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Traditional liberalism and International Relations
By: Saed Kakei,
Ph.D. Student, Theories of Conflict and Conflict Resolution I (CARD 7040-DL2) Professor Dustin Berna, Ph.D. Nova Southeastern University Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution – PhD Program
March 24, 2012
Traditional liberalism and International Relations
Introduction As one of the two dominant philosophical outcome of the European Enlightenment, liberalism is considered to be a challenge to the pessimistic claims of realism about human nature. Aside from promoting limited government and scientific rationality of individuals and their potential for progress in the domestic realm, liberalism has had a deep impact on the characteristics of international relations of all modern developed societies. Just as it has considered individuals should be free from subjective state power, persecution and poverty, Liberalism has argued that the quest for power among nations increasingly outlines the destructive character of warfare which showcases the enormous scale of violence now present in the nuclear and globalization age. To break the cycle of international competition and violence, liberal theorists have been advocating universal standards to protect human rights, defend political freedom, and promote democracy by which the liberty of the individual and equality before the law become added values to the three centuries old liberal heritage. This is particularly true after the end of Cold War during which individual competition in civil society and the expansion of market capitalism have jointly been able to efficiently promote the welfare of all by allocating scarce resources within our international community. Thus, liberalism remains a powerful and influential doctrine. There are many concepts of liberal thought which influence the study of international relations. This paper will begin with a descriptive analysis to show the nature of the liberal tradition and explain its diverse ideas on international relations. During the course of my analysis of the historical revival of liberal thought, I will explain liberalism by highlighting its core assumptions. I will then lead my discussion to elucidate how traditional liberal attitudes view warfare and the importance of democracy and human rights continue to inform contemporary
thinking. The conclusion will judge the contribution of liberalism to the theory of international relations.
Historical development of liberal tradition
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), liberalism is a political thought which is “favorable to constitutional changes and legal or administrative reforms tending in the direction of freedom or democracy.” While this definition is somewhat revealing, it needs further elaboration. The term liberal took on a political meaning with the establishment of liberal party in Spain and later on throughout Europe, in the last decades of the eighteenth century (Gray, 1995). When these developing political parties coined the expression liberal, they wanted to signal their favorable assessment of the emerging democratic systems in Great Britain and especially the United States, as opposed to their conservative opponents, who wanted to return to prerevolutionary forms of government (Sartori, 1987, 367). The description, however, held a considerably older phenomenon, dating back to the political theories of John Locke, and his philosophical and theological defense of popular sovereignty at the end of the seventeenth century (Gray 1995). Partly because of its long history, the term “liberalism” has become an indefinable concept. Over time and in accordance with varying regional experiences, liberalism has tended different meaning. For example, in the opening sentences of his article entitled “Liberalism,” Alan Ryan provides that:
“Anyone trying to give a brief account of liberalism is immediately faced with an embarrassing question: are we dealing with liberalism or liberalisms? It is easy to list
famous liberals; it is harder to say what they have in common. John Locke, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, T. H. Green, John Dewey and contemporaries such as Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls are certainly liberals – but they do not agree about the boundaries of toleration, the legitimacy of the welfare state, and the virtues of democracy, to take three rather central political issues” (Ryan, 1993, p. 291).
