Can there be lasting peace in the world? If there can be global peace, how can it be achieved? The answer to these crucial questions has constituted the focus of many international relations theories, including liberal Internationalism. This paper, thus, attempts to demystify the concept of liberal Internationalism as a theory of International Relations (IR).

The paper identifies political liberalism as the fountainhead from which liberal Internationalism stems which explains why at its core we find the idea of freedom, human rights, equality, welfare and peace. It traces the historical background of Liberal Internationalism from the 17th and 18th centuries to the modern period.



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Highlighting its basic assumptions, the paper navigates the strength of liberal Internationalism while bringing to the fore, the criticism leveled against it. Having done all, the paper closes with a claim that despite the weaknesses that the idea of liberal Internationalism is fraught with, it still remains a relevant concept to understanding global events and world politics in general.


Liberal internationalism is a normative stance that advocates for the promotion of liberal values and principles in international affairs. It is an “inside-out approach” to international relations because liberal internationalists favour a world in which the “endogenous determines the exogenous”.

They seek to extend the legitimacy of domestic political arrangements and principles found within democratic states (endogenous) to the relationship between all nation-states (exogenous).

In this essay, we argue that liberal internationalism is a valid and relevant theory of international relations that can explain and guide the current and future challenges and opportunities in the global arena.


Liberalism as an ideology led to the development of liberal internationalism, therefore the history of liberal internationalism can arguably be traced from the history of liberalism which serves as its bedrock.
Although it can trace its history to 18th-century precursors, liberal internationalism emerged as a powerful ideology during the 19th century, primarily (though not exclusively) in Britain.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, political liberalism emerged as a challenge to nobility and inherited inequality.

Liberal philosophers, beginning with John Locke in the seventeenth century, saw great potential for human progress in modern civil society and capitalist economy, both of which could flourish in states which guaranteed individual liberty. Modernity projects a new and better life, free of authoritarian government, and with a much higher level of material welfare.

Classical liberal thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo. were also influential in the development of liberalism internationalism. They stressed the importance of free trade and economic interdependence between nations as the key to prosperity, peace, and stability.

Immanuel Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” published in 1795, indeed presents his vision for achieving lasting peace among nations.

At the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918), few thought it would last more than a few months and fewer anticipated the scale of the impending catastrophe. In the wake of the “Great War, contemporary liberal theory rose to prominence after witnessing the disaster caused by the war. Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President, who was also a liberalist, said the Great War is the “war that will end all wars”.

The First World War had a significant impact on liberal thinking, leading to a shift in perspective. The key point is that this shift involved a recognition that peace is not a natural or inherent condition but rather a state that must be actively constructed.

Liberalists at that time were faced with questions like;

What were the main causes of the First World War, and what was it about the old order that led the national government to the war?
What were the lessons to be learnt from the war and how could the recurrence of war like this be prevented?
On what basis could a new international order be created, and how could international institutions ensure that the state complied with its defining principles?

Liberalists while considering the structure and situation of the international system, sought to draw on age-long tenets of liberalism to solve questions they faced and this led to what we now know as “liberalism internationalism'” today.

Among its main proponents were politicians, including John Bright and Richard Cobden, and philosophers, including John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and Herbert Spencer. Internationalists were split between those who believed that reform would come about mainly or solely through a shift in norms (international morality) and those who thought that the only feasible route was through significant institutional construction at the international level.

The former (including Cobden) focused on transforming the values of society, and in particular they promoted democracy.The latter proposed the creation of a variety of institutional structures, including regional and global federations and transnational organizations, including international arbitration bodies. Moving forward, some other liberal internationalists highlighted the importance of free trade as a mechanism to create a form of interdependence between states, which leads to a reduction in the chances of war between states.


Liberal internationalism is seen in the light of a prescriptive ideology which seeks to posit ways to organize and reform the international system. It is optimistic in nature and unlike its theoretical challenger, Realism, which anticipates competition and conflict all the time in the international system, it expects “increasing cooperation between states which will allow for increased peace and harmony” in the international system.

The following are the core principles of liberal internationalism:

International Co-operation and Interdependence: They focus on the priority goal of transforming the system to achieve a cooperative order that reliably facilitates the peaceful resolution of inter-state conflicts. It rejects the realist assumption that states are driven by self-interest and power-seeking.

