Liberal Thought and National Security
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Fiedler, PhD
and John T. LaSaine Jr., PhD
Air Command and Staff College
Liberalism has had a profound impact upon the character of the modern world. It has championed
scientific rationality as well as the freedom of the individual from arbitrary state power and persecution,
and has advocated democracy and constitutionally guaranteed rights. Liberalism has also privileged
individual equality before the law, and argued that economic growth best promotes individual welfare.
Like realism, liberalism is less a theory than a body of ideas about social and political values. As with
realism, the values now identified with it came together over a long period of time. Yet there is an
underlying “theory of man” that gives cohesion to all liberal thought: the value of individuals and their
freedom.1 To the degree that liberal ideas have shaped post-Cold War transitions to democratic forms of
government and been manifested in the globalization of the world economy, clearly liberalism remains
today a powerful worldview.
Liberal perspectives on international relations first appeared in response to the intellectual dominance
of certain traditional concepts of power politics, ideas that today we would identify as “realist.” Realist
thought. with its focus on the state as a unitary actor, the homogenous goal of security, and military
power as a means to reach that goal, provides a neat, manageable, yet comprehensive model. However it
also gives rise to simplistic images of look-alike nation states, while underestimating the differences
between them. Liberal thinkers sought to explore more fully the potentialities of reason in human affairs.
This essay traces some of the most influential products of this liberal, intellectual exploration, and
relates liberal concepts of international relations to contemporary issues of national security policy. The
first section traces the important landmarks in the development of classical liberal ideas, focusing upon
premises with respect to individualism, rationalism, human rights and the role of law. The second section
illustrates the key tenets of contemporary liberalism. The third section considers the future of liberalism,
and the last concentrates upon the practice of liberalism in US foreign affairs.
What is Liberalism?
Before moving to discussion of liberalism, it is important to define the terms “liberal” and
“liberalism.” Liberalism in the broadest sense is the cultural outlook that, developing from the late 15th
century onward, gave birth to modern economic, social and political institutions.2 Spreading around the
world from its origins in Western Europe, liberalism came to encompass an enormous variety of ideas
and principles, even whole philosophies and ideologies. In this essay, we are concerned with a relatively
narrow segment of the broad spectrum of liberal ideas: liberalism as a perspective on international
relations. Liberalism has spawned a wide variety of ideas, concepts, and doctrines regarding international
relations. Certain key, intellectual premises, however, are common to liberal thought on the subject.
These premises include: the primacy of the individual and human rights, the promise of progress, the
benefits of cooperation, and the rule of law.
Liberal thought begins with the premise that individual human beings are the prime actors or agents in
history. Liberalism regards the state as the creation and instrument of individuals coming together for
their own purposes.3 Accordingly, while the state should provide laws to help citizens frame their
behavior, they themselves are subject to replacement upon the decision of the citizens.4 Liberalism thus
explicitly rejects the realist view of states as unitary, egoistic prime movers in world affairs. For liberals,
the logic by which states arrange their relations with each other international relations—is the same as
Reprinted from Liberal Thought and National Security, written for ACSC, 2005. Published by Air University.
the logic by which states arrange their internal affairs: the state exists to serve the needs of the diverse
individuals who comprise them.
Liberals recognize the historical prevalence of anarchy in international relations, but attribute it to the
shortcomings of realist policies rather than to the inherent nature of a world of sovereign states.5 For
classical liberals, peace is the normal state of affairs, and war the result of intellectual deficiency or moral
depravity.6 Liberals believe that the commonality of human nature creates a basic unity of interests
among individuals, which in turn is reflected in a common denominator of interests among states. These
common interests, liberals believe, can be discerned by the application of human reason to the
understanding of human nature. Through human understanding based on reason, states can (but not
necessarily will) so adjust their relations with each other as to best serve the interests of their citizens. In
short, rationality in foreign policy making can tame international anarchy, vindicating liberal faith in
progress and the ultimate perfectibility of the human condition.
