Liberalism (international relations)/Pluralism

Posted by Umar Farooq
July 21, 2017

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Liberalism (international relations)/Pluralism

Liberalism (or Pluralism) is another international relations theory. Liberalism (international relations) rests on a number of assumptions. In this article, we shall discuss liberalism in international relations. And as we shall point out, many of these assumptions differ from those of realism/political realism, and have a quite different worldview as it relates to idea of international relations. Liberalism is important to understand, since the theory is the foundation of belief for those who favor international organizations such as the United Nations in the global system.

Liberalism, pluralism, or Liberal Institutionalism is set on the idea that actors in the international system could reach a “peaceful world order” (Burchill, 2005), and not one of violence and insecurity that the realists argue. Thus, humans are not naturally violent-prone with one another, that instead, peace is actually quite possible. Some have even interpreted liberalism to go further than merely saying it can be possible, with some arguing that war is “unnatural” as well as “irrational” (Burchill, 2005: 58). For example, Burchill (2005) cites Thomas Payne, who says that people want peace, but it is governments that  have an interest in creating wars. 

Fortunately, for those who espoused liberalism (in international relations), particularly early in the 1800s, were saying humans can get to the point where war could be eliminated. As Burchill (2005) states, “War was a cancer on the body politic. But it was an ailment that human beings, themselves, had the capacity to cure…the ‘disease’ of war could be successfully treated with the twin medicines of democracy and free trade. Democratic processes and institutions would break the power of the ruling elites and curb their propensity for violence. Free trade and commerce would overcome the artificial barriers between individuals and unite them everywhere into one community” (59). In addition, there is a place for the rule of law. One might argue that international human rights law, as well as international courts such as the International Criminal Court are non-military ways of working towards global justice and cooperation.

Assumptions of Liberalism (International Relations)/Pluralism

Liberalism disagrees with realism/political realism on many key assumptions. There are a number of differences between these two schools of thought. To begin, unlike political realism, which views the state as the primary actor, liberalism/pluralism sees non-state actors as highly important in the international system. Liberals disagree with realism/political realism about the sole importance of the state. While the state does indeed matter in the international system, individual actors are key in international relations. Related to this, unlike realists, liberals believe that domestic politics should not be ignored.

Thus, they place a primary emphasis on the actions and interests of individuals and groups, and namely these interests within a state. Thus, liberalism argues that “domestic state-society relations constitute the central issue of politics” (Moravcsik, Liberal International Relations Theory: 7). And, unlike realism, which emphasizes individual loyalty to the overall state, liberalism argues otherwise, saying instead that individuals have their own interests, which often can differ from that of government leaders. As Moravcsik explains, “Private individuals independently calculate personal gains and losses from foreign policy, popular support for foreign policy initiatives, for government institutions and, indeed, for the survival of the state itself, all depend fundamentally on the precise nature of individual preferences and their relation to the international environment” (8).

Thus, liberalism clearly suggests that individuals within a society can have very different calculated goals compared to a state leader/leaders; the idea of a unified domestic front for a state does not exist (or easily can not exist). As Moravcsik explains, “[f]or Liberals, the foreign policy preferences of governments are directly influenced by the formal representative institutions that link state and society. These domestic “transmission belts” include political parties, electoral systems and bureaucracies (17). This is a point that counters realist claims about the state being a unified actor. However, this is not to suggest that these individual interests are always harmonious; some within liberalism recognize the conflict associated with the political interests of varying actors.

Yet, despite these issues, liberalism argues that despite these tensions, it is the possibility that, through political institutions, that individuals will be able to cooperate with one another to reach common objectives and goals (Moravcsik). While liberalists and realists do agree that the state is an anarchical system, unlike realists, liberalists believe that there is not a competition for power and resources. Instead, in the anarchical state, states are best off not by competing, but rather by cooperating. Thus, there is a strong focus on regional and international organizations. Such organizations can help the international community reach continual peaceful outcomes, which are possible to liberals. Furthermore, with liberalism, there is a belief that states can indeed cooperate by themselves; there is no need for a sole superpower to organize or force such behavior. As Burchill (2005) explains, “[f]or them, anarchy is mitigated by regimes and institutional cooperation which brings higher levels of regularity and predictability to international relations. Regimes constrain state behaviour by formalizing the expectations of each party to an agreement where there is a shared interest. Institutions then assume the role of encouraging cooperative habits, monitoring compliance and sanctioning defectors. Regimes also enhance trust continuity and stability in a world of ungoverned anarchy” (65).