They argue that states can be influenced by moral principles and ideals and therefore cooperate with other states without worrying about relative gain (we will do our best, but the number one priority is that the others don’t get ahead of us) but focused on absolute gain (as longs as we do well, it doesn’t matter if others do even better).

One of the ways it seeks to achieve this cooperation is through international organisations. International organisation reinforces Immanuel Kant’s proposition in his book “Perpetual Peace”. International organizations promote cooperation among states in various ways, for instance, it makes up for the lack of trust between states. They do that by providing a flow of information between their member states, which consequently are much less dark about what other states are doing and why.

It also makes sure that both parties involved in the treaty or alliance honour their agreements regardless of how powerful a state is, in relation to the state it is going into agreement with. It ensures this by offering incentives and sanctions for compliance and non-compliance.

It also serves as a forum for dialogue, negotiation, and problem-solving among states rather than going to war. International organizations can help states communicate and exchange information, identify areas of convergence and divergence, and reach agreements on issues of mutual concern.

Neo Realists try to fault this principle by asserting that cheating is not the main problem in negotiation between states and that it is the problem of relative gain. Liberalist institutionalists posit that if states have an interest in common they will not worry about relative gain and in that situation, institutions can help advance cooperation.

Promotion of Free Trade: There is a historical notion that trade promotes peace, tracing its origins back to antiquity. Montesquieu wrote about the concept of “doux commerce,” which refers to the alleged peaceful effects of commerce.

The phrase “doux commerce” translates to “gentle commerce” in English, and Montesquieu’s argument was that trade and commercial interactions could have a civilizing and pacifying influence on societies. The idea suggests that economic interdependence through trade can create common interests, reduce the likelihood of conflict, and promote mutual understanding between nations.

The idea is that trade fosters mutual dependence, reduces the incentives for conflicts, and promotes a culture of cooperation and cosmopolitanism. International commerce also helps in spreading liberal values and institutions, such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law etc.

On the issue of trade, no state has attained or can ever attain a level of self-sufficiency; the state continues to enter into trade with other states for survival and also for the promotion of national interests. It is for this reason the internationalist prescribes the adoption of free trade as a mechanism to foster cooperation among states, which the realist thinks will be minimal.

Economic cooperation is useful in the area of peace-keeping, as states in bilateral or multilateral trade agreements will find it difficult to wage war against other trade states. War is faster to execute when there is a lack of mutual relations among states and this has been the main reason for the “security dilemma” in the realist theory and some have argued that it contributed to the outbreak of First and Second World Wars.

Traditionally, states sought power through military force and territorial expansion. However, for highly industrialized countries, the emphasis has shifted towards achieving prominence and prosperity through economic development and foreign trade. The rationale behind this shift lies in the changing dynamics where the costs of using force have increased, and the benefits have declined.

The statement suggests that the traditional methods of acquiring power, which involve military force and territorial expansion, have become less cost-effective for highly industrialized nations. Instead, these countries find economic development and engagement in foreign trade more suitable and less costly means of achieving influence and prosperity on the global stage.

International law: These are sets of rules and principles that govern the relations and conduct of sovereign states with each other, as well as organisations and individuals. It covers many domains such as trade, human rights, diplomacy, war etc.

It is based on “good faith”, that is states are supposed to abide by it as it is seen as the moral thing to do even without compulsion. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who coined the word, argues that it should be based on the principle of utility, which means that our actions are right as far as they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

The internationalist promotes the idea of international law because they see it as a way of promoting peace and cooperation due to its regulatory capability and that the rules and norms reflect the values and interests of the liberalist internationalist community. International law could help to resolve disputes peacefully, protect human rights and promote cooperation on global issues like climate change, pandemics, security and lots more.


Rules and Institutions that enhance cooperation
The rules and principles of an international order shape the ways states conduct their affairs, thereby fostering cooperation among states.

The liberal democracies, industrializing within a wider global capitalist system, responded to their growing interdependence by creating rules and institutions to secure property rights, facilitate cooperation, and lay down the infrastructure for a modern international order.

International rules and institutions were seen to embody more or less a principled set of organizational arrangements around which sovereign states could operate.