Liberals tend to give more emphasis to economic interests than do realists. Classical liberals argued
that war was destructive of economic interests. Traditional states had followed various forms of
mercantile economic policies. The aim of mercantilism was to increase the wealth and power of the state;
its primary means was war. Since the amount of global wealth was a closed sum, one country‟s gain was
another‟s loss, and the only way to increase one‟s share was by conquest.7
Classical liberals believed that unrestricted economic activity (laissez faire) was a better means of
expanding national wealth while also breaking down barriers between states by expanding the range of
personal contacts and levels of understanding between the peoples of the world.8 According to Kant,
unhindered commerce would unite the peoples of the world in a common, peaceful enterprise:
The spirit of commerce, which is incompatible with war, sooner or later gains the upper hand in every state. As
the power of money is perhaps the most dependable of all the powers (means) included under the state power,
states see themselves forced, without any moral urge, to promote honorable peace and by mediation to prevent
war wherever it threatens to break out.9
In fact, conflicts were often started by states erecting barriers to trade that destroyed the natural
harmony of interests shared by individuals in the states affected. The solution was the free movement of
commodities, capital, and labor.10 War could only disrupt trade and the potential for individual
Liberalism thus places individual human beings at the core of its thought as the primary actors or
agents. Therefore, liberals tend to treat the satisfaction of the most basic human needs as ultimate goals
(“inalienable rights”), and to view state interests as secondary goals ultimately derived from the needs of
individuals. Liberalism, while acknowledging the importance of states (with their inherent security
interests) as means to securing these ends, privileges individual human rights in its system of
Liberal thought allows for the legitimate use of power to arrest disorder arising either from defective
reason or from moral defect. Here, once again, liberals are inclined to prefer economic power (e.g.,
“economic sanctions”) to military power, but the liberal international system provides mechanisms (e.g.,
Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter) by which military power can be employed to deal with
especially intractable or especially deadly threats to the international rule of law.
Liberals point out the paradox of the “security dilemma” in realist thought. Far from being
“impractical” or “idealistic,” they argue, it is only rational to conclude that, if the constant effort of each
state to increase its power in the international system leads to constant cycles of escalation and conflict,
then efforts to reduce the reliance of states on power in their relations with each other can make possible
a more peaceful world. Liberal thought regarding international relations has therefore always placed
great emphasis on reducing the role of power.
In a sense, liberal thought on military power is the mirror image of realist thought on the subject.
Liberals, stressing that all forms of power are potentially dangerous, regard military power as the most
dangerous. In thinking about international relations, therefore, liberals place special emphasis on the
subordination of military institutions and operations to political control, as well as the limitation,
reduction and selective abolition of military armaments.
Liberal thought accepts the concept of an international balance of power as a first step or stage in
moving the world away from international anarchy, but rejects the notion that it is an end in itself, or the
most that can be achieved in constraining “power politics” among states. For liberals, the next stage in
the development of the international system is the codification of the common denominators of state
interests into international law. With the principle of international law once established among states,
liberal thought envisions its subsequent extension from the narrow confines of states‟ rights to
encompass “universal” human rights. Thus, in liberal thought, law as the embodiment of a rational
understanding of how best to achieve the common goals of humanity becomes the historic substitute for
power. The realist order based on relative power is to be gradually supplanted by a liberal order based on
the rule of law.
In the early modern period, liberal thought regarding international relations concentrated on exposing
the flaws and shortcomings in realist conceptions of “power politics.” In particular, liberals attacked the
idea of the primacy of the state and state interests in human affairs (known as “raison d’état”), and
deplored realist prescriptions for the economy and the use of military force in international relations. Up
to the middle of the 19th century, therefore, liberalism was an essentially anti-statist and anti-militarist
perspective on international relations. Even today, in some (especially European) academic writings, a
liberal is one who prefers limited governmental intervention both politically and economically. This
meaning is nearly the opposite of what the term has come to mean in US politics.
Beginning in the last third of the 19th century and continuing through the first half of the 20th,
however, a “new liberalism” began to evolve, a contemporary liberalism much more tolerant of the state
and even of the potential employment of military power by the state than earlier liberal thought had been.
This change in attitude was partly due to the replacement of pre-modern, traditional states with modern,
liberal states, which was then ongoing around the world. Liberals naturally tended to perceive liberal
states as more benign in their international conduct than traditional states. Modern, liberal states, they
assumed, could be trusted to employ military force in accordance with liberal norms respecting law and
human rights, thus helping to build a new, liberal international order. These early 20th century liberals
became known as “liberal internationalists.”
Liberal internationalists seek to realize the core liberal values globally, aspiring to a world in which all
people enjoy liberal rights and freedoms.11 For liberal internationalists, the laws of nature dictate
cooperation between people. While liberal internationalists are convinced that, historically, modern wars
have been—for the most part—the deplorable contrivance of political and economic elites, they also
have accepted, and even reluctantly embraced, war as a necessary means of advancing international
security. Finally, liberal internationalists are convinced that the “scourge of war” ultimately—if not
immediately—can be removed from the human experience through the spread of political democracy,
peaceful commerce, and—above all—the international rule of law.