The usage of liberalism as a generic term by many for the purposes “of praise or obloquy in the political struggle” has not been helpful. In fact, attempts by many liberal theorists to “define liberalism in such a way that only the very deluded or the very wicked could fail to be liberals” have not been fruitful as well (Ryan, 1993, p. 292). Adding more to the confusion, various liberal parties, politicians, and political philosophers have often put forward differing opinions of what the original or true meaning of liberalism is. This is often what happens when advocates of economic liberalism disagree with more left-leaning adherents of social liberalism on such basic political questions as with what, and how far, the state ought to concern itself. That been underlined here, one could easily identify some of the common varieties of liberalism and liberal thought by recognizing the distinctions between classical and modern types of liberalism (Ryan, 1993, pp. 293-6). Classical liberalism According to E. K. Hunt, classical liberalism has four assumptions about human nature: People were "egoistic, coldly calculating, essentially inert and atomistic" (2003, p. 44). Because they are egoistic, people are motivated exclusively by pleasure and pain. Being calculating, they make decisions with the intention to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. If there were no opportunity to increase pleasure or reduce pain, they would become inert. In such a condition, and
because society is the sum of its human beings, classical liberals saw society as atomistic (2003, pp. 44-46). Therefore, society’s security must be the first and the foremost priority for the state to protect. Otherwise, individuals’ aspirations may not be possible (Dunne, 2004, p. 160). Classical liberalism is often associated with the belief that government had been created by rational and self-interested individuals to protect themselves from one another. It has therefore argue that individuals should be free to pursue their self-interest without control or restraint by society or its ruling government (2003, pp. 46). To achieve this goal, classical liberalists thought that government should be limited, which means that everything except armed forces, law enforcement, and non-excludable goods and services should be left for its citizens, and the organizations they freely choose and cooperate to establish in order to uphold the most fundamental aspects of public order. Some of these authors, especially John Locke, considered the state to be a freely established association between individuals, where its members have a justified cause for rebellion if the state seizes more power than what has been originally given to by its citizens. This consideration is based on an essential assumption is that “humans are capable of learning from mistakes and successes,” they are free to track their interests at their own free will, and they are competent to “adjust their behavior if they discover that competition only leads to greater danger and less prosperity” (Silverstone, 2004, p. 160). As for state’s relations with other states, classical liberals believe that states can achieve their national interests, to include security, free trade, and prosperity, by cooperating with other states (2004, p. 160). Conversely, if governments intervene to disturb the natural order domestically and internationally, then conflict will become inevitable.
The core principles of classical liberalism grant not only a theory of liberty, justice, toleration, and public good, but also a discipline of power—the means of creating power as well as controlling it. This discipline has been a singular achievement of constitutional liberalism, dating from the early eighteenth century and evolving, as it has, to modern liberalism since the late nineteenth century. According to Hunt, Adam Smith had explained that government had only three functions: protection against foreign invaders, protection of citizens from wrongs committed against them by other citizens, and building and maintaining public institutions and public works that private sectors could not profitably provide. Later, constitutional liberals extended protection of the country to protection of overseas markets through either armed intervention or a balance of power (2003, pp. 51-52). Constitutional liberalism imposes general constraints on the power of state as well as nonstate actors to protect citizens from oppression on the one hand, and they serve to protect the state from unpredictable, reckless, or overreaching decisions, on the other hand. A fundamental approach of constitutional liberalism stipulates that if power arbitrarily exercised, it would be destructive not only to individual liberty but also to the rule of law. Limiting arbitrary power encourages confidence that the law will be fair and thereby increases the state’s ability to secure cooperation without the imposition of force. This is not to indicate that constitutional liberalism, at least in the late eighteenth century and even throughout nineteenth century, was fully democratic. In fact, history tells us that high ranking motivated British as well as American republicans not only excluded the majority of their people from economic prosperity and other rights, but also resorted to armed intervention to pursue their domestic as well as international commercial interests. One reason for these undemocratic practices was the French Revolution and its aftermath
which triggered conservative reaction on liberalism in England and on the continent well into the nineteenth century. The cause that became of greatest importance to conservative liberals was economic freedom. With the rise of classical economics and laissez-faire (economic liberalism), classical liberalism was branded by the newly emerging modern liberalists as ideal of negative liberty devoted to a general hostility to the state. In the midst of this profound revision or shift within liberalism, constitutional liberalists sought both to create and to contain power. This situation continued to be as such until the aftermath of World War I (WWI). Reviewing the tragic loss of 8.5 million lives and the devastation spread across much of Europe at the end of WWI, President Woodrow Wilson argued that instead of undemocratic nature of international politics and balance of power which “was bankrupt as a means to achieve security,” enlightened humans need to “create a new cooperative system to achieve a more stable and lasting peace without great power war” (2004, p. 160). This was not only a drastic departure from the initial developing phase of liberalism which held the notion of security relating to human nature, but also a revision of some of the earlier liberals’ assumptions, especially the one that relates to maximizing state security through armed intervention. For President Wilson, the ideas of national self-determination, open governments responsive to public opinion, and collective international security were transitional factors that will strengthen the Kantian “perpetual peace.”
