• Libralism, also knon as pluralism, projects a different image of world politics as compared to realism. However, much like Realism, it too has a rather long tradition. There are many strands of liberalism but some of the common themes that run through the liberal thinking are:
    • Human beings are perfectible
    • Democracy is necessary for that perfectibility to develop
    • ideas do matter,
  • Unlike the Realists, the liberals have enormous belief in human progress and the faculty of reason that each individual is endowed with. Accordingly; liberals reject the Realist notion that war is the natural condition of world politics. They also question the idea that the state is the main actor on the world political stage, although they do not deny that it is important.
  • But they do see multinational corporations, transnational actors such as terrorist groups, and international organizations as central actors in some issue-areas of world politics. In relations between states, liberals stress the possibilities for cooperation, and the key issue becomes devising international settings in which cooperation can be best achieved. The picture of world politics that results from the liberal view thus is of a complex system of bargaining between many different types of actors. Military force is still important but the liberal agenda is not as restricted as is the Realist one. Liberals see national interest in much more than military terms, and stress the importance of economic, environmental, and technological issues

Libral approach to the Study of International Relation

  • Liberal approach to the study of international politics has its roots in the development of liberal political theory in the 17th Century. John Locke, widely considered the first liberal thinker of the 17th Century, saw a great potential for human progress in modern civil society and capitalist economy.
  • Liberals are generally of the view that the period since the late 17th Century constitutes a historical watershed during which a multifaceted process of modernization has introduced or enhanced the possibility of a dramatic improvement in the morai character and material wellbeing of humankind. Progressive view was reinforced by the liberal intellectual revolution, which had great faith in human reason and rationality.
  • Some of the important underlying assumptions of the liberal approach to the study of international politics can be identified as follows:
  • Individuals are the primary international actors: Liberals put the individual at the center of the universe and all progress is measured in terms of the interests of the individuals as the two are perceived as inextricably intertwined. In other words, progress for liberals has always meant progress for individuals. This does not mean that states are relegated to marginal status in the liberal perspective. Far from it, the Liberals view states as the mast important collective actors in our present era, but they are seen as pluralistic actors whose interests and policies are determined by bargaining among groups.
  • State’s interests are dynamic: Liberals are of the viewpoint that the interests of the states are not static but dynamic. State’s interests keep changing with time because individual values and the power relations among interest groups keep evolving over time. These ideas can be traced back to Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. As far as the specific interests of the states are concerned, liberals accept that state survival and autonomy are important, but they are viewed as secondary interests to the primary interests of the individuals.
  • Both individual and state interests are shaped by a wide variety of domestic and international conditions: – Liberals are of the view that the interests of both individuals and states are affected by a host of factors at the domestic and international levels. At the domestic level, factors like the nature of economic and political systems, patterns of economic interactions, and personal values may play decisive role. At the international level, presence of factors like technological capabilities, patterns of interactions and interdependencies, transnational sociological patterns, knowledge, and international institutions allow states to affect each other in different ways. States-the predominant collective actors-are viewed by the liberals as entities that are embedded in both their own societies and the international system, and their interests and policies are affected by conditions in both arenas. However, there is a significant difference between the Realists and the liberals on the matter of institutions and political hierarchy in the international system. The liberals feel very uncomfortable with the Realists, rather simplistic conception of the international system as anarchical. In sharp contrast to the Realists/ liberals are of the view that given the pervasiveness and wide influence of the network of international institutions it would be naive not to integrate it into an overall conception of the international system.