The view that the spread of democracy will lead to an end of international conflict is deeply rooted.12
In this view, liberal states founded on individual rights and representative government do not have the
same appetite for conflict and war as tribal tyrannies or princely empires. This “democratic peace” thesis
suggests that the best prospect for bringing an end to war between states lies with the spread of liberal
political values. In fact, the existing “long peace” between the “advanced” industrialized states of the
world has nurtured profound optimism among liberal internationalists.13
Interdependence and Institutionalism
As previously noted, liberals do not deny that the international system is anarchic in some sense, but
disagree with realists about what this means and why it matters. Contemporary liberal theorists suggest
that realists overemphasize the importance of anarchy while neglecting the growing trend toward
interdependence. Some contemporary liberal theorists have applied the classical concept of laissez faire
economics in new ways, arguing that the world is ready to evolve to a yet—higher level of liberal order,
one based on economic interdependence and international institutions.
Interdependence theory emphasizes the liberal tenet that states are not the primary world actors,
pointing out that free trade and the removal of trade barriers has led to linkages between states that cross
state borders both formally and informally. At some point, the resulting “interdependence” between
states will replace realist competition and defuse the inclination for aggression and reciprocal
An extension of the interdependence argument can be found in regime theory. A regime exists when
state behavior results from joint rather than independent decision-making. For example, domestic society
is a regime because citizens eschew the use of force to settle disputes, and many claim a developing
international regime supporting the value of human rights. International regimes commonly deal with
issues of standardization, for example the adoption of a common gauge for railroad tracks in western
Europe, the ICAO conventions regarding air traffic control, etc. These conventions are adequate to solve
problems without the aid of international institutions.15
Going even further in the second half of the 20th century, some liberal theorists argued that the world
was ready to evolve to a yet—higher level of liberal order, one based on international institutions such as
the United Nations. Advocates of this view are sometimes referred to as “liberal institutionalists.”
Moving beyond the historic, liberal tenet regarding the primacy of the individual, institutionalism accepts
the realist assumption that states are the principal actors in world politics and that they behave in
accordance with their perception of their self-interest Liberal institutional theorists consciously set out to
meld elements of realism into the liberal internationalist worldview.
Drawing upon contemporary social-scientific thinking about how interests are formed, institutionalists
point to the role of international institutions in changing perceptions of self-interest. Institutionalist
theory supports the liberal contention that states are motivated by the prospect of gains for themselves,
and rejects the realist contention that fear of gains by others is of overriding concern.
In a nutshell, institutionalism partially accepts realist assumptions about state motivation and the lack
of common enforcement, but argues that where common interest exists, realism is too pessimistic about
the prospect for cooperation and the role of institutions in facilitating that cooperation. They point to the
plethora of international regimes and institutions that have emerged since 1945, what Jordan et al refer to
as an “institutional revolution,” and suggest that these institutions will mitigate the adverse effects of
These two perspectives on the international system—liberal internationalism and liberal
institutionalism—are often lumped together as part of “modern liberalism,” in contrast to the “classical
liberalism” of the early modern period, but this is unhelpful on at least two counts. First, all liberalism is
“modern.” Classical liberals were among the most important change agents helping to bring about the
rise of the modern economy, modern society and the modern state. Second, in order to fully understand
present-day liberalism, it is important to keep in mind the distinctions among different strands of late-
20th and early-21st century liberal thought. Blurring such distinctions leads to misunderstandings such as
the inaccurate stereotyping of all liberals as pacifists.
All liberals do champion the value of individuals and their freedom. Liberals believe that within a
state, democratic government and a fair market best protect individual freedom, and that law provides a
framework for rational, social behavior. Since the logic by which states arrange their relations with each
other—international relations—is the same as the logic by which states arrange their internal affairs,
liberals also believe that these domestic guarantees of freedom have a transnational appeal and therefore
larger implications in the international arena.
Liberalism and Its Critics
Just as liberalism might be considered a critique of realism, realism provides the sharpest critique of
liberalism. While liberals accept the notion of survival as a motivation for state behavior, they contend
that economic interdependence lowers the possibility of war by increasing the value of trading over the
alternative of aggression. In other words, interdependent states would sooner trade than invade. As levels
of economic interdependence rise, liberals assert, we have cause for optimism. Realists reject the liberal
premise, arguing that high interdependence actually increases the probability of war. States concerned
about security will dislike depending on others for goods and materials, since it means that these crucial
imported goods could be cut off during a crisis.17 Consequently, states actually have an incentive to
initiate war, if simply to ensure continued access to necessary materials and goods. The future of the
European Union is an important test of the importance of liberal theory. If progress toward
interdependence continues, liberals will no doubt view this as support for their claims. Conversely, if the
trend toward European integration weakens or is reversed, the neorealists will claim vindication.18
Liberals also contend that the spread of democratic states is leading to a zone of peace among liberal
democracies that may one day eliminate war. A review of the studies done to date indicates that
democracies, however unlikely to fight each other, are generally as conflict-prone as undemocratic
states.19 Even those who accept the conclusion that democracies are unlikely to fight each other criticize
the thesis for its lack of a clear, causal mechanism. In other words, the thesis fails to indicate why
democracies are not inclined to fight each other. Finally, it has been suggested that studies of the thesis
have defined “liberal democracy” too selectively.
