied on the aristocratic war-making classes described above. For liberals such as Thomas Paine, the noble classes of Europe had not only developed an interest in war as an honorable pursuit that secured their positions within their own countries, it also provided the basis for a Europe-wide transnational aristocratic culture of diplomacy and war. This exclusive culture was seen as being based on secrecy in negotiations and private considerations when it came to decisions about war and peace. Although the revolutions in Europe that occurred from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries had replaced many absolutist with constitutional regimes, aristocrats remained a powerful force in state and society. Thinkers like Joseph Schumpeter (1989) could look back and blame imperialist wars on the continued influence of the aristocracy on the foreign policy of European states. The answer for most liberals was to advance the political and social fortune of the middle classes within each state and society. Not only did they not carry with them values and codes of war-making, their interests and security were seen as anchored in commercial life and the possession of a wide range of rights for which large-scale conflict was inimical. To the extent that the middle class—or ‘bourgeoisie’— could become the predominant political class across Europe there would emerge an entirely new ‘peace interest’ and culture of public diplomacy.

As the aristocratic influence waned, from the twentieth century on, liberals such as Norman Angell (1972) began to focus more intently on another powerful class: large military industrialists who had a deep commercial interest in the profits of war. And once again, the peace interest of the middle classes was also considered an antidote.

3.3 The Development Of International Trade

In much liberal thinking, the rise of commercial classes was to be complemented in the international realm by the emergence of a robust system of international free trade for them to participate in. An overriding concern of liberals in this area has been to counteract mercantilist tendencies in the foreign policies and relations of states. Mercantilism was associated with the pursuit by autocratic states of exclusive economic access to trade routes and special concessions for the extraction of resources—the economic benefits of access for one state would be closed off to other states. Liberals feared that gaining access or enforcing exclusivity constituted grounds for war.

Even as mercantile practices became less prominent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as compared with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, liberals still worried that protectionist policies could reinforce the sense of rivalry between states. Indeed, colonialism, which had reached new heights in European policy at the end of the nineteenth century, was mostly understood by liberals to be a mercantilist phenomenon that fed competition (annexation brings a set of people and places into the orbit of one state and not another). Liberals generally believed that states were willing to go to war over colonies to protect their interests.

The effectiveness of international trade as an antidote to these practices in the international realm rests on the prospect that, instead of seeking colonies or exclusive access, states would simply promote trade between their citizens and the rest of the world. A vested state interest in securing open access to resources, peoples, and places would develop and concerns with facilitating market competition between individual economic actors would shape policies. The connections between individuals across national boundaries would deepen and widen and rivalry would take form in the productive field of the market rather than the interstate system. This ultimately would reinforce, as John Stuart Mill (Silberner 1946) believed, an interest in peace rather than war (an Activity that could be highly disruptive in the international economy).

3.4 The Emergence Of New Forms Of International Life

According to many liberals, the development of more direct transboundary connections between individuals would make possible the worldwide cosmopolitan community mentioned above. Commerce, as well as travel and international media, would help create a global body of public opinion, a shared identity as humanity, and a common understanding of human rights and justice. This cosmopolitan community of individuals would undermine the belligerent ambitions of governments by making it difficult to mobilize national citizenries for war.

Not all international communities of interest to liberals were grounded in a universal humanity. In the nineteenth century, liberals like the Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Mazzini and the British Prime Minister William Gladstone argued that Europe constituted a community of nations. If each nation, satisfying its desires for national self-determination, could devote itself to its own national destiny and recognize other nations as part of a common family of nations, then the motives for war would dissipate.

Democracy was a third ground for community besides cosmopolitanism and nationalism. As mentioned above, liberals like Kant and Woodrow Wilson believed that a league of democratic states could form a community capable of preventing war and advancing peaceful means of conflict resolution.

Finally, some liberals have argued that states could form a world federation, bounded by international law and mutual political obligations, within which war would be an unthinkable practice.

3.5 The Establishment Of New International Mechanisms

Liberal ambitions regarding international community have gone hand-in-hand with liberal expectations that international law could become a powerful force shaping the action of states within a community of nations. The execution of treaties and pacts and the development of legal theories since the seventeenth century have fueled the hope that normative proscriptions against unilateral decisions to wage nondefensive wars could effectively constrain officials and compel them to pursue peaceful means of conflict resolution and avoid violent intervention in the affairs of foreign countries (which is also contrary to the principle of self-determination).

