Liberal International Relations Theories and Global Security


Liberal international relations theory emphasises on the role of the different social interest and values of states, and their significance in global politics (Baylis & Smith, 2008, P. 13). Liberals claim that the general state of global politics is liberalisation. In other words, states have all along been entrenched in local and international societies which have promoted or hindered their interactions. A number of local groups may benefit or be harmed with such interactions, and may put pressure on the government to facilitate policies that are friendly. This kind of pressure is what motivates foreign policies of these nations (Brown & Ainsley, 2009, p. 27; Baylis & Smith, 2008, P. 14).

Liberal international relations theory is unique in the nature of the variable it fronts. It emphasises on the socially-determined state preferences which separates it from other traditional theories such as realism, institutionalism and other non-rational approaches (Dunne, et al., 2007, p. 8). For instance, liberals do pay much attention to power inequity, information gaps and irrational decision-making among leaders. Instead, liberals look to differing state preferences drawn from aggressive nationalists or political beliefs, disagreements over inequitable allocation of economic resources, or conflicts resulting from discriminatory political representation.

Therefore, according to the liberals, social pressure can prompt a country to take a risk that many countries are unwilling to take (Burchill, et al., 2009, p. 6). This study aims at exploring the liberal approach to international relation and how they promote global peace/security. The paper will focus on the main distinctive assumptions underlying and distinguishing liberal theories, variant liberal theories that follows these assumptions and how the proposed theories helps in promoting global peace (Badie, Schlosser & Morlino, 2011p. 1435).

Fundamental assumptions of liberal theory

Rationality and anarchy are the fundamental assumptions of liberal theory. In other words, the state or players in the political front exists in an environment full of chaos, thus are prompted to act rationally when making decision. The anarchy assumption implies that political players exist in a typical environment of global politics, devoid of an overall regulatory authority, thus, are obliged to engage in self-regulation (MacMillan, 2006, p. 16). The rationality assumption implies that state leaders and their local supporters take part in foreign policy with the intention of securing provided benefits (or steering clear of impost costs) by the external actors, and in making such calculation they employ the most cost-effective means to achieve their goal (Badie, Schlosser & Morlino, 2011p. 1436).

Liberal theory shares the first assumption with almost all other international relation theories and the second assumption with realism and institutionalism (MacMillan, 2006, p. 18). However, liberal theory is distinguished from other rational theories, for instance, realism and institutionalism, by two distinct assumptions related to global politics. The first assumption is that state signifies social groups, whose opinions form state preference. The second assumption is that the interdependence of these preferences significantly influences local and foreign policies (Brown & Ainsley, 2009, p. 29).

Liberal Theories that follows these assumptions

According to the assumptions of liberal theory, global system is anarchic, states generally tend to act rationally, pressure from various social groups defines state preferences, and the interdependence of these preferences influence state behaviour (Burchill, et al., 2009, p. 9). However, studies show that liberal theories that follow these assumptions are comparatively few, centred and powerful (MacMillan, 2006, p. 16). Ideational liberalism, commercial liberalism and republican liberalism are the liberal theories that are based on the above assumptions. At the centre of each theory lies the concept of social pressure that defines state preferences and subsequently its behaviour (Burchill, et al., 2009, p. 10).

Ideational Liberalism

This theory focuses on local values and main determinants of state preferences. Drawing on the traditional liberal political philosophies dating back to the times of John Maynard Keyes and Woodrow Wilson, social values are defined as a set of preferences held by different players in the society regarding the appropriate scope and nature of reasonable state objectives (Milner & Moravcsik 2009, 267). Players in different countries have different conceptions on what is regarded as legitimate domestic order (Reus-Smit & Snidal, 2008, p. 2).

Therefore, for liberals certain ends that appear universal, for instance, national security is not automatically an end in itself, but excused only when it is meant to realise a given fundamental preference of the social players relating to “rightful social order” (Burchill, et al., 2009, p. 12). Some countries, such as Germany, during Hitler’s reign, were willing to compromise on their national security and sovereignty for the sake of conquering the world. Other countries may compromise national security for the sake of prosperity. These choices are not necessarily irrational but basically entail different sets of social preferences (Doyle, 1997, pp.56).