Now, the makeup of these political institutions can vary. In some instances, such institutions may be more focused on the individual human being, whereas in others, it may be the formation of an international institution such as an international organization, which is composed of state actors. But regardless, through institutions that establish and protect norms such as individual rights, as well as an open economic market, states can cooperate with one another to not only improve their economic wealth, but also that they can, through institutions and cooperation, be more secure as a state (Moravcsik).

Liberals also disagree with realists about ideas of relative power and absolute power. For liberals, absolute power is much more important than relative power. Thus, if two states both benefit from an agreement, than this would be a policy option worth considering, regardless of how well off the deal makes the other state. If we recall, realism and realists have often discouraged alliances and trade agreements when it made one state much stronger than the other, despite the fact that both would benefit from the said agreement. However, “Liberal institutionalists, on the other hand, believe international relations need not be a zero-some game, as many states feel secure enough to maximize their own gains regardless of what accrues to others” (Burchill, 2005: 63).

Related to the idea of absolute gains, and in particular, as they relate to economic interdependence and cooperation, there is a belief within thinkers of liberalism that ideas such as”Free trade [has been viewed as] a more peaceful means of achieving national wealth, because, according to the theory of comparative advantage, each economy would be materially better off than if it had been pursuing national and self-sufficiency (autarky)” (Burchill, 2005: 63). Furthermore, there is also the sentiment among liberalism that not only will trade make states more powerful economically, but that “Free trade would also break down the divisions between states and unite individuals  everywhere in one community. Artificial barriers to commerce distorted perceptions and relations between individuals, thereby causing international tension. Free trade would expand the range of contacts and levels of understanding between the peoples of the world and encourage international friendship and understanding” (Burchill, 2005: 63). Thus, herein lies the notion that interdependence leads states to avoid war so as to continue to benefit from trade ties with other states, and thus, would help states move away from aggressive behavior towards one another (Burchill, 2005).

Benefits and Criticism of Liberalism (International Relations)

Scholars, such as Robert Keohane (2012) have argued that liberalism has indeed led to a shift in international relations. Specifcially, he notes three particular advancements in recent decades, saying that:

“Since the early 1990s we can observe three developments of note: an increase in legalization; increasing legalism and moralism expressed by people leading civil society efforts to creates and modify international institutions; and a decline in the coherence of some international regimes with a failure to increase the coherence of others” He goes on to say that “[i]ncreasing legalism and moralism might have been expected 20 years ago by those of us who studied liberalism; but in different ways the increases in legalization and the recent apparent decline in the coherence of international regimes seem anomalous (128).

Keohane (2012) argues that the fast rise in human rights documents in recent decades is evidence of the increased emphasis on moralism by states in the international system. Furthermore, states have continued to emphasize democratic governance. For example, along with the rich history of human rights documents, the establishment of human rights institutions such as The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY), The European Court of Human Rights, as well as the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Keohane, 2012) seems to fit within liberalism’s ideas how institutions can shape behavior.

Moreover, international intervention has gained popularity in international institutions; ideas such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) (which are centered in moralism) have taken center stage for state behavior (130). However, while this is the case, this doesn’t necessarily remove the power structures that at least at some point may be driving some of this behavior (Keohane, 2012). And this attention to moralism can indeed be good, as he suggests that “Moralism is endemic to liberalism and reflects one of its strengths; the creation of an environment in which social movements build around values rather than material interests can thrive” (131). However, he also speaks to the point that moralism can be an issue if it jeopardizes security, or if it is negatively impacted by power (131).




Burchill, S. (2005). Liberalism, Chapter 3, pages 55-83, in Theories of International Relations, Third Edition. Palgrave Macmillan.

Keohane, R. (2012). Twenty Years of Institutional Liberalism. International Relations, Vol. 26, No. 2, pages 125-138.

Moravcsik, Andrew: Liberalism and International Relations Theory. Paper No. 92-6, pages 1-53. Available Online:




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