Yet it is a fact that the world‟s liberal democracies have not gone to war with each other. This
significance of this fact cannot be ignored, a point made by Jack Levy who observed “the absence of war
between democracies comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international
relations.”20 It is a fact that directly challenges realist assumptions that all states act the same in the
international environment regardless of their internal makeup. It is also a fact with obvious policy
The Enduring Usefulness of Liberalism
As with realism, one must ultimately turn to questions about the usefulness of a worldview in terms of
the critical issues of the day to complete the evaluation, critical issues such as war, intervention,
globalization, human rights, and terrorism.
Realists have described for us a state of war that could be mitigated but not overcome short of a global
Leviathan. Liberals, with important variations, announce the possibility of a state of peace—a “perpetual
peace”—amongst independent states. A separate peace already exists amid liberal democratic states. In
addition, the interdependence of commerce and the consequential international contacts of state officials
help create crosscutting ties that make possible mutual accommodation. International law adds another
source of mutual respect.
According to contemporary liberal scholars, the ever-increasing numbers of regimes and institutions
create interests in favor of cooperation and accommodation. Just as domestic society is a regime, many
claim a developing international regime supporting the value of human rights. Institutions such as the
IMF or UN do encourage international coordination. As Michael Doyle has noted, these taken together
“plausibly connect the characteristics of Liberal polities and economies with sustained Liberal peace.”21
Yet make no mistake, most liberals are not pacifists. Liberals admit that war is a possibility during the
long struggle to peace. Liberals agree that the first function of the state is the protection of its citizens.
Liberals find that the decision to go to war is always a mix of politics and morality. Indeed, “Just War”
theory suggests that while war for self-defense against an actual or threatened attack is certainly just, so
is war to defend human rights.22 While realists do not expect “moral considerations to seriously affect
state conduct,” liberals expect states to take into account moral considerations as well as interests or the
balance of power.23
Intervention has been a significant and occasionally troubling topic for liberals. On one hand, some
liberals have argued as strongly as many realists for non-intervention. They argue that nonintervention
allows citizens to determine their own future without outside interference. Immanuel Kant strongly
suggested in Perpetual Peace that nonintervention allowed free and equal citizens the time and
independence to work out their concerns.24 Others have argued that intervention has consequences that
must be considered. An extension of John Stuart Mill‟s argument that it would be a mistake to give
freedom to a people who did not win it on their own, they feel that only by winning your own freedom
can you acquire the capacity to defend it later. In addition, they feel that a liberal government
transplanted into a society that is unprepared for it will not flourish in any case.25
Yet most contemporary liberals strongly support intervention where it is accomplished to support
certain fundamental principles such as human rights. Liberals are, of course, inclined to recognize the
moral value of human rights. According to this school, we all have a duty to protect basic human rights.
Although they hotly debate the range of these rights, they agree that these rights are held by all humanity
and claimable by all. Since states are created to serve the needs of the individuals within those states,
states that fail to protect the rights of its constituents do not have the right to be free from intervention.
Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars, offers three justifications for intervention.26 The
first is to assist a people struggling for national self-determination after they have demonstrated the
representative nature of their movement; the second to counter the intervention by another state in a civil
war; and the third intervention for humanitarian purposes to stop the flagrant violation of the rights to
survival of a people. In Walzer‟s words,
Humanitarian intervention is justified when it is a response (with reasonable expectations of success) to acts
“that shock the moral conscience of mankind” … It is not the conscience of political leaders that one refer to in
such cases. They have other things to worry about and may well be required to repress their normal feelings of
indignation and outrage. The reference is to the moral convictions of ordinary men and women, acquired in the
course of their everyday activities.27
While many liberals would find Walzer‟s justification for humanitarian intervention too limited,
Walzer does make a strong case for intervention on the grounds of liberal tenets of self-determination
and human rights.