In this sense, the rules and institutions, at least those that form the core of the order, are not simply reflections of the power and interests of particular states. For example, institutions like the United Nations, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Group of Twenty (G20), and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Openness and Trade Creates Interdependence.
Liberal internationalism promotes free trade and open markets, which can help stimulate economic growth and development around the world. While economic growth is not a tenet of liberal internationalism, it is often seen as a benefit that can result from the implementation of liberal internationalist policies.

In one of his “definite articles,” Kant indeed argued for cosmopolitan law, which combines material incentives with moral commitments.

Kant’s concept of the cosmopolitan right to hospitality suggests that the “spirit of commerce” can gradually influence every nation. This influence creates incentives for states to work towards peace and avoid war. The idea is that economic ties, driven by a cooperative international division of labor and free trade based on comparative advantage, contribute to fostering a sense of mutual interest among nations.

It posit that in a globalized economy, each country is believed to benefit more than it would under autarky (economic self-sufficiency). This mutual benefit creates an incentive for nations to avoid policies that might lead to the breakdown of economic ties between them.

The statement emphasizes that maintaining open markets relies on the expectation that future transactions will continue to be governed by legal rights and agreed-upon prices rather than coercion.

Furthermore, the statement suggests that a sense of mutual security is crucial to prevent nations from pursuing economic autarky driven by security concerns. In other words, the assurance of economic cooperation and the adherence to established rules contribute to a stable and interconnected global economic system.

This perspective aligns with economic theories that highlight the advantages of international trade, cooperation, and the establishment of clear legal frameworks for economic interactions between nations. It also underscores the importance of trust and mutual security in sustaining open and interconnected markets.

In the context of liberal states, the avoidance of security challenges and the potential enhancement of security can naturally result from economic interdependence. The idea here is that when liberal states engage in economic interdependence, forming alliances or partnerships, it creates a mutual interest in maintaining security and stability.

The notion is that economic interdependence fosters a shared stake in each other’s well-being, and this shared interest can lead to cooperative security arrangements. By avoiding challenges to one another’s security and, in some cases, actively enhancing security through alliances, liberal states can work towards maintaining a peaceful international order.

The World Trade Organization is an international organization that was established in 1995 to promote free trade and open markets around the world. It is based on the principles of liberal internationalism and has been instrumental in promoting economic growth and development.

Regulation of State’s Behaviour
International law helps promote internationalism by establishing a set of norms and principles that govern the behaviour of states. These norms, often enshrined in international treaties and conventions, serve as a common foundation for international cooperation.

For instance, the United Nations Charter, a fundamental document of international law, underscores the principles of peaceful coexistence, non-interference in the internal affairs of states, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. By adhering to these principles, states can engage in diplomatic relations, trade, and cooperation without resorting to aggression or conflict, thus fostering a spirit of internationalism.

Also, numerous international treaties and conventions, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, set out fundamental human rights that should be respected and protected by all nations. These agreements create a framework for international cooperation in safeguarding the dignity and well-being of individuals worldwide. The pursuit of common human rights standards and their enforcement on the global stage reflects the internationalist commitment to the values of justice, equality, and dignity for all.

Sustainable World Development
In the face of global challenges, such as climate change, environmental degradation, terrorism, and pandemics, international law promotes internationalism by addressing issues that transcend national borders. Agreements like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Convention on Biological Diversity establish international legal frameworks for states to work together in combating shared environmental threats.

    By doing so, international law encourages cooperation in addressing global challenges and fosters the idea that the well-being of all nations is interconnected.

    Through these mechanisms, international law not only encourages cooperation in addressing global challenges but also fosters the idea that the well-being of all nations is interconnected. This interconnectedness underscores the importance of collective efforts in creating effective and sustainable solutions to the pressing issues that impact our world.

    Realists argue that international institutions are established for selfish purposes, primarily as tools for powerful states to further their own interests. These institutions are viewed as mechanisms through which dominant powers can shape the international system to their advantage.

    It is believed that powerful states use these institutions to legitimize their actions and maintain dominance over weaker states.
    Also, the realists argue that states are driven by the security dilemma, where actions taken to enhance one’s security can be perceived as threats by others.

