A Brief Introduction to Liberalism

Main Tenets of Liberalism

Liberalism emerged as a school of international relations from a quest to find explanations for international peace that didn't rely upon power or material wealth. In the realm of liberalism, institutional ties bind states and cooperation promotes peace.

Some amount of state power is ceded to international organizations such as the United Nations to enable a common and continuous source or order based on law and tradition.

This school places a heavy focus on interdependence, including economic and cultural interactions. Thus, pursuing one's goals through diplomatic channels is seen as the best choice for maximizing the position of one's polity.

Ontologies & Epistemologies of Liberalism

According to liberal thought, a system of rules can be navigated by any number and scale of actors. Aside from bi-lateral and multi-lateral governmental relations, liberalism allows for non-state actors to engage, such as international organizations, bottom-up activism, and other types of epistemic communities that work to build the sandbox where international order exists.

Ultimately, this is a group of individual actors trying to manage complex overlapping and/or opposite ambitions.

Because there is a belief that long term gains will trump short term goals and that norms can be changed over time to help outlying ideologies move more toward the middle, liberals wager that prolonged peace is possible and can be maintained despite material differences.

Origins of Liberalism

The concept of liberalism stems from enlightenment European and modern American metaphysical traditions.

John Locke (1632 – 1704), a British philosopher, related human civilization to nature, saying that harmony is possible and that governments should act according to the will of the people. He lived in a time when citizens stormed the capital and executed the king. In his work, Two Treatieses of Government, he argues that for mutual preservation, humans adjust their actions to fit into the will of their group. Therefore, international relations can be maintained through tempering and establishing a social contract.

Voltaire (1694 – 1778), a French historian, read and wrote prolifically during his time. His works cover state-society relations, religion, philosophy, fiction, poetry, prose, and more. Voltaire is a strong critic of the governments of his age, the church, and the aristocracy. He wrote in favor of civil liberties and separation of powers.

Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), a Scottish economist, who discussed the moral role that individuals have as members of groups. He also laid the foundations of examining industry, capital, and the invisible mechanisms that accompany economics into non-economic realms.

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), a German philosopher, was greatly concerned with how we go about the process of knowing. His political philosophy centered on bringing morality into governance and that prosperity requires peace, which can be achieved through constitutional bounds.

For much of the twentieth century, liberalism played second fiddle to the varieties realism. However, after the Second World War and near the end of the Cold War, when the United States appeared to be the sole global superpower, liberalism underwent a change of the guard toward what we now call neoliberalism.

Robert Keohane (1941 - ), an American political scientist, is one of the most influential scholars in the field international political economy. He has argued the most stable structure for international politics was a unipolar hegemony. For Keohane, a singular central authority can best guide complex and interdependent world.

Joseph Nye (1937 - ), is an American political scientist, who has written about government strategies related to coercion and cooptation of other powers by means of economic, cultural, political force. His concept of soft power is discussed widely and has been used as a tool for comparing nations.

John Ikenberry (1954 - ), is an American political scientist, who has argued that it is institutions that have created the modern world order, not power, economics, or anything else. He says that it is precisely because the United States sought to constrain its own power that other nations were also willing to be bound to the institutional order in order to modernize.

Core Canon of Liberalism

Classical Liberalism

  • John Locke. Two Treatises of Government. 1689.

  • Voltaire. Political Writings. circa 1750's trans. by David Williams, 1994.

  • Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1759.

  • Adam Smith. Wealth of Nations. 1776.

  • Immanuel Kant. Critique of Pure Reason. 1781.

  • Immanuel Kant. Perpetual Peace. 1795.

Neoliberalism (Institutional Liberalism)

  • Robert Keohane & Josephy Nye. Power and Interdependence. 1977

  • Robert Keohane. After Hegemony. 1984.

  • Michael Doyle. "Liberalism and World Politics." 1986.

  • John Ikenberry. After Victory. 2001.

  • Joseph Nye. Soft Power. 2004.

  • John Ikenberry. Liberal Leviathan. 2011.

International Liberalism (Economic, Capitalist/Democratic Peace)

  • Richard Rosecrance. Interdependence: myth or reality? 1973.

  • Richard Rosecrance. "Whither Interdependence." 1977.

  • Richard Rosecrance. The Rise of the Trading State. 1986.

  • Michael Mousseau. "Market prosperity, democratic consolidation, and democratic peace." 2000.

  • Thomas Friedman. The World is Flat. 2005.

  • Dale Copeland. The Origins of Major War. 2013.

  • Dale Copeland. Economic Interdependence and War. 2014.

  • Michael Mousseau. "The End of War." 2019.

Notable Discussants of Liberalism

Abraham L. Newman, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Andrew Moravcsik, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Anthony McGrew, Benjamin Constant, Bruce Russett, Charles De Montesquieu, Charles P. Kindleberger, David Held, Denis Diderot, Emmanuel Sieyès, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Farrell, James Rosenau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, John G. Ruggie, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Rawls, John Stuart Mill, Jonathan Perraton, Joseph Stiglitz, Mark Crescenzi, Raymond Aron, Stephan Haggard, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and many more...