Modern liberalism Modern liberalism is characterized by a greater willingness to let the state become an active participant in the economy. This has often issued in an obvious tendency to regulate the marketplace, and to have the state supply essential goods and services to everyone. While classical liberalism favors laissez-faire traditional economic policies, because it is thought to lead to liberty
and democracy, modern liberalism believe that this analysis is insufficient and misleading, and that in order to achieve the most basic liberal goals, the state must play a significant role in the economy. Such modern views could be associated with nineteenth-century liberal theorists such as Benjamin Constant and John Stuart Mill. More recently, John Dewey, John Rawls and others have articulated similar ideas. Another aspect within liberalism is the conflict between liberal egalitarianism and libertarianism. This aspect overlaps with the division between classical and modern liberalism. Libertarianism might be perceived as a radicalized variety of classical liberalism and liberal egalitarianism as a theoretical restatement of modern liberalism. Libertarianism is characterized by a deep concern for liberty, especially economic liberty, coupled with a related fewer attentions to other traditional liberal values such as democracy and justice. This sets libertarians apart from many earlier classical liberals such as Smith and Tocqueville who, while they advocated economic liberties, they also acknowledged the validity of other concerns. Liberal egalitarians generally share the traditionally liberal view that legitimate goals are many, and that economic freedom is just one of them. The name, liberal egalitarianism, indicates that liberal egalitarians would like to see equality as well as liberty brought about, which politically places them to the left of classical liberals and libertarians alike. To sum up this section, it is important to recognize that despite the serious challenges to them during the interval of the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, modern liberalists contributed substantially to the dynamics of their respective international powers. Particularly important to mention is that the United States has been actively given modern liberalism, as a practice and a theory, a dominant status in the contemporary world politics.
Typologies of liberal thought on international relations
As provided in the first section of this paper, throughout the past centuries, liberals of all strands would tend to share their core assumptions about individual behavior, state performance, and international relations. Yet, because there are various types of liberalism, dependent on society’s political objectives, there is no single, specific version of liberalism to be applicable worldwide. It is no wonder why Robert Keohane notes three basic types of liberal theories applicable to international relations: republican, commercial, and regulatory (1990, p. 176-82). The oldest version of liberalism, according to Keohane, is republican, which dates back to ancient Greek and Roman eras and has evolved over time in response to domestic and international situations. Republican city-state institutions were involved in constraining the use of force by their respective governments according to the norms of popular representations and political practices of checks and balances among various strands of the government (2004, p. 160). In 1795, the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested that since politics is compatible with moral principle both within a state and among states, therefore, the cause of “perpetual peace” would be best served by a “pacific federation” of free republican states (Kant cited in Kaufman et al., 2004, p. 168). It is based on this argument that in some international relations students have argued that democratic peace countries will not go to war against each other, and that “an international system with more democracies will produce a more peaceful world” (Brown, Lynn-Jones and Miller, 1996, pp. 100101 cited in Silverstone, 2004, p. 161). Keohane’s second typology is commercial liberalism which suggests trade to be a powerful form of cooperation that reduces the possibilities of war among nations considerably. According to Silverstone, this claim was first made by the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu who argued that “the natural effect of commerce is to lead to peace. Two nations that trade together become mutually dependent if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling; and all
