Liberal Internationalism

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Liberal Internationalism

Towards a world safe for democracy

Aamina Urooj

Liberal internationalism is one of the most important theories of International Relations. Succinctly, this theory aims at world peace through the introduction of international law, organizations and regimes, to limit the influence of nation-states and to diminish the logic of power politics. Free international flows of capital and trade are also part of it, as is the building-up of domestic institutional arrangements such as democracy since robust democracies do not fight each other. This is all based on the expectation that humans are rational enough to overcome war and conflict. In the following write-up, the writer has thrown light on various aspects of this powerful theory.

Liberal internationalism is an approach to International Relations that sees the spread of liberal democracy throughout the world as the only effective pill to end conflicts. In this effort, international organizations have a role to play. The proponents of this foreign policy doctrine state that international organizations should embrace states that uphold rules-based norms and celebrate democracy towards multilateralism so that democracy could get entrenched in the wider world.
Secondly, liberal international organizations should intervene in other states’ affairs so as to achieve liberal objectives. This involvement by other states includes humanitarian aid and military intervention when the citizens of that state are being oppressed by its ruling class or they are denied access to basic human rights. The latter view is contrary to realist, isolationist or non-interventionist foreign policy doctrines which suggest that there is illegitimate and involuntary intervention in other free states, and label it as liberal interventionism.
The roots of liberal internationalism are associated with former US President Woodrow Wilson’s insights about the cause of conflict and instability in international relations due to the undemocratic nature of international politics. He viewed anarchy as the driving force for an unequal balance of power and irregular distribution of power that made might the right. Although emerging in the 19th century, the doctrine of liberal internationalism nourished and developed under President Wilson so much so that it is also referred to as ‘Wilsonianism’.
The doctrine got widespread popularity after the establishment of the League of Nations. The founders of the League advocated that institutions should propagate democratic rule and they should dictate states towards peace. Part of the doctrine seems to be inspired by Immanuel Kant’s idea of ‘perpetual peace’ where he propounded that states should be governed by the rule of law under the auspices of a federation of free states. When this federation of free states becomes republics and their citizens acquire the power of decision-making, they will least choose war. The more the number of states becoming republics, the more the spread of democracy which will eventually eliminate war as a rational choice and hence the conflict will end and peace will prevail.
Major proponents
Although the doctrine of liberal internationalism had raised its head in the 18th century, it emerged as a powerful ideology in the 19th century mainly in Great Britain. The main proponents of the doctrine were politicians including Richard Cobden and John Bright, and philosophers like Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill and others. They were highly critical of the existing international system which, according to them, was based on violence and hypocrisy. They made efforts to transform the system from mercantilism and feudalism to free trade and democracy.
Internationalists were split into two factions. One of them believed that the reforms were necessary to bring about necessary change in the society. It will move societies towards democracy and there will ultimately be a shift in international morality which will be more inclined towards peaceful solutions. The other faction sought significant institutional construction at the international level as the only feasible way to bring the desired change. They proposed a variety of institutional structures at regional and global levels including transnational organizations and international arbitration bodies.
World War I undermined the high hopes of internationalists. They expedited the efforts for developing and reforming the League of Nations and establishing international law later on but World War II hit yet another blow to them. The post-war period was dominated by events of the Cold War and the doctrine of liberal internationalism took a backseat as realism surpassed it. However, it did not become irrelevant as new international institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union made significant strides in promoting and expanding the liberal world order.
Basic assumptions
The goal of liberal internationalism is to achieve world peace through democracy. The doctrine has accommodated multiple strands over time which became part of the theory but its key assumptions remain as follows:
· Establishing global structures within the international system that promote a liberal world order, global free trade, liberal political systems and liberal economies.
· Promoting multilateral agreements within states with the help of international organizations to expand rules-based norms.
· The gradual transformation of world politics from anarchy and instability to common institutions and the rule of law.
· Encouraging the spread of democracy on a global scale
· Once implemented, the states will gain a ‘peace dividend’ as liberal states are less prone to violence and their outlook is characterized by democratic peace theory. Hence, peace will prevail in the face of the least violence.
Relevance today
Liberal internationalism has maintained its relevance throughout time. It is appreciated for standing up for people who lost their voice before power elites. Speaking out against human rights violations became a norm that was introduced by internationalists. Various international organizations which have liberal norms embedded in their constitutions safeguarded the fundamental human rights of people around the world. These institutions include the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights.
Another praiseworthy achievement of liberal internationalism is the spread of democracy in the world. The number of states that enshrined liberal democracy kept rising throughout the 20th century. Huntington identified ‘three waves of democratization’. This is the time period when rising democratic states outnumbered the states that experienced a democratic breakdown. In the same tenure, the number of democratic states reached around 120 and since then there has not been any conflict on a global scale which is, nevertheless, a remarkable achievement.
Although the events of the Cold War dashed the hopes of internationalists, the doctrine kept thriving in the academic sphere as well as in political advocacy both in academia, specifically in international law and normative political theory, and think tanks. It has not lost its relevance to this date as the liberal world order has continued to reap fruits for a large population of the world.
The foreign policy doctrine of liberal internationalism has harboured much criticism despite its academic and practical success. First in this regard is about intervening in states to achieve liberal objectives. Critics of this argument say that under the garb of intervention for democratic purposes, the doctrine provides the rationale for imperialism and military interventionism. The pieces of empirical evidence for this notion have been a lot in number in the postwar period. The leader of liberal internationalism, America’s silence on China’s violation of human rights to trade its help against the Soviets, NATO’s intervention in a number of sovereign states during the Cold War, War on Terror are some of the events that showed that the advocates of liberal internationalism put their interests ahead of truly promising democracy in the world.
Another question that raises eyebrows is that the establishment of liberal internationalism has largely been the result of a hegemon power. What will be ‘after the hegemon’? The United States has dictated almost all efforts of expanding democratic rule in non-democratic regions. They question the fairness of this system.
The foreign policy doctrine of liberal internationalism was established with high hopes of addressing the root problems of the international system through democracy. The proponents of the doctrine saw it as an effective approach to eliminating conflict. Despite its shortcomings in practical realms, internationalists have underpinned their stronghold in the academic and political sphere to this day and have remained a relevant approach in the international realm.

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