Neo-Libral approach to the study of International Relations

  • What distinguishes the neo-liberals from the traditional liberal scholars? Do the neo-liberals present a contrasting view of world politics from that of the traditional liberals? What is it that necessitates the prefix neo before liberalism? Are the neo-liberals closer to the Realists and Neo-realists in their orientation than to the traditional liberals?
  • The most important distinguishing feature of the neo-liberals is their declining confidence in human progress. Unlike the traditional liberals, the neo-liberals are far less optimistic about progress and cooperation. This, however, does not mean that they are as pessimistic as the Realists or Neo-realists. As a category, the term neo-liberal refers to post-war liberal scholars who retained much of the belief of the traditional liberals except perhaps sharing their optimism. Liberals (neo-liberals) have; not wanted to be branded as idealists as were many interwar liberals; the international events of this century (including two world wars and the Cold War) have made them wary about being too optimistic, and, in keeping with the ethos of contemporary social science, many have felt more comfortable about explaining than predicting.
  • In the academic world, neo-liberal generally refers to neo-liberai institutionalism or what is now called institutional theory. However; in the policy world, Neo-liberalism has a different connotation.
  • In the domain of foreign policy, a neoliberal approach seeks to promote free trade or open markets and Western democratic values and institutions. This brand of liberalism (Neo-liberalism) draws its ideological strength from the belief that all financial and political institutions created in the aftermath of the Second World War have stood the test of time, which provides the foundation for contemporary political and economic arrangements.

Concept of World Order

  • There is no single homogenous conception of order in world politics. Instead\ one comes across competing conceptions of order in international relations theory.
  • The Realists’ conception of international order is state-centric which emphasises stability and peace among states. The elements of such an international order are based on the traditional models of order such as the structure of the balance of power, sovereignty, forms of diplomacy the role of the great powers.
  • The concept of world order, as conceptualized by the liberals on the other hand, is a much wider category in nature and scope. In sharp contrast to the Realists who treat states as the basic units of order, the liberals take individual human beings as its key units of order and construct order in terms of rights, justice, and prosperity. Unlike the Realists, the liberals assert that order world politics emerges not from a balance of power but from the interactions between many layers of governing arrangements, comprising laws, agreed norms, international regimes, and institutional rules. The liberal conception of world order thus clearly has a widening agenda of order that encompasses, among other things, the relationship between economic and political dimensions, new thinking about security, debates about the consequences of globalization, the role of human rights, and strategies for human development its central claim is that patterns of integration and interdependence have become so deeply embedded in the Cold War period, albeit for strategic and geopolitical reasons, that they now have a self-sustaining momentum that precludes any return to war and autarch

Libral- Institutionalism

  • The search for liberal-institutional mechanisms to help establish peace and ensure prosperity through cooperation goes back to the days of the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson, the chief proponent of the League of Nations, is considered, to be the first liberal institutionalist who pointed out the importance of institutions in transforming the international relations from a “jungle” of chaotic power politics to a “zoo” of regulated and peaceful interaction. Although the League of Nations experiment turned out to be a disaster, later developments in the field of international organizations like the United Nations and European Union have rekindled new hope in the philosophy of liberal institutionalism.
  • Liberal institutionalists attack the Neo-realists for focusing exclusively on conflict and competition and thus minimizing the chances for cooperation even in an anarchic international system. The main claim of the liberal institutionalist is that international institutions and regimes help promote cooperation between states.
  • What are institutions and regimes?
    • According to Keohane, institutions may include organisations, bureaucratic agencies, treaties and agreements, and informal practices that states accept as binding, regimes, as social institutions that are based on agreed rules, norms, principles, and decision-making procedures. These govern the interactions of various state and nonstate actors in issue areas such as the environment or human rights.
    • Varieties of treaties, trade agreements, scientific and trade protocols, market protocols, for the liberal institutionalists, help govern an anarchic and competitive international system and they encourage, and at times require, multilateralism and cooperation as a means of securing national interests.