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unions are based on mutual needs” (Hirschman, 1977, p. 80 cited in Silverstone, 2004, p. 161). As for the third type which is regulatory liberalism, Keohane provides that states can best serve their mutual international interests such as security, economic growth, and social welfare by generating rules to regulate and guide their international conducts (1990, p. 179). In many ways, this Keohanein type of liberalism is similar to the constitutional liberalism which was mentioned earlier in this paper. However, unlike the realists who claim that anarchy necessarily yields competitive state behavior, Keohane tends to emphasize the constitutional liberalists’ notion that without regulatory rules between states, authoritarian or democratic, mutual interests could not easily be discovered and the possibilities of distrustfulness among nations would be greater and may lead to warfare. This clearly was evident in the writings of British economist John A. Hobson before, during and, after WWI in which he blamed imperialism for its greed to accumulate wealth and strengthen its conflict prone balance of power system. As WWI left millions of casualties behind and brought havoc to much of Europe, Hobson began advocating for a structure to hold the existing international system. In his 1915 piece titled “Towards International Government,” and in an attempt to prevent wars, he suggested a world government “with powers to mediate and enforce decisions” (Dunne, 2005, p. 187). This call considered by many liberal scholars as the third phase in the development of liberalism.
The revival of liberalism and its impact on International relations Events of WWI pushed liberalism to recognize that rather than being considered as a natural condition, peace must systematically be constructed. Unlike Kant’s perpetual peace which “required the transformation of individual consciousness, republican constitutionalism, and a federal contract between states to abolish war” (2005, p. 189), President Wilson argued that “peace
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could only be secured with the creation of an international organization to regulate the international anarchy” and, that collective security should not be left to secret diplomatic deals and contracts between nations (2005, p. 191). However, unlike Hobson’s governed security, President Wilson collective security referred to a procedure where “each state in the system accepts that the security of one is the concern of all, and agrees to join in a collective response to aggression” (Roberts and Kingsbury, 1993, p. 30). Yet, when the League of Nations was founded on this notion, Hobson argued against it reasoning that just as peace is enforced by governments domestically, the international realm must have a democratic governing structure not only to regulate peace, but also enforce collective security. Because of its idealist norms, the experience of the League of Nations left a disastrous setback for liberalism in general, especially during the inter-war period. The United States’ unwillingness to join the international institution which it had created and the former Soviet Union’s refusal to join this idealist club for ideological reasons, had left the self-interest satisfied nations to manipulate provisions of the League’s Charter. The liberal right of self-determination of all nations founded in the League’s constitution became a trading point littered with moral problems. For example, the Kurds, as then the third largest nation under the ailing Ottoman Empire, were initially promised to enjoy their independent state of Kurdistan in 1921. However, because of the British economic interests in the Middle East, Kurds not only denied of having their own nation-state, but also forcefully divided in 1923 and compelled to take outlandish identities of four newly established states of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In 1939, E. H. Carr dazzlingly attacked the moral double standards of liberalism. In his “The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939” masterpiece, Carr argued against liberal idealism which James L. Richardson skillfully sums it as “the defence of the status quo in the name of peace as not
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necessarily more legitimate than challenging it in the name of justice” (cited in Dunne, 2005, p. 192). Nevertheless, it has to be noted that liberal idealism was more of a program to identify the freedom of states as part of the problem of international relations rather than a solution. Accordingly, idealists suggested two courses of actions to be taken: The first is how to normatively promote peace internationally. The second was the requirement for states to participate in a united international organization and be bound by its rules and regulations (Dunne, 2005, p. 195). This latter requirement became central to idealism norms, especially to deter and eventually defeat the Nazi Germany. As the Second World War set its course for much greater human miseries and immense worldwide devastations, fifty states came together in San Francisco and signed the United Nations Charter in June 1945. Although membership was near universal, the hegemonic powers of the time were able to prevent any enforcement actions from taking place which might undermine their selfinterests. Subsequently, liberals turned to international organizations to perform functions the state could not carry out alone. Efforts were made to account for international phenomena, such as the increasingly global economy, Education, the environment, human rights, and world health issues that could not be adequately explained within the realm of military security or state-based models of analysis. Furthermore, the increasing importance of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and propagation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as new international actors became the focal points for liberalist analysis. Thus, liberalism was reintroduced as a paradigm that could explore growing interdependence and the integration of the international community. More recent liberal international theories suggest that NGOs have weakened state sovereignty as the international community has become more interdependent (Keohane and Nye 1989). In a way, the failure of states to competently manage issues of complex interdependence has
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given rise to NGOs. Another liberal argument provides that state sovereignty should be restrained because it circumvents international issues. This contrasts with the assertion that interdependence will result in the deprecation of the state. Instead, the state is deemed to be an obstacle to international cooperation, and therefore should be restricted. Interestingly thought, during the Cold War, states were prioritizing their national security issues and leaving their citizens to mobilize on issues outside of the scope of military affairs. Keohane and Nye differentiate these interests as ‘high’ and ‘low’ political issues, where military security dominates ‘high politics’ and economic and social affairs represent ‘low politics’ (1989, p. 24). In response to the blurring of high and low politics, the number of NGOs increased, as citizens needed channels to voice their concerns. The more interdependent international actors become, the more issues arise that need to be addressed. In turn, the more issues which surface and demand attention, the more NGOs form to facilitate citizens’ concerns. Conclusion Classical liberal thought in relation to international relations took the view that the natural order corrupted by undemocratic state actors and outdated policies of balance of power. Commercial realism suggested free trade to be a powerful form of cooperation among nations that reduces the possibilities of war among nations considerably. Constitutional liberalism argued that by limiting arbitrary power, regulatory laws will be fair and thereby increase the state’s ability to secure cooperation without the imposition of force. In essence, it assumes that by exercising reason based on morality, unfettered free movement of people and goods could better facilitate a longlasting international peace. Although there are strong share and commonalities between classical and modern liberalism such as the confidence in the power of international public opinion to discipline the
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interests of states, liberal idealism was more of an immoral double standard served the interests of great powers. In summary, liberalism asserts that interdependence increases the number of issues that states cannot appropriately dealt with individually. Citizens have responded by forming and supporting NGOs that compensate for the inabilities of states. The result is that NGO activity diminishes state sovereignty.
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international relations: The value of alternative lenses. (5th ed.). Boston: Custom Publishing - McGraw-Hill. Hunt, E. K. (2003). Property and prophets: the evolution of economic institutions and ideologies. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc. Kant, I. (1795). To perpetual peace: A philosophical sketch (1795). In Kaufman, D., Parker, J., Howell, P., and Doty, G. (2004). Understanding international relations: The value of alternative lenses. (5th ed.). Boston: Custom Publishing - McGraw-Hill. Kaufman, D., Parker, J., Howell, P., and Doty, G. (2004). Understanding international relations: The value of alternative lenses. (5th ed.). Boston: Custom Publishing - McGraw-Hill. Keohane, R. O. (1990). International liberalism reconsidered. In Dunn, J. (1990). The economic limitations of modern politics. (ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Keohane, R. O. & Nye, J. S. (1989). Power and Interdependence. (2nd ed.) Boston: Little Brown. Oxford English Dictionary (1989): “Liberal”; In Oxford English dictionary. (2nd Ed.). Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50132669 Ryan, A. (1993). Liberalism. In Robert E. G. and Pettit, P. (eds.): A Companion to contemporary political philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell. Roberts, A., Kingsbury, B. (1993). United Nations, divided world. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Sartori, G. (1987). The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House. Silverstone, S. A. (2004). The liberal tradition and international relation. In Kaufman, D., Parker, J., Howell, P., and Doty, G. (2004). Understanding international relations: The value of alternative lenses. (5th ed.). Boston: Custom Publishing - McGraw-Hill.
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