According to this theory, international policies are realised internally. Different players offer support to the government in exchange for institutions that are inline with their preferences and are thus viewed as genuine. Likewise, these players may sometimes support foreign policies that challenge the present domestic social order (Baylis & Smith, 2008, p. 98). According to the liberal view, the impact of social legitimacy conception on government behaviour depends on the interdependence patterns of these ideals (Doyle, 2006, p. 30).

Liberal theories predict s that countries with common national conceptions are likely to have peaceful co-existence and insignificant externalities. However, the reverse situation is likely to cause tension and zero-sum conflicts. These can be minimised through reciprocal policy adjustments, increased efforts to corporate explicitly and through transnational institutions (Burchill, et al., 2009, p. 14; Dunne, 2007, p.17). Social preferences relating to genuine social orders are very significant, for example, those that are linked to border demarcation, political institutions, and social regulation (Hurrell, 2007, p. 135).

Boundaries that take care of identity patterns normally promote peacefully coexistence. However, inconsistencies between the borders and the fundamental patterns of identity are likely to cause conflict between nations (Dunne, 2007, p.17). Institutional commitment is another form of social identity. Where the establishment of legitimate political institutions in a domestic front is a threat to the establishment of the same in other jurisdiction, conflict is likely to occur (Hurrell, 2007, p. 135).

The last form of identity is drawn from the faith of the society in a particular social, economic and redeployment parameters. Contemporary liberal theories (unlike the laissez fair libertarianism) have for a long time recognised how preferences linked to suitable nature and extent of regulation impose justifiable limits on cross-border markets (Reus-Smit & Snidal, 2008, p. 2).

Commercial Liberalism

Commercial liberalism explains states’ behaviours in the local, regional and global markets. The theory posits that changes in the local and international economy impacts on the balance of trade and prompts enactment of suitable policies to deal with the same (Burchill et al., 2009, p. 20). Commercial liberal theory does not predict automatic benefits of free and fair trade, but emphasises on the interaction between overall benefits and distributional effects. Higher benefits increase the incentive and as a result put the government in a lot of pressure to facilitate such deals. However, costly adjustment on such transactions may result in heightened opposition (Badie, Schlosser & Morlino, 2011p. 1436).

Economic interdependence also plays a major role in mitigating conflicts or war among nations. Any form of aggression between such nations will have negative effect on their economies. Therefore, before engaging in such acts cost –benefit calculation on the potential costs and benefits of war have to be taken into account. In the current era, unlike the period before the First World War, high levels of interdependence among nations coupled with spread of democracy has played a huge role in preventing conflicts among nations (Badie, Schlosser & Morlino, 2011p. 1438).

Burchill et al. (2009, p. 20) argue that the democratic tranquillity experienced among many nations at the moment is largely attributed to lack of economic and other motives for war. Nonetheless, the situation may change when nations start to engage in coercive means to protect their foreign markets. He attributes this to be one of the causes of tension between the U.S and China.

Republican Liberalism

This theory is pegged on statutory preferences that are influenced by different systems of representation within a country. Whereas ideational and commercial theories emphasises, correspondingly, on the fundamental social identities and interests resulting from globalisation, republican theory stresses on the ways in which local institutions and practices can come together and influence foreign policies (Burchill, et al., 2009, p. 21). The key variable of this theory is the nature of political representation in the domestic front which assists in determining which group’s or institution’s social preference dominates state policy, thus defines national interest (Burchill, et al., 2009, p. 22).

