Liberalism in International Relations

Besides Realism, Liberalism is one of the greatest schools of knowledge in International Relations. Just like Realism, it is not easy to define Liberalism, for liberals come in many shapes and colors. However, I believe we can point to some core characteristics of liberals in International Relations.

One of the difficulties we find when discussing liberalism in International Relations is the same difficulty we have with Liberalism in general. Different from Marxism, for example, Liberalism is a very broad intellectual tradition, with many different thinkers. Sometimes I ask my students “who is the most important Marxist thinker?”. I hope they will answer Marx! And then I ask “who is the most important liberal thinker?”. Besides that, Liberalism went through a major transformation between the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the ways to make a distinction between the old and the new liberalism is to talk of classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Classical liberalism is very similar to what we call conservatism (or even Realism!). Modern Liberalism is often associated with the Democratic Party in the US.

In any case, I believe that the central tenet of liberalism is the defense of liberty. Liberals (especially classical liberals) believe that if individuals are set free from outside constraints, the natural result is progress. In other words, Liberals have great faith in the possibility of change – positive change. This contrasts with the general pessimism of Realists.

In very practical terms, although they agree with Realists that the International System is anarchic, Liberals see more space for cooperation between states towards a more pacific and prosperous World. Where Realists see competition, Liberals see at least the potential for cooperation. One of the ways that states can cooperate with one another is through shared values. These values can be fleshed into international organizations, such as the UN or the WTO.

In sum, liberals agree on a lot with Realists but have much more hope for international cooperation. I must say that I really want them to be right, but think that they are wrong. Realists seem to have a very strong point when they show how much the anarchy in the international system stops greater cooperation. And Liberals themselves are not waiting for a World government that will somehow solve that. I’m not saying that cooperation and progress are impossible or that they are undesirable. I’m just saying that I’m not convinced that they can happen the way Liberal Theory of International Relations describes.

Theories of International Relations: Realism

Someone (I don’t remember who) said that International Relations is the academic discipline of disagreement. Internationalists disagree on mostly everything, beginning by how to view their object of study. With that said, the discipline of International Relations has been historically dominated mostly by two theoretical schools, Realism and Liberalism. Some other minor schools, such as Constructivism and the English School also have significant influence. With that in mind, I believe it might be useful to post something here about the theory of International Relations.

Although the chronology is highly disputed, it can be defended that Realism is the first theory of International Relations, going back to Thucydides in Ancient Greece or to Machiavelli in late medieval/early modern Europe. In any case, Realism is arguably the most influential theory of International Relations, partially for its influence in actual statecraft (in opposition to academic thinking). Realists come in many shapes and colors, but I believe that most of them present some core characteristics:

The first thing that most (or in this case, all) Realists believe in is that the international system is anarchic. Actually, this is something that virtually any student of International Relations believes in, because… it is! When we say that the international system is anarchic, we are not saying that it is a mess or a state of permanent war. In international relations, the definition of anarchy is more simple: it means that there is no formal hierarchy of power between countries. Of course, countries have a clear hierarchy of power, with some being much more powerful than others. However, all countries are formally sovereign and independent. Countries recognize themselves as their ultimate authority. Each one of them.

A second thing that Realists believe is that countries (or in the more technical vocabulary, states) are the main actors of the international relations. Although we can speak of international corporations and international institutions, in the end, the actors that really matter are countries, especially great powers. That is so mainly because they have military capabilities. Coca-Cola may have lots of money, but not an army.

Finally, Realists believe that countries have a relationship of competition. They tend to see each other as potential enemies. Maybe not actual enemies, but certainly potential ones. Because of that, countries have to defend themselves against one another.

There are many more characteristics that we could add to this list, but I believe that these are the essential points of realist thinking in International Relations. Realists call themselves realists because they believe they see reality as it is, not in an idealized manner. I tend to agree. I believe that history proves that unfortunately, International Relations work in a realistic way. And this is something that, I believe, is key for at least many realists, and that is too often misunderstood: realists are not saying that international relations should be this way. They are saying that [sadly] they are this way. If you analyze international relations objectively, you will find out that countries (even the ones you like) and politicians (even the ones you believe are so nice) act in very selfish ways.

Realists are accused of leaving little or no room for change. But is this a fair assessment? I wish! But most other schools of International Relations fail to present plausible ways in which the international system could be improved, leading to more peace and prosperity for all.

Can you spot the most important information in this title?

The Diplomat has a piece up with the following title: “Russia’s Sole Aircraft Carrier to Be Fitted With Advanced New Air Defense System.”

The author of the piece goes on to wax poetic about the advanced new air defense system, but that’s not the most important information being conveyed. It’s the fact that Russia – Russia – has a single aircraft carrier.

Here is Popular Mechanics on countries and their aircraft carriers.

From the Comments: The “Strong Defense” argument against libertarian realism

Dr Delacroix claims to have spotted a weakness in libertarian foreign policy theory (known as “liberal realism” in political science circles):

Millions of registered Republicans (like me) and independents (like younger people close to me) are unable to buy the Libertarian line because they see or sense that it contains a central inconsistency: I want less or much less government, government is crushing me, it’s inimical to freedom, but what I want can only be had within a strongly defended polity. Such a polity usually requires a powerful defense establishment. Such an establishment, in turn undermines the possibility of smaller government.

This type of argument has been repeated ad nauseum in popular discourse and here on the blog, so it is – as Dr Delacroix points out – fair game as far as debunking (over and over again) goes. I have just three things to add.

1. The fact that “millions of registered Republicans” believe in something does not make it true. Millions of registered Republicans also believe that a radical Jewish rabbi came back to life three days after being crucified by the Roman state.

Even if billions of people believed that something false was actually true it would not make the falsehood any less false. Free trade is another great example of this phenomenon. Billions of people falsely believe that free trade is a bad thing, including some very smart people.

2.  Big does not mean strong. In fact, bigness often leads to weakness. This is the point that libertarians have been making for hundreds of years. The US could conceivable cut its defense budget in half while Russia and China could double their defense budgets and the US would still outspend the entire world on defense. A large military is often overstretched and therefore unable or unwilling to respond to threats elsewhere. Libertarians do not advocate for a smaller state because it makes the state weak. Libertarians advocate for a smaller state so that it can perform the few duties ascribed to it (courts and diplomacy/defense) with a ruthless efficiency.

3. A more libertarian foreign policy would be one with a much smaller budget, a much smaller role for the military, and a much more serious role for the military. If a libertarian US were to go to war it would declare that war and fight the enemy until it surrendered completely. I’ve already dealt with this in “Would a libertarian military be more lethal?” and “A cheaper, stronger army?” Dr Delacroix is either arguing from ignorance or he does not read much outside of his preferred circles.

In a society dedicated to the freedom of the individual, war is the last resort in diplomacy. As such, it should viewed with the utmost seriousness and skepticism. Even if millions of people feel otherwise.