Other mechanisms pursued by liberals to promote peace besides law include collective security. The basic premise is that states forming a league should agree to avoid war with one another and be willing to punish with sanctions or even collective military action any state that violates international peace and security. This principle was built into both the League of Nations formed after World War I and the UN of today.

Two other relevant mechanisms are arbitration and disarmament. Most liberals have argued that states with disputes should pursue their resolution through the mediation of an institution such as the UN or other third parties such as neutral governments. If arbitration became an accepted part of international relations, then war would become the last rather than the first recourse of states.

Disarmament has been an enduring liberal goal that reached its greatest prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century. Transnational peace movements grew in number on both sides of the Atlantic around the hope that states would abandon their readiness to prepare for and wage war. Many of these associations called for special congresses and treaties, and petitioned governments like Great Britain to take the lead in promoting disarmament.

4. Conclusion

The contrast between the liberal record in the domestic and international spheres with regard to peace and security is sharp. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, liberals and their supporters struggled and often succeeded at constructing liberal states and societies in the West, helping to secure individuals and groups against arbitrary violence by states and factions. Liberals, as shown above, also tried to refashion the relations between states along more peaceful lines. However, relative to the domestic sphere they had far less impact. It is true that nineteenth and twentieth-century thinkers and policymakers associated with the liberal tradition helped to advance the commitments of states to arbitration, disarmament, collective security, and the building of international community. Nonetheless, to this day no institutions exist to tie states and societies in a common security framework that is binding and that limits their ability to wage war.

Liberals certainly changed the discourse of international security. They also helped establish channels of negotiation. However, liberals did not alter the way states organize themselves regarding military power and national security. These practices have remained firmly grounded in the classic model of the war-making state. And while phenomena such as treaties to limit the proliferation of weapons, UN peacekeeping forces, and liberal zones of peace in the West are potential alternatives that currently challenge the classic war-making model, none of these are comparable to the transformation of absolutist into liberal, constitutional states in the West.

There are two important factors to bear in mind when considering the limitations of liberal efforts to promote reforms leading to peace. First, attempts to reform the security sphere were mostly undertaken by a rather narrow range of thinkers, citizens, and statesmen such as Richard Cobden working through relatively small antiwar organizations. If it typically took broad-based, popular political challenges to authority (including the revolutions of 1848) to change domestic spheres, we certainly should not expect to see the reformation of security practices based simply on the decision of government officials to heed their own conscience or the call to reason by liberal publicists and advocates.

Second, liberals have simply invested most of their intellectual and political capital in the pursuit of more perfect states and societies. Thus, international life has not received the same level of attention. And while liberals have been concerned with interactions between groups and individuals across national boundaries (e.g., trade) and the possibilities of new forms of international community (political union), liberal international political thought has been focused on the relations of states. Indeed, this might be expected since, in the absence of international government, there is no legal or binding political basis to pursue and secure claims important to liberals regarding citizenship, economic rights, or equality, within the international realm.

That there are limits to the liberal approach to war is a claim that has been made by critics of the tradition, who fall broadly into two camps. Realists like Kenneth Waltz (1965) have argued that liberalism offers a misplaced faith in the prospects for and affects of change and reform, both domestic and international. They also are skeptical of the ultimate willingness of states to abandon their own management of their security and capacity to wage war. And they generally fault liberals for failing to recognize the truly enduring presence of war in a world of ambitious and security-minded states.

A second line of critique has come from thinkers associated with the political left who fault liberalism for positions on war that obscure the exclusions and violence liberal states, in practice, underwrite through their foreign policies (see, for example, Robinson 1996). For instance, liberal concerns with building a union of liberal democracies have been condemned for justifying militarized alliances such as NATO that exclude non-liberal states and societies in the developing world and which emphasize differences and security threats rather than commonalities and community across the globe. Likewise, the pursuit of a global liberal economic order has been criticized for leaving the developing world behind in poverty and subjecting unprepared governments to policies that, in the name of privatization, place too much faith in the market and undermine public authority. The shrinking of public authority is often linked to increases in internal conflict within the national boundaries of states no longer capable of ensuring public security. And while liberal principles hold out the hope of a more peaceful world, liberal states have in practice been denounced for helping to perpetuate significant programs of overt and covert violence against individuals and political groups and aiding military buildups in the developing world, most notably during the Cold War. This violence was sometimes small scale; other times it took on the dimensions of a full-scale civil war (e.g., in Guatemala and Cambodia).

While for some it is easy to separate the pacific values of liberalism from the violent policies of liberal states griped in global conflict, critics, both realist and leftist, remain concerned that the failure to draw out the connections between practice and principle undermines the ultimate impact of the latter.


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