Liberal theories of international relations: a primer



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autonomous influence of international institutions. He cared little about their precise form, because he viewed them as no more than “a symbolic affirmation of the ‘rightness’ of democracies in their mutual relations.” Thus, for example, his initial draft of the League Covenant included no provisions for international law or a supranational court; both were eventually added only at the insistence of more conservative (and more cynical) foreign and domestic politicians. He was skeptical that the League could ever actually override national decisions.
Instead what Wilson termed the ‘‘first point’’ to remember about the League was not institutionalist but liberal: Its membership was to be restricted to those countries enjoying republican government and national self-determination. Insofar as the League was to rely on public opinion, it was to be solely democratic public opinion. Based on a multicausal liberal analysis, Wilson explicitly identified a set of narrow preconditions under which collective security institutions could succeed. The League, he argued, would function only if nationally self-determining democracy was a nearly universal form of government among great powers, which in turn controlled an overwhelming proportion of global military power. In 1917, Wilson believed this situation to be imminent: “There are not going to be many other kinds of nations for long. . . . The Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns are permanently out of business.” Given Wilson’s underlying theory, is it surprising that the League had become moribund by 1936, after twelve European countries had moved from democracy to dictatorship? Or that this shift isolated democratic France and Britain, exacerbating their oft-noted geopolitical dilemmas in Manchuria and Abyssinia? When a similar situation arose in the former Yugoslavia after 1989, in a world where almost all the great powers in the region were liberal democracies—as we have seen above—Western governments intervened to oppose aggression, while avoiding any hint of armed conflict among themselves. Indeed, the absence of serious conflict among Western powers over Yugoslavia—the ‘‘World War I scenario’’—reflects in large part a shared perception that the geopolitical gains from conflict among democratic governments are low. In this sense, the interwar failure of the League, often cited as a realist refutation of utopian liberal ideology, in fact confirms liberal IR theory.
Multicausal liberalism helps to explain not only ambitious schemes for cooperation like collective security, but ‘‘realist’’ policy outcomes like power balancing and bipolar conflict. A form of multicausal liberalism underlay the post–World War II U.S. policy of containment—a policy traditionally treated as the embodiment of realism. Containment of the Soviet Union was never simply about power balancing. It was a liberal grand strategy, as made explicit after World War I by Wilson and John Dewey, then after World War II by George Kennan. Kennan, in this regard a liberal, linked the European threat to the nature of the Soviet regime; it is often forgotten that nine-tenths of the seminal ‘‘X’’ article was given over to an analysis of Soviet domestic beliefs. A Western military deterrent would be required, he argued, only until the Bolshevik revolution had run its course, whereupon the Soviet system would collapse of its own accord. The decisive Western actions in the Cold War, according to Kennan, were the reconstruction of Germany and Japan as capitalist democracies through policies like the Marshall Plan. The goal of the policy was the transformation of social purposes and state preferences in Western countries, neither of which would assume much importance in a purely realist analysis.
In the end, the conduct and conclusion of the Cold War proceeded precisely as Kennan’s two-stage liberal model had predicted. Realist power balancing served throughout as a static, interim instrument to maintain the status quo, but shifting state preferences explain the outbreak and eventual passing of the conflict. By 1959, standing in a Moscow exhibit of kitchenware, Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev declared that the Cold War would be won and lost not through relative military capabilities, but through the relative economic prowess and ideological attractiveness of the two superpowers. Economic stagnation and a measure of ideological change in the East predated foreign policy change. If the West, as Khrushchev rashly promised, had been buried under the superior economic performance of the East, the outcome might well have been different. These examples demonstrate the ability of multicausal liberal theories to explain critical twentieth-century foreign policy decisions, such as those taken in 1918, 1947, and 1989, even when national security interests are fully engaged.
In interpreting such cases, the major difference between realist and liberal theories lies not, as is often claimed, in the observation that realist states are concerned about security threats, or even with balancing security threats. Both theories predict this under specific circumstances. Where the two families of theory genuinely differ is on the sources of security threats themselves, with realists attributing them to particular configurations of power (against which states balance), whereas liberals attribute them to extreme conflict among ideological, institutional, and material preferences. (For their part, Institutionalists attribute them to uncertainty and the failure of commitment strategies, and epistemic theorists to particular beliefs about the efficacy or appropriateness of specific policy responses.) If liberal theories contribute to explaining core realist cases such as bipolar conflict, there is good reason to believe that the most powerful influences in world politics today are not the deployment of military force or the construction of international institutions, but the quiet transformation of the domestic and transnational social values, interests, and institutions that underlie the widely varying preferences states bring to world politics.

1 For more detail, including citations and references, see Andrew Moravcsik, “"The New Liberalism," in Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal, eds. The Oxford Handbook of International Relations (2008); "Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics" International Organization (Autumn 1997)’; Liberal International Relations Theory: A Scientific Assessment" in Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman, eds. Progress in International Relations Theory: Appraising the Field (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 159-204; “Is Anybody Still a Realist?" International Security (Fall 1999) (with Jeffrey Legro). All are available at www.princeton.edu/~amoravcs. The focus on variation in state preferences is consistent with some or all of other scholarly writing on IR theory. See, for example, David Lake and Robert Powell, eds. Strategic Choice and International Relations Strategic Choice and International Relations (Princeton, 1999), Chapter Two; Robert Keohane, International Institutions and State Power: Essays in International Relations Theory (Boulder, 1999).


2 This is not to assume that states are perfectly rational calculating machines, nor to claim that political contestation within states is unimportant for international affairs. Nor is it to assume that states have all relevant information at their disposal. Liberals do assume, however, that states are, in a broad sense, instrumentally rational in foreign policy-making.

3 Note that for liberals, the key term “preferences” or “underlying interests” designates, as it does in economics, views about the ultimate substantive outcomes of policy, rather than immediate instrumental objectives that may vary with the tactical or strategic setting. By “preferences” liberals mean underlying “preferences over outcomes” (e.g. sectoral or national prosperity, peace, national unity or a cleaner environment) not “preferences over strategies or tactics” (e.g. deterring an attack, balancing a rival, or constructing an efficient international institution). The latter are “policies,” “strategies” or “tactics.”

4 Liberalism is not a “domestic politics” theory that ignores the “international system.” It is a “systemic” theory, as Kenneth Waltz describes one in Theory of International Politics. But it simply treats the distribution of interests as an important systemic element, just as realism stresses the distribution of coercive power and regime theory stresses the distribution of information.

5 This conclusion should not be surprising to anyone with even undergraduate training in political science. It is the unambiguous lesson of the classic literature on the methodology of studying power and influence, whether in local communities or global politics. Robert Dahl’s analysis of power teaches us that we cannot ascertain whether “A induced B to do something” (that is, power or influence) unless we know ‘‘what B would otherwise do’’ (that is, preferences). The implication is clear: Not only do we need to know what state preferences are, but unless they are arrayed so that substantial interstate conflict of interest exists and the deployment of capabilities to achieve a marginal gain is acceptable, realist theory is powerless to explain state behavior. Similarly, institutionalist explanations of suboptimal cooperation are appropriate only under circumstances in which states have an interest in resolving particular interstate collective action problems. IR theorist Kenneth Oye draws the implication: ‘‘When you observe conflict, think Deadlock—the absence of mutual interest—before puzzling over why a mutual interest was not realized.’’


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