Core Assumptions of Neo-liberal Institutionalism

  • Although the neo-liberal institutionalists do concede that states are key actors in international relations, they refuse to buy the argument of the Realists who believe that states are the only significant actors. According to the neo-liberal institutionalists, states are rational or instrumental actors that always seek to maximise their interests in all issue areas.
  • Neo-liberal institutionalists further believe that in the present-day competitive environment, states seek to maximize absolute gains through cooperation as rational behaviour leads them to see value in cooperative behaviour. States are thus less concerned with gains or advantages by other states in cooperative arrangements.
  • However, the neo-liberal institutionalists believe that the biggest obstacle to successful cooperation comes from the fear of non-compliance or the possibility of cheating by states.
  • Such fears primarily emanate from the sovereign status enjoyed by the states in the international system leading to a general lack of trust among the states. However, the neo-liberal institutionalists believe that such fears of non-compliance and cheating can be allayed if not eliminated altogether, through creation of institutions in the international system.
  • Neo-liberal institutionalists recognise that cooperation may be harder to achieve in areas where leaders perceive they have no mutual interests, it is believed that states in all likelihood will be willing to shift loyalty and resources to institutions once these are perceived as mutually beneficial and if they provide states with increasing opportunities to secure their international interests.


  • David Mitrany, the most prominent proponent of the Functionalist school of thought is accredited with fashioning this alternative view of international politics in response to the security/conflict conception of the Realist and Neorealist scholars. Mitrany argues that greater interdependence in the form of transnational ties between countries could lead to peace. He is of the view that cooperation should be arranged by technical experts and not by politicians. Some of the other important Functionalists like Joseph Nye, Ernst Haas, John Burton, and Christopher Mitchell have immensely contributed to the Functionalist tradition of international relations theory.
  • Presented as an operative philosophy that would gradually lead to a peaceful, unified’ and cooperative world, Functionalism is widely regarded as the most insightful critique of the Realist framework of international politics. The main concern of the Functionalists is to develop piecemeal non-political cooperative organisations, which will not only help establish peace and secure prosperity but also render the practice of war obsolete eventually Aware of the fact that governments have vested Interests and that nation-states will not be dismantled voluntarily, the Functionalists advocate a gradual approach toward regional or global unity.
  • This, they believe, might eventually help isolate and render obsolete the rigid institutional structures of nation-states.
  • Functionalists’ prime concern is with developing piecemeal cooperative organizations at the regional level in non-political areas like economic, technical, scientific, social and cultural sectors where the possibility of forging effective cooperation among the states appears to be highly practical. These apparently non-political sectors are collectively referred to, in the Functionalist literature, as functional sectors where the possibility of opposition or resistance appears minimal. This is based on the assumption that efforts to establish functioned organisations at the micro level in non-political sectors such as energy production and distribution, transportation and communication control: health protection and improvement, labour standards and exchanges etc. are least likely to be met with opposition. There is a greater possibility of successful functioning of such non-political functional organisations as these can be of mutual advantage to the participating states. The possibility of a higher success rate of such functional bodies gets further enhanced by the fact that they do not appear to pose any challenge, at least apparently, to the national sovereignty of the participating states.
  • One of the most important assumptions of the Functionalist school is based on the concept of What is called ”spillover” effect. The concept of spillover is similar to that of “demonstration” effect as used in the discipline of economics. ‘The underlying belief of the spillover concept is that cooperation in one area would open new avenues for similar cooperation in other areas. For example, successful forging of cooperation in the area of coal and steel production would spill over into other functional areas like transportation, pollution control etc. Such a process of cooperation, the Functionalists argue, would eventually lead to politicaI unification of a given region.
  • The strength of the Functionalist school of thought lies in the fact that they tend to emphasise cooperative aspects of international behaviour and side step conflictive aspects. In contrast to the Realists who look at the world in terms of politics of conflict and irrationality, the Functionalists view the world through the prism of cooperation and reason. The Functionalists believe that the accumulation of the process of functional organizations would not only help link people and their interests across national boundaries but would also eventually relegate the nation-states to the “museum of institutional curiosities”.