Liberals argues that majority in the society are generally risk averse and are less likely to come up with suboptimal and inefficient policies. They tend to be choosy with regard to foreign policies. For instance, they will choose lower cost wars and will not aggravate great-power war (Brown & Ainsley, 2009, p. 29). Given the proposition that major war inflicts net cost on society as a whole, it is not shocking that most prominent supporters of this theory advocates for democratic peace. From the liberal point of view, interest in democratic peace does not lie in greater transparency, military power, or proper behaviour, but in the characteristic preferences of states (Booth & Dunne, 2002, p. 83).

According to Booth and Dunne (2002, p. 84), wide domestic representation does not necessarily lead to international cooperation; in some cases, elite preferences maybe more convergent than the majority preference. There are instances where the political elites may have an incentive to represent long standing societal preferences in a manner that is less biased. Jack Snyder points out that historically most aggressors especially those who have provoked war in the modern era tend to be risk acceptant or have the ability to insulate themselves from the risks of war. He refurbished left –liberal -analysis of imperialism as unrepresentative, uncompetitive and jingoistic. He further argues that most democratic societies if subjected to imperialism are likely to explode into war (Baylis & Smith 2008, p. 15).

Does international liberal theory promote peace?

Since the First World War, Western politics have been dominated by political Realism, which emphasises on power, state interest and unitary decision making. There have been consensuses, even among the critics, on its continued dominance in the global politics. Numerous facets of the Realist tradition, for instance, endurance and frugality, are the reason for its dominance in the global politics (Boehmer, Gartzke & Nordstrom, 2004, p. 12). From the social scientific perspective, the main reason for its privileged position in the global politics is because it is the only international relation theory that is clearly articulated (Reus-Smit & Snidal, 2008, p. 5).

Nonetheless, despite of its popularity, realism has been widely criticised. In the last two centuries, the most ardent and consistent criticism have come from the classical liberalists, for instance, Woodrow Wilson, John Maynard Keynes and John Stuart Mill among others. As a result, strands of classical liberal thoughts have cemented their position in the current international relations theories. Republican liberalism holds that liberal democratic nations tend to be more peaceful than other forms of government (Badie, Schlosser & Morlino, 2011p. 1435).

Commercial liberalism stress that increased economic interdependence among nations creates an incentive for tranquillity and harmony. The concept of liberal democracy owes its foundation to Immanuel Kant’s democratic peace theory. Democracy has been used as a foreign and security policy among many players in the modern politics. It is intended to eliminate security threats and to establish peace across the borders. Liberal democracy has become an essential part of the liberal idealistic tradition of international relations theorising (Conley, 2002, p. 449).

Nonetheless, the expansion of this concept has brought another understanding. That liberal democracy more often does not shilly-shally to use force to achieve their aims against non-democratic states. Thus, peaceful democracy does not always lead to peace (Byers, 2004, p. 166). The concept of peaceful democracy in general is a result of shared values, norms and principles among different nations or players. It reflects their history, culture, social experience and individual identity. This is also true to the strategies used to achieve these objectives (Baylis & Smith, 2008, P. 13).

The concept of liberal democracy has become the foundation of U.S foreign and security policy. The U.S has always used freedom and democracy as a weapon especially in the cold war and war against terrorism. This idea has been borrowed by other powerful actors such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) (Badie, Schlosser & Morlino, 2011p. 1435). Of course, there are many other players including organisations and states who share and support similar ideology. Liberal ideas ensure that liberal democracies do not engage in any form of aggression among each other, but encourages these countries to wage war with countries that do not ascribe to similar ideology (Byers, 2004, p. 167).

Immanuel Kant divided democratic peace theory into structural and normative theories. Structural theory attributes democratic peace to institutions that exists among democratic nations. On the other hand, normative theory ascribes democratic peace to shared ideas or norms of democratic nations. Therefore, ideologies and institutions play a major role in the formulation of foreign policies among liberal democracies (Byers, 2004, p. 167).

Liberalists believed that everyone is equal and have the right to seek their own interests as long as it does not interfere with others’ rights. Thus, liberal international relation theories advocate for democratic principles. The relationship of these states is influenced by mutual perception. Countries which shares liberal ideology, functioning democratic institutions and champions democratic ideals will always refrain from fighting each other (Badie, Schlosser & Morlino, 2011p. 1435).

