A Critique On Liberal Internationalism

Posted on February 15, 2011 in Specials

By Waleed Tariq:

Liberalism is a school of thought in International Relations that emphasizes the rights and freedoms of the individual and the need to limit the powers of government (Britannica Encyclopedia). Liberal Internationalism as a theory emanated in 1919 on the basis of work of two British theorists: Norman Engel and Alfred Zimmon. It is also inspired by the ideas of American President, Woodrow Wilson.

The principles that have classically defined liberalism are that human nature is good altruistic, violence is the product of evil institutions that motivate them to indulge in evil acts and humans are always concerned about other people’s welfare.

Robert Jackson writes that liberals generally take a positive view of human nature. They have great faith in human reason and they are convinced that rational principles can be applied to international affairs. Liberals believe in formation a modern, liberal state that will bring ‘the greatest happiness in the greatest number’. It also outlines the fact that individuals are self-centered and competitive up to a certain point but also share interests and thus engage in collaborative and cooperative social action, domestically as well as internationally, resulting in benefits for everyone.

The belief in progress is core liberal assumption, primarily focusing on individual progress as it will enlarge their capacity and capabilities resulting in greater happiness and contentment. All this enhances the scope of international cooperation as an end result.

In order to gain cooperative international relations, Liberal Internationalists have presented a set of solutions through which these aims and objectives can be achieved.

Transnational relations between private individuals, groups and societies are encouraged for a more peaceful environment. This leads to a security community that is a group of people integrating with each other on the basis of culture and commerce exchange; hence achieving increased social communication, greater mobility of persons and stronger economic ties. This also helps in developing a mutually dependent relationship between its people and governments. Higher level of transnational relations mean higher level of interdependence thus welfare issues become more important.

International institutions promote cooperation between states and alleviate problems concerning lack of trust between states and also reduce states’ fear of each other.

According to Michael Doyle, promotions of Republican Democracies ensure greater peaceful conflict resolution as democracies do not go to war with each other. Also common moral values and economic interdependence act as a hindrance in their act to pursue violence.  Peace and democracy are just two sides of the same coin. Liberal states, founded on individual rights as equality before the law, free speech and other civil liberties, private property, and elected representation are fundamentally against war and when citizens who bear the burdens of war elect their governments, wars become impossible.

Walter Russell Mead in his article: Liberal Internationalism: the Twilight of a Dream Liberals are generally optimistic about human progress, cooperation and peace. This view has been criticized. People argue that human nature is violent and everyone is self-centered pursuing their own interests. Everyone is political. Also, international organizations have failed to safeguard the interests of militarily weak countries such Iraq. States like Kashmir and Palestine are denied justice since long. The increasing complexity of international life combined with the world’s cultural differences make global institutions less and less useful for handling international business as nobody likes the idea of having global institutions interfere with one’s local affairs .

He further states that Global institutions are under too much influence of outside powers and too little familiar to regional preferences and priorities.  While the global financial institutions are ineffective as well as unpopular, the luckless United Nations is a terrible forum for almost all purposes as only the ones who have no other option turn to it; UN peacekeepers are too often poorly led, poorly trained, poorly supported and poorly behaved.

The world economy is developing in ways that weaken the ability of international institutions to administer it and until and unless countries like China are ready to accept international supervision and constraints on their domestic economic policies, such institutions cannot hope to fill the macroeconomic role that Keynes, for example, hoped international institutions would play after World War Two. From the time when the Bretton Woods institutions have been formed, the world economy has been slipping gradually out of their grasp.

In my view, Liberal internationalism is a solution in search of a problem: it is an idea whose time has passed.  Liberals must take a long hard glance at a world that is not moving toward global governance in any serious way and think about how the principles at the heart of the Wilsonian vision can be advanced in a new century in an alternative manner.