The tradition of International Liberalism
To see when this idea began, we look back at the age of Richard Price, referring to his work and the work of Immanuel Kant from Prussia. Like others in the Age of Enlightenment, they believed that people are capable of reasoning and they both offered ideas for establishing a federal international regime (such as the European Union but on a global scale).
Under the regime, countries of the world would have a legal, friendly relationship with each other, and they would work together to ensure permanent peace. This is similar to the present United Nations situation, but that governing body would have much more power. This law would be much more powerful, and the powerful countries of the world would have to keep to it. This is different for instance to when the United States, Britain and other countries went to war in Iraq, against the wishes of the United Nations.
Liberalism and Empire
To a large extent, today’s international regime reflects the historic relationship between countries, when some countries controlled others. Today’s structure is similar to the age of the Empire with its heyday in the 19th century. This was an age when the European countries of white people (and by then, countries like the United States where white people controlled the indigenous people) controlled vast parts of the world.
The mainstream liberalism of this period did not oppose this regime, and they did not question the justice of the situation. They believed that an Empire was a good power that could bring justice to other countries. The famous Liberal and Welshman, Henry Richard, although questioning elements of the international regime and strongly disagreeing with the violence used by western forces, did not raise questions regarding the inequality of power between countries. Henry Jones, who reflected several liberal ideas in the early 20th century, again continued to see the Empire as a good force, and one that could improve the circumstances of the world’s uncivilized people.
Here is a version of the ‘white man’s burden’ idea (as mentioned by Rudyard Kipling in his poem). It is the idea that white people have a duty to control the world’s other people to help them develop and to help them culturally, economically and socially. This is what the missionaries believed of course, as they travelled the world to spread Christianity and ‘save’ souls. Although their purpose was moral and religious, it is hard to look back without criticising this aspect, especially recalling that the colonization used force to control, and in economic exploitation, and used violence based on pure racism.
This international ‘progressive’ perspective is seen clearly in the work of another Welshman, the Baron David Davies. He was one of a number of thinkers called the ‘Idealists’. They responded to the Second World War by emphasising the liberal idea of having a global legal regime and the hope for peace (today David Davies’ ‘Temple of Peace’ is in Cardiff city centre). Once more, the influence of the empire is in the regime suggested by Davies, which ultimately gives the responsibility and power to the white countries of the west.
Contemporary International Liberalism
It can be argued that this perspective has continued into the second half of the 20th century. But following the Second World War, there were ideas that went beyond the perspective of the west and gave more emphasis to people throughout the world.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflected this change. There was an attempt to bring ideas together reflecting the needs of everyone throughout the world. This was a more radical liberal perspective, asking for more justice to those parts of the worlds that had suffered under the empirical system.
A number of these perspectives appeared in the work of thinkers trying to use the idea of ‘social justice’ by Modern Liberals in the international situation. A few them followed the ideas of the American John Rawls, and his ideas on redistributing resources between countries.
For instance, Charles Beitz, and later Thomas Pogge, argued that the redistribution of wealth could be justified from the world’s wealthy countries to its poor ones. This ‘cosmopolitan’ perspective asks for safeguarding our status as individuals, wherever we live in the world, and that the international regime should be changed to ensure basic rights for every individual.
Alongside the argument, the international regime now requires so much collaboration that it is reasonable to consider it similar to the state regime. As the redistribution of wealth is not only possible, but to be expected from a moral perspective. This moves very far away from the realist idea of international politics as a state of anarchy, conflict and war – towards a vision of the world as one society in collaboration.
Rawls himself supported this but saw more value and importance in the traditional role of the state. His ideas did not go so far; he believed that the poor countries of the world should create more powerful and stable political institutions to ensure their just governance in the long term. His ‘duty of support’ questioned the value of redistributing too much money and resources because, to him, it was the ability to use resources that was important.
Although Rawls’ ‘communitarian’ perspective was more conservative than the ‘cosmopolitan’ perspective, both believe in the liberal idea of moving towards a peaceful and just regime, and indeed Rawls states that Kant was his main influence.
The economic aspects of the classical liberal tradition often completely oppose the perspectives of Rawls, Beitz and other modern liberals especially in relation to development studies. Here is a subject that looks at how to improve the social, economic and political state of less ‘developed’ states in the majority world. This perspective is seen in the ‘Washington Accord’ developed in the 1990s, and that weighed on less developed countries to lessen the state’s influence, copying the neo-liberal agenda of Thatcher and others, and allowing much more influence for markets and the private sectors. It soon became apparent that other measures were needed such as robust state structures to support the market, and fairer global economy terms, that would change structures favouring the historic advantage of the European countries and North America. The history of the economist Jeffrey Sachs shows these developments. He was responsible for the ‘shock therapy’ in Poland in the 1990s and for pushing neo-liberal policies, but by the new millennium he had changed his mind and believed strongly in intervention and financial support by the majority world.
The discussion on ‘global justice’ is now wider. It sees that the liberal perspective needs to connect more directly to perspectives of the majority world, beyond Europe and white people. (The terms ‘majority world’ and ‘Global South’ are used instead of the term ‘third world’ which was used in the second half of the Twentieth century). Some believe that liberalism can change and adapt due to these perspectives – for instance, perspectives that put more emphasis on the relationship with the environment and respect towards nature. But others believe that liberalism cannot adapt beyond its historic development, which is such a central part of the white man’s attitude and power.
The context of Liberalism and Realism
Although liberalism is a very central perspective in today’s politics, the situation is very different internationally. In some parts of the world, liberal ideas are harshly criticised. This is the realist perspective, which considers the international system as one in a state of anarchy.
This is a situation without one power keeping everyone in order. This is a school of thought that refuses the need for state and believes that people’s lives would be better organised under an improved, devolved regime.
Internationally, the traditional situation of nation-states is described as ‘anarchic’ as there is no state or similar power keeping all of them in order. Competition and conflict are seen in international politics, and politicians should therefore emphasise safety and prepare for competition and the possibility of war.
Liberalism opposes this aspect, in the hope that we can move on from conflict, towards an international regime of collaboration and perhaps justice.