However, liberal democracies normally do not wage wars with any non-liberal states. They too can not run away from the laws of power politics and the anarchy in the global political arena (Baylis & Smith 2008, p. 18). As a result, most liberal democratic states normally approach foreign policies and security “multilaterally” or “functionally”. They normally seek a contemporaneous involvement of various organisations for a specific tasks or activity (Brown & Ainsley, 2009, p. 56).

For most liberal democracies individual objectives are less significant than a joint effort towards a given threat within the vicinity. They often use organisations that share their ideologies and principles to tackle international relations challenges. Thus, their foreign and security policies follow sensible considerations. Their preferences are driven by fundamental values, norms and principles which are based on their historical and social background. Foreign and security policies of most liberal democracies stress on human rights, freedom, peace and democracy, fair trade, environmental conservation, economic integrations, and sustainable development (Burchill, et al., 2009, p. 6).

Initially, liberalists based ideal governance on constitutionalism and popular representation. However, they later came to the opinion that liberal democracies can not just assume peaceful coexistence with all other states. Non-liberal states are viewed as potential threat to global peace and security. They believed that only liberal democracies can cooperate, coexists and foster prosperity on the global front. The experiences of cooperation among liberal democracies help in engendering further accommodating behaviour even when the objectives of these alliances are unclear (Ikenberry, 2001, p. 5).

Trade and interdependence among nations has also acted as an incentive to maintain peace (Doyle, 2006, p. 29). According to the classical liberals, free trade and cooperative global division of labour leave each member states in a better position than it would have been under despotism. This acts as an incentive for solving disagreements peacefully and avoiding policies that would jeopardise their beneficial ties. In addition, interdependence among liberal states creates a crosscutting tie that serve as vestibules for mutual accommodation (Russett & Oneal 2001, p 10).

Shared norms, rules and decision-making procedures in the international front have helped liberal democracies to coordinate their policies effectively and collaborate in global affairs. The entrenchment of these values, norms and procedures in multilateral institutions, for instance, UN, NATO, has made this even easier (Ikenberry, 2001, p. 6). Institutionalised multilateralism ensures free flow of information among the member states, thus promotes reciprocity and enhances the reputational cost of not complying. In addition, it minimises strategic competition among states and therefore increases global cooperation (Elman, 2002, p. 232).

Contemporary liberal theories on military interventions stems from two classics: cosmopolitan interventionists and liberal interventionists (Benhabib, 2004, p. 73). The former builds on Kant’s moral theory and asserts that every state has a moral duty to intervene militarily if another regime systematically violates its own human rights or of another country. However, liberal internationalists’ advocates for sanctions; militarily actions can only be used as the last resort. They argue that military action could leave a country exceedingly fragile and hardly sustainable in the long run as witnesses in Iraq (Dunne, et al., 2007, p. 9).


Claims that liberal democracies handle their international relations differently can be traced back to the times of Immanuel Kent, but there are recent empirical evidences on the same. Numerous scholars have pointed out that liberal democracies have a tendency of maintaining peace among each other. They have found evidence for existence of peace among liberal states, but not between liberal democracies and illiberal states. Critics of the Kant’s theory of democratic peace argued that it is a product of cold war alliance and bipolarity among nations.

However, proponents argue that the democratic peace theory can not be dismissed simply as a product of cold war alliances, or as an epiphenomenon. He emphasises that the stable alliance among the liberal democracies is largely a result of shared values and institutions. Using Kent’s democratic peace theory, they demonstrated how liberal states coexist peacefully among each other and how they engage into war with non-liberal states. Therefore, liberal international relations theories advocates for tolerance and cooperation among nations. However, the expansion of liberal international relations theory has brought another understanding. That liberal democracy more often does not waver to use force to achieve their aims against non-liberal states. This is done multilaterally or functionally.


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