  • In contrast to the Functionalist theory which seeks to create a New World order in which the Sovereign states take a backseat, Neo-Functionalism or the integration theory seeks to create new states through the integration of the existing states. This is achieved initially at the regional level eventually culminating, in the long run, in the creation of a single world state. The idea that integration between states is possible if the political process of spillover facilitates it is basically drawn from the experience of European Union. The neo-Functionalists thus prefer to emphasize cooperative decision-making processes and elite attitudes in order to assess the process towards integration,
  • Ernst Haas is considered to be the chief proponent of this school of thought. Although Haas builds on Mitrany, he rejects the notion that technical matters can be separated from politics.
  • Haas defines integration as “the tendency toward ‘the voluntary creation of larger political units, each of which self-consciously eschews the use of force in the relations between the participating units and groups” Integration, for Haas,, has to do with getting self-interested political elite to intensify their cooperation- Put differently, Haas views integration as a process by which the actors concerned begin voluntarily to give up certain powers and evolve new techniques for tackling common problems and resolving mutual conflicts.
  • Joseph Nye carries this theme further when he asserts that regional political organisations “have made modest contributions to the creation of islands of peace in the international system” These studies suggest that the way towards peace and prosperity is to have independent states pool their resources and even surrender some of their sovereignty to create integrated communities to promote economic growth or respond to regional problems. What distinguishes the neo-Functionalists from the Functionalists thus is that they focus primarily on formal institutions.

Sociological Libralism/ communications Theory

  • The communications theory in international relations is considered to be an integral part of what come to be called sociological liberalism strand of thinking. Unlike the Realists who view international relations exclusively in terms of the study of relations between the governments of sovereign states, sociological liberals assert that it is also about transnational relations i.e. relations between people, groups, and organisations belonging to different countries.
  • James Rosenau defines the underlying assumption, of the communication theory, which builds on the notion of transnationalism, is that as transnational activities increase, people in distant lands get linked and their government become more interdependent.
  • Karl Deutsch is considered to be the chief proponent of the communications theory, or perhaps more appropriately, communications approach in international relations. This approach seeks to measure the extent of communication and transactions between societies by watching the flow of international transactions, such as trade, tourists, letters, and immigration.
  • The central argument of the coimmunications approach, as articulated by Deutsch, is that a high degree of transnational ties between societies would lead to peacefull relations that would amount to more than the absence of war. Such transactions, the argument goes, will eventually lead to the development of what Deutsch calls security communities or integrated socio-political systems. Integration in this contex will develop a “sense of community” that people have come to agree that their conflicts and problems can be resolved “without resort to large-scale physical force”.


  • The emergence of “trading states” such as Japan and Germany in the post-War period provides strength to the assumption of the interdependence liberalism. The underlying assumption of this strand of liberalism is that such trading states tend to refrain from the traditional military political option of high military expenditure and instead prefer to focus on the trading option of an intensified international division of labour that increases interdependence. Such an’ assumption received a tremendous fillip in the wake of the end of the Cold War with the trading option being largely preferred even by very large states. Rosecrance is of the view that the end of the Cold War has made the traditional military-political option less urgent and thus less attractive.

The Theory Of Complex Interdependence

  • The theory of “complex interdependence” formlulated in the 1970s by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye took the logic of interdependence to a new height. These theorists argue that the process of modernisation is fast increasing the level and scope of interdependence between states.
  • Under conditions of complex interdependence, transnational actors are increasingly becoming much important with the consequence that military force has become a less useful instrument of policy. As a result, international relations are increasingly becoming more like domestic politics.
  • As Keohane observes: “Different issues generate different coalitions/ both within governments and across them, and involve different degrees of conflicts. Politics does not stop at the water’s edge”. The interdependence liberals thus argue that in most of these conflicts military force is fast becoming redundant.
  • Other sources of nonmilitary power like “negotiating skills” are increasingly becoming much more important Keohane and Nye thus argue that under complex interdependence states are getting more preoccupied with the “low politics’ of welfare and less concerned with “high politics” of national security, which would eventually pave the way for a world free of all conflicts.

