Moravcsik / Princeton University / 2010
LIBERAL THEORIES OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: A PRIMER
This memo outlines the liberal approach to theorizing international relations. Like realism, institutionalism, or non-rational approaches, it is a name given to a family of related theories of international relations. Here it will not be used, as many use it in international relations, to designate theories that stress the importance of international institutions. Nor to designate theories that stress the importance of universal, altruistic or utopian values of a liberal sort, such as human rights or democracy. Nor to designate theories favored by left-wing (“liberal”) political parties or policies in the US. Instead, it is a theory that stresses the role of the varied social interests and values of states, and their relevance for world politics.
Liberals argue that the universal condition of world politics is globalization. States are, and always have been, embedded in a domestic and transnational society, which creates incentives for economic, social and cultural interaction across borders. State policy may facilitate or block such interactions. Some domestic groups may benefit from or be harmed by such policies, and they pressure government accordingly for policies that facilitate realization of their goals. These social pressures, transmitted through domestic political institutions, define "state preferences" –that is, the set of substantive social purposes that motivate foreign policy. State preferences give governments an underlying stake in the international issues they face. Since the domestic and transnational social context in which states are embedded varies greatly across space and time, so do state preferences. Without such social concerns that transcend state borders, states would have no rational incentive to engage in world politics at all, but would simply devote their resources to an autarkic and isolated existence. To motivate conflict, cooperation, or any other costly foreign policy action, states must possess sufficiently intense state preferences. The resulting globalization-induced variation in social demands, and thus state preferences, is a fundamental cause of state behavior in world politics. This is the central insight of liberal international relations theory. It can be expressed colloquially in various ways: “What matters most is what states want, not how they get it.” –or- “Ends are more important than means.”
Liberal theory is distinctive in the nature of the variables it privileges. The liberal focus on variation in socially-determined state preferences distinguishes liberal theory from other theoretical traditions: realism (focusing on variation in coercive power resources), institutionalism (focusing on information), and most non-rational approaches (focusing on patterns of beliefs about appropriate means-ends relationships). In explaining patterns of war, for example, liberals do not look to inter-state imbalances of power, bargaining failure due to private information or uncertainty, or particular non-rational beliefs or propensities of individual leaders, societies, or organizations. Liberals look instead to conflicting state preferences derived from hostile nationalist or political ideologies, disputes over appropriable economic resources, or exploitation of unrepresented political constituencies. For liberals, a necessary condition for war is that social pressures lead one or more "aggressor" states to possess "revisionist" preferences so extreme or risk-acceptant that other states are unwilling to submit.
Three specific variants of liberal theory are defined by particular types of preferences, their variation, and their impact on state behavior. Ideational liberal theories link state behavior to varied conceptions of desirable forms of cultural, political, socioeconomic order. Commercial liberal theories stress economic interdependence,...
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