    In this view, international institutions often fail to prevent conflicts or mitigate the security concerns of states. Powerful states may use these institutions selectively to promote their interests but are unwilling to compromise on matters of core security.From a Marxist perspective, international institutions can undermine the sovereignty of individual nations.

    Liberal internationalism undermines national democracy.
    In international relations, interventionism includes the activity undertaken by a government that is outside its jurisdiction, accomplished through coercion or the intimidation of force. According to Dornan (2011: Internet), the international intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was partially fruitful, as Afghanistan held its first democratic elections in 2009, replacing the Taliban.

    However, the presidential elections have been critiqued, and a campaign for a recount occurred, claiming initial votes to be fraudulent.

    It is apparent that the intervention in Afghanistan did not accomplish the expansion of democracy and peace, civilian deaths increased as well as military personnel within the region; statistics presented ±3000 deaths in the violence of 2008.

    Evidently, it is apparent that when liberal international superpowers intervene in sovereign states, their democratic reforms or political stability are short-lived. This has resulted in a common global trend, causing populist autocracy states to renounce foreign intervention as they opt for an authoritarian regime.

    Veiled Form of Imperialism
    Today, a common criticism of liberal internationalism is that it is a veiled form of Western imperialism. Critics argue that liberal internationalism is susceptible to perpetuating unequal power dynamics. Western nations, particularly the United States and Europe, are often the primary proponents of liberal internationalism.

    As a result, they can wield disproportionate influence within international institutions and use them to shape global policies in ways that align with their interests.

    They went on to say that while advocating for free trade and globalization, all these policies primarily serve the economic interests of Western countries. They argue that most of the time these policies benefit Western corporations or nations at the expense of developing nations, contributing to economic dependency and exploitation.

    It has been noticed that developing countries easily become indebted to international financial institutions which makes it easier for these developed countries to influence decisions made in the state especially when they can’t repay loans. For instance, in exchange for extension of grace for loan repayment, these countries are often required to implement economic policies and reforms that prioritize debt repayment over domestic needs, potentially leading to social and economic hardships.

    Outbreak of war and armed conflicts
    Even in the presence of increased cooperation and globalization, realists have challenged internationalists on why there are still outbreaks of armed conflict among nation-states. For instance, The “Russian-Ukine War”, “The Isreal-Palestine War” and lots more.

    Realists contend that due to conflicting interests and the pursuit of relative gains, conflict and war are inevitable. They argue that efforts to prevent war may be temporary or transient, as the inherent competitive nature of states eventually leads to new tensions and conflicts.

    In a world marked by complexity and interconnectedness, liberal internationalism stands as a beacon of hope, advocating for cooperation, diplomacy, and the pursuit of shared values. While realism and Marxism provide valuable insights into the dynamics of international relations, liberal internationalism champions a vision of a more peaceful and prosperous world.

    It encourages the development of international institutions, the promotion of human rights, and economic interdependence, all aimed at fostering global stability and collaboration. By prioritizing dialogue over conflict, human rights over oppression, and collective well-being over narrow self-interest, liberal internationalism offers a path toward a more just and harmonious

    In a world marked by complexity and interconnectedness, liberal internationalism stands as a beacon of hope, advocating for cooperation, diplomacy, and the pursuit of shared values.

    While realism and Marxism provide valuable insights into the dynamics of international relations, liberal internationalism champions a vision of a more peaceful and prosperous world. It encourages the development of international institutions, the promotion of human rights, and economic interdependence, all aimed at fostering global stability and collaboration.

    By prioritizing dialogue over conflict, human rights over oppression, and collective well-being over narrow self-interest, liberal internationalism offers a path toward a more just and harmonious


    • Michael W. Doyle, “Liberal Internationalism; Peace, War and Democracy”.
    • Cambridge University Press, “Liberalism and the Democratic Peace”.
    •, “Liberalism in International Relations”.  International Encyclopedia of Political Science (Los Angeles: Sage, 2015).
    • Miriam Dorman, “Liberal Internationalism”.
    •, “Liberal internationalism; Theory, History, Practice”.
    • A World Safe for Democracy; Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order By G. JOHN IKENBERRY, Yale University Press, NewHaven and London Page 33-40
    • Immanuel Kant: Kant, I. (1795). “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch
    • Jeremy Bentham: Bentham, J. (1789). “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

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