Other Characteristics of Complex Interdependence

  • Complex interdependence has three main characteristics:
    • Multiple channels connect societies, including: informal ties between governmental elites as well as formal foreign office arrangements; informal ties among nongovernmental elites (face-to-face and through telecommunications); and transnational organizations (such as multinational banks or corporations). These channels can be summarized as interstate, transgovernmental and transnational relations. Interstate relations are the normal channels assumed by realists. Transgovernmental applies when we relax the realist assumption that states act coherently as units; transnational applies when we relax the assumption that states are the only units.
    • The agenda of interstate relationships consists of multiple issues that are not arranged in a clear or consistent hierarchy. This absence of hierarchy among issues means, among other things, that military security does not consistently dominate the agenda. Many issues arise from what used to be considered domestic policy, and the distinction between domestic and foreign issues becomes blurred. These issues are considered in several government departments (not just foreign offices), and at several levels. Inadequate policy coordination on these issues involves significant costs. Different issues generate different coalitions, both within governments and across them, and involve different degrees of conflict. Politics does not stop at the waters’ edge.
    • Military force is not used by governments toward other governments within the region, or on the issues, when complex interdependence prevails. It may, however, be important in these governments’ relations with governments outside that region, or on other issues. Military force could, for instance, be irrelevant to resolving disagreements on economic issues among members of an alliance, yet at the same time be very important for that alliance’s poiiticai and military relations with a rival bloc. For the former relationships this condition of complex interdependence would be met; for the latter, it would not.
RealismComplex Interdependence
Goals of actorsMilitary security will be the dominant goalGoals of states will vary by issue area. Transgovernmental politics will make goals difficult to define. Transnational actors will pursue their own goals.
Instruments of state policyMilitary force will be most effective, although economic and other instruments will also be used.Power resources specific to issue areas will be most relevant. Manipulation of interdependence, international organisations, and transnational actors will be major instruments.
Agenda formationPotential shifts in the balance of power and security threats will set agenda in high politics and will strongly influence other agendas.Agenda will be affected by changes in the distribution of power resources within issue areas; the status of international regimes; changes in the importance of transnational actors; linkages from other issues and politicization as a result of rising sensitivity interdependence.
Linkages of IssuesLinkages will reduces in outcomes among issues areas and reinforce international hierarchy.Linkages by strong states will be more difficult to make since force will be inaffective. Linkages by weak states through international organisations will erode rather than enforce hierarchy.
Roles of International organisationsRoles are minor, limited by state power and the importance of military force.Organisations will set agendas, induce coalition- formation, and act as arenas for political action by weak states. Ability to choose the organisational forum for an issue and to mobilise votes will be an important political resource.

Republican Libralism

  • Republican Liberals approach the issue of conflict via democracy. The underlying assumption is that liberal democracies are better equipped to resolve conflicts and less prone to war as these are based on the foundation of peaceful coexistence and rule of law. They argue that democracies are far more law-abiding than other political systems. This, however does not mean that liberal democracies never go to war.
  • As a matter of fact, democracies have gone to war as often as have non-democracies. But the underlying argument here is that democracies rarely fight with each other. Republican liberals are, therefore, generally very optimistic about the role of democracies in establishing long-term world peace.
  • The obvious question that arises here is what is it that makes them so optimistic about the prospects of long-term world peace. It may be useful to look at the observation of Sorensen in this regard who argues that with the increase in the number of democracies in the world in the recent years, the prospects of a more peaceful world has brightened.
  • He further argues, international relations will be characterised by cooperation instead of conflict Michael Dayle, perhaps, most systematically addresses the question as to why democracies are at peace with one another.
  • He advances three elements to strengthen the claim that democracy leads to peace with other democracies.
    • First, democracies follow democratic norms of peaceful resolution of conflicts. Given the fact that democratic governments are controlled by their citizens who are generally against war.
    • Second, democracies hold common liberal values which lead to the formation of what Kant called a “pacific union”. Union, not in the sense of a formal peace treaty,but a zone of peace based on the common liberal foundations of all democracies. Such commonalties tend to encourage peaceful ways of resolving conflicts both at the domestic and international levels.
    • Thirdly; ever increasing economic cooperation and growing interdependence between democracies strengthen international peace and minimizes the chances of conflict in the pacific union. “The spirit of cooperation ” a term coined by Kant, will result in mutual and reciprocal gain for those involved in international economic cooperation and would eventually rendering the practice of war obsolete.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments