Basic theoretical assumptions of liberalism
On discussing liberalism, it is primarily necessary to discuss its basic theoretical assumptions to clearly understand the essence of the theory in the context of international relations. First of all, it should be said that liberalism is a relatively new theory, which in a way revolutionized traditional views and contributed significantly to the general progress of political science suggesting a kind of alternative to numerous theories of international relations popular in the past. For instance, it should be said that liberalism rejected many ideas, which were considered to be unarguable in the past, such as the divine right of kings, hereditary status, established the religion and some others.
What then has liberalism suggested instead? It is necessary to underline that liberalism in international relations holds liberty as a primary political value that should define international policy, as well as domestic one. In broader terms, liberalism seeks “a society characterised by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on power, especially of government and religion, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy, that supports private enterprise, and a transparent system of government in which the rights of minorities are guaranteed” (Charleston 1999, p.310). Being applied to international relations, these basic principles of liberalism underlines the necessity of the existence of the plurality of state actions in the international arena. In other words, states should be able to make free choices according to their preferences, which are the primary determinant of state behavior. Naturally, the preferences would vary depending on a state because each state has its own particular culture, traditions, set of moral values, as well as economic and natural conditions, political system, etc.
Furthermore, it is also imperative to emphasize that liberalism stands on the ground that “interaction between states is not limited to the political (high politics), but also economic (low politics) whether through commercial firms, organizations or individuals” (Powell 1994, p.322). In such a way liberalism attempts to overcome a kind of anarchy that could be developed in the result of the difference in political preferences of all states which differ dramatically. Instead, liberalism attempts to increase the role of cultural capital which, according to liberalism theories, should create “opportunities for cooperation and broader notions of power” (Nincic 1999, p.29). One of the examples of such cultural cooperation may be found in the sphere of cinematography and media where American films are so widely spread and popular that they contribute to the growth of popularity of American culture worldwide and it stimulates the creation of markets for American goods.
Finally, it should be said that liberalism suggests quite an idea, which seems to be a kind of utopia, that peace in the world can be achieved by cooperation and independence of states.
Idealism of liberalism
Naturally, on deep reflection, liberalism turns to be an extremely idealistic theory, especially if it is applied to international relations. To prove it, it is simply necessary to evaluate its basic theoretical assumptions critically.
First of all, it should be said that liberalism, rejecting certain ideas, does not take into consideration cultural differences between states. For instance, on rejecting the divine rights of kings, or established the religion, it may hurt religious feelings of those people who live in a country where religion has rather strong positions. Moreover, the very existence of such states as Vatican turns to be an absolute nonsense because they exist only due to the domination of established religion and are headed by the Pope or any other individual who actually symbolize a representative of God on the earth. Naturally, such interpretation is rather primitive, but it reveals the idealistic essence of liberalism.
Moreover, it is even possible to say that, in rejecting old idealistic views, it suggests new, which are not less idealistic. For instance, liberalists suggest that liberty is the highest value but historically international relations were based on the principles of deprivation of liberty of some states by others. It was not so long time ago when developed countries had colonies and practically divided the whole world into spheres of their influence. Even nowadays, there may be observed a significant gap between developed and developing countries. It is not a secret that the current process of globalization is quite arguably because it creates a situation when developed countries expand on markets of developing countries depriving them of a possibility to make significant progress in their economic development because they cannot win the competitive struggle with powerful multinational corporations that represent developed countries.
Furthermore, another basic idea of liberalism is also extremely idealistic. What is meant here is the idea that states act according to their preferences. Obviously, this is an extremely arguable point. Naturally, it would be perfect if each state could realize its potential and achieve possibly better results but in such a situation the contemporary world would rather be represented some prosperous nations. Unfortunately, the reality is far from this ideal, and the main reason is the dramatic difference in the capabilities of states, which may differ significantly from their preferences. In other words, states should have a material basis for the practical realization of their preferences. Otherwise, the world would be doomed to anarchy because the difference in interests would provoke permanent conflicts in international relations that would make wars practically inevitable that contradicts to one of the basic goals of liberalism to sustain peace.
In this respect, liberalist suggestion to use cultural capital as a means of cooperation contributing to sustaining peace is also too idealistic. In fact, it is true that culture can stimulate international trade and open new markets, but in the case of American films, as well as in any other case of cultural expansion, it is necessary to realize that it is a result of the political and economic development of a state. Practically, it means that American films could hardly be so popular if the US failed to dominate in international relations worldwide. The main reason is that economic interests are as a rule higher than cultural ones and it is hardly possible to imagine that a state would open its market to foreign products and ruin local production only under the influence of cultural expansion. In this respect, it worth to remind some totalitarian states which forbidden merely and keeps forbidden foreign cultural expansion (USSR, Cuba, China).
Anyway, it is obvious that economic and political factors were always defined in international relations.
Liberalism in comparison with other approaches
The idealism of liberalism is getting to be particularly obvious in comparison with other theories. For instance, Marxist would severely criticise liberalism for the idea that liberty and cultural cooperation can contribute to peace and independent development of states. In stark contrast, they stay on the ground that culture is just a product of a dominant ideology, which, in its turn is created by dominant classes. As a result, international relations are defined by economic interests of the dominant classes of states and conflicts between them are inevitable as long as classes exist.
Furthermore, probably the most significant differences from liberalist idealism may be found in realism.
One of the basic points of the realism theory is the concept of power. According to realism, power “covers all social relationships… from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another” (Morgenthau 1996:420), and the ultimate goal is the control of a man over another man, of a state over other state and it seems as if there remains little room for cooperation.
In general, one of the key points that differ liberalism from realism is the fact that the latter views the state as a unitary actor and rejects idealistic pluralism typical for liberalism.
Thus, in conclusion, it is possible to say that liberalism, being a progressive theory, is still rather idealistic and its main theoretical assumptions seem to be hardly realizable in practice in international relations. Not surprisingly that this theory is often criticised but it is also hardly possible to deny that it has some crucial points that should be developed, such as the idea of liberty. Naturally, many aspects of liberalism are idealistic but they worth striving for.
Charleston, P.F. Theories of International Relations. LA: McGraw Hill, 1999.
Morgenthau, Hans. Realism and International Politics. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. LA: McGraw Hill, 1996.
Nincic, Miroslav. “The national interest and its interpretation.” The Review of Politics Winter 1999 v61 i1 p29(2).
Powell, Robert. “Anarchy in international relations theory: the neorealist-neoliberal debate.” International Organization Spring 1994 v48 n2 p313-344.
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