7 Components of Liberalism

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Liberalism is a social school of thought in international relations theory that developed in the 1970s. The political concept holds that the state is not subject to external authority of other states nor is it subject to other internal authorities such as the military. Liberalism posits that international law organizations and nongovernmental organizations are equally important factors in world politics while rejecting the realist theory that international relations are a zero-sum game. With the evolution of communication and transportation technologies during the latter decades of the 20th Century came an increased level of interdependence between sovereign states; this has only increased the importance of understanding the components of liberalism. In order for diplomats and international relations professionals to achieve professional success and be effective in their roles, they must have a keen awareness regarding the fundamentals of liberalism.

Democratic Peace Theory

Democratic peace theory argues that democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with one another. Generally speaking, democratic governments focus mostly on maintaining internal stability, ensuring that their respective populations have all of their social, political and economic needs properly satisfied. The democratic peace theory purports that a spread of democracy will result in greater international peace and that democratic political institutions make it so that governments are blocked from initiating war without the consent of the electorate. Diplomats and government officials being held accountable by the people they represent or the parliamentary government is an important aspect of maintaining international peace. Within the democratic peace theory of liberalism, professionals must understand the factors motivating the pursuit of peace among democratic states. Factors include culpability for leaders in the event of war, accountability to international diplomatic entities such as the United Nations, and a democratic state’s possible loss of economic wealth. By understanding basic motivations for peace, diplomats are more likely to protect these principles during tense negotiations or conflict that may otherwise lead to war.

Rejection of Power Politics

Power politics is a theory of international relations in which sovereign nations protect their own interests through the use of military, political or economic threat. Power politics views international relations through the lens of competition and self-interest—nations vie to remain in power and reap much of the world’s resources, and to the victor belong the spoils. A deeply engrained tenet of liberalism, however, is the active rejection of power politics and the prioritization of cooperative policies that circumvent the need for warfare and aggression. Through the eschewing of power politics, aspiring diplomats and political professionals gain an increased understanding of cooperation among nations and how compromise brings about more favorable outcomes than conflict.

Moderator Role of International Law

Those who follow liberal political theory believe the role of international law to be one of moderation. International law differs from state or national legal systems in that it is predominantly applicable to countries and their leaders, rather than a nation’s private citizens. States who have agreed to a treaty and have accepted the authority of the International Court of Justice, which was established by the Charter of the United Nations, are subject to the Court’s rulings. With proper diplomacy and the right governing institutions in place, liberal theorists believe that states can work together to maximize prosperity and minimize conflict—a valuable asset for state actors.

For instance, member states of the United Nations often work together to ensure that all members adhere to international laws. In the event that any member states choose not to follow the agreed-upon laws—for instance, one state violates the territorial coastal water rights of another state—it’s up to the other member states to act as moderators, establishing or enforcing legal agreements to ensure a proper resolution to the issue. Additionally, many theorists argue that digital technology, such as the Internet, has only made it easier for nations to cooperate with one another on a large scale. They note that continued technological refinements will only facilitate cooperation, and that global prosperity will advance in the near future, as long as digital tools are used properly and effectively.

Potential Purpose of Cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all humans share a common morality, linking them to a single community. Cosmopolitanism aims to put the individual— not the state— at the center of moral concern. Over time, the society of states—or a group of states, or governments—will transform into societies of people, where international boundaries fade, nationalism falls to the wayside, and individuals come to think of themselves as citizens of the planet, and not as citizens of particular nations, per se. Regardless of ideology, nationality or ethnicity, all humans tend to believe in a common moral or ethical code; for instance, it is commonly understood that murder is ethically wrong, and that the infirm and elderly should be treated with compassion. Cosmopolitan morality can be achieved through the exercise of reason and the creation of democratic states.

An international diplomat who believes in the tenants of cosmopolitanism may be more inclined to focus on and address critical and morally significant issues that have the potential to transcend nationalist beliefs and unite entire societies across the globe. For instance, fighting global warming and reducing overall levels of resource consumption are prime examples of issues that require international cooperation and therefore, have the ability to unite humanity. Cosmopolitanism and liberalism both accept power as an important aspect of existence, but do not view it as all-encompassing. Those who practice liberalism in international politics may adopt a cosmopolitan stance and push for international institutions to foster the creation of a larger global citizenship—one that pushes to advance all of human society in a positive fashion.

International Cooperation

As opposed to the aggression of realist theory—which assumes that power or military might is, or should be, the primary goal of political action—liberalism believes that power should be measured or amassed instead through state economies, political freedoms and rights along with the possibilities of peace and cooperation. It claims that progress in human history can best be measured by the elimination of global conflict and the extent to which democracies have transcended violent instincts. Those diplomats who understand and practice liberalism to represent their state offer the possibility of peace even as states amass power and pursue economic progress through the expansion free trade and market capitalism. This is in contrast to democratic peace theory, which holds that the spread of democracy will result in greater international peace.

Leverage of Nongovernmental Diplomats

Liberalism sees the implementation of international organizations and nongovernmental bodies to help shape state preferences, such as globalization, and public policy. In liberal theories of international politics, multistate political formations and nongovernmental forces influence foreign policy as a means of increasing international cooperation. This was first seen post-World War II as liberals turned to international institutions and diplomats to carry out a number of functions the state could not perform in the wake of the war, such as protecting human rights. In times of conflict, war or unrest, a neutral and nonpartisan organization can cross all borders—physical and ideological— to provide unprejudiced care and support. Amnesty International serves people across borders and reminds authorities to respect and support human rights. Another example would be the United Nations (UN), which currently strives to establish global peace by fostering a broader sense of international cooperation with respect to distinct political, social, economic, and militaristic perspectives. Those seeking a career in diplomacy and international affairs benefit from understanding how nongovernmental actors like the United Nations help broker peace and agreements between warring states and set the stage for international law or coalitions.

Institutional Liberalism

Institutional liberalism helps to facilitate activities that are beneficial to states (such as trade), reduces transnational fears that can result in tension, and provides a flow of information as well as opportunities to negotiate between states in the event of tensions over arms control or economics. From the Institutional Liberalism perspective, institutions such as the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or the UN, can enhance the ability of governments to monitor others’ compliance. Ultimately, the goal is for states to see institutions as mutually beneficial; a good example is NATO, which uses transnational ties to create a security community among Western countries.

The liberal perspective on international politics views the state as a unit of analysis, but takes the principles of realism and moves them one step further, including international law, peace theories, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations as equally important factors in world politics. Liberalism is a valuable concept for those on political and diplomatic career tracks. Understanding and practicing liberalism furthers an acceptance of Western political systems and how international laws and peace are brokered. Those with a background in liberalism may be more successful on the international stage.

Learn More

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Our online Master of Arts in International Relations program offers a curriculum that evolves with current events to help you face the future of international affairs. Norwich University’s master’s degree in international relations covers many subjects to give you a look at the internal workings of international players, examine the role of state and non-state actors on the global stage, and explore different schools of thought. You can further strengthen your knowledge by choosing one of five concentrations in International Security, National Security, International Development, Cyber Diplomacy, or Regions of the World.

Recommended Readings:
How Developing Nations Are Aided by Nonprofit Organizations and Social Enterprises
Maritime Threats to Worldwide Oil Distribution

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October 2017