For liberals, however, the right to intervene does not indicate a duty to intervene. States have the duty
to consider the views of its citizens before intervention. Unlike realists, liberals do not suggest that
national interests govern when to intervene, but suggest national interests govern whether a nation should
intervene when it has the right to do so.
Globalization refers to the increasing integration of economies around the world, particularly through
trade and financial flows. The term is sometimes also used to refer to the movement of people (labor) and
knowledge (technology) across international borders. In this sense, it is simply an extension beyond
national borders of the same market forces that have operated for centuries within states. In the simplest
terms, globalization is the “growth of worldwide networks of interdependence.”28
The idea of sovereign states trading with each other as separate economic units is rapidly becoming
the exception rather than the rule. Intra-industry trade dominates the manufacturing sector of the world
economy. There is now a global web of linkages that cross international borders. The mobility of capital,
information, technology, and the degree to which firms trade with each other mean that the role of
government is no longer to regulate trade but to facilitate linkages between domestic firms and global
The proliferation of free trade agreements, organizations such as NAFTA and APEC, as well as the
growing importance of international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the
International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (known as the World Bank), and the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) reveal the influence of liberalism in the post-Cold War world.29
These organizations support the liberal proposition that free market economies are the only efficient
means of economic organization, and the liberal belief that economic growth is the one best road to
economic development for all societies. As a consequence, nation-states have lost much of their direct
control over the value of their currencies and the movement of capital, degrading their economic
Yet questions remain about globalization. Some claim that globalization has a limited reach because it
excludes many poor countries.30 They point to the widening gap between rich and poor countries as
evidence that the outcomes for the poor were exactly the opposite of what is claimed by globalization‟s
supporters, outcomes such as increased poverty and hunger, decreased social services and decreased
power of labor vis-á-vis global corporations. Others blame globalization for recent terrorist attacks,
suggesting that the flow of information, capital, and individuals across borders that mark globalization
also facilitate terrorism. Since the US is often seen as the major beneficiary of globalization, it may be
blamed for these ill effects, complicating US foreign policy.
Liberals do not deny that globalization is certainly a mixed blessing, but suggest that as states become
democratic, open up their economies, and reform their financial institutions, globalization‟s adverse
effects will be mitigated. As the National Intelligence Council says, the evolution of globalization will be
rocky and uneven, but liberals believe that the spread of democracy and economic liberalization will
eventually smooth the bumps in the road.31
As noted above, liberals have a long history of belief that the legitimacy of states was largely
dependent upon upholding the rule of law and the state‟s respect for the human rights of its citizens.32
Just as it is wrong for individuals to engage in criminal behavior, it is also wrong for states to do so.
Liberals believe that human beings are universally endowed with certain fundamental rights that are the
birthright of all; they cannot be taken away. States that treat their own citizens with respect and that allow
them to participate in the political process are less likely to behave aggressively in the international
The challenge to liberals has been to develop and promote a set of universal rights that would receive
universal acknowledgement, given that states might in some cases have to sacrifice acting in their own
perceived interest to comply with these rights. Much progress has been made on this front since World
War II through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(1966). Yet the problems of defining human rights remain, and states are very reluctant to give outside
agencies the power to compel them to adhere to any universal standard.
Liberals also must fight the accusation that any statement of universal human rights is by default
culturally specific and ethnocentric, and consequently unsuitable for non-western societies. To some
societies, claims for universality simply conceal attempts by one society to impose its norms on another,
while infringing upon its sovereignty. Liberal claims for universal human rights must address this
accusation of moral superiority.
As in war, liberals believe that the primary way that a state provides for its citizens is through security
and safety. Since the end of the Cold War, countries that once excused terrorism now condemn it. This
changed international attitude led to 12 United Nations conventions targeting terrorist activity even
before 11 September 2001. More importantly, since the events of 11 September, there is growing,
practical international cooperation to fight global terrorism—a regime. Without this international
cooperation, the United States cannot protect its national infrastructure from threats. Stephen Walt‟s
comments say it best:
The key to victory against global terrorism lies in the US ability to create and sustain a broad international
coalition. International support has been a prerequisite for military action against al-Qaeda and the Taliban,
but cooperation from other states is even more crucial to the effort to dismantle al-Qaeda’s far-flung network of
Nation-states may well be the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of
global politics will not occur between states. The battle lines of the future will occur between states and
non-state actors such as terrorist groups. Terrorism is the weapon of choice for those who are prepared to
use violence but who believe that they would lose any contest of sheer strength. Realist measures of
power based upon material military strength provide only a part of the answer.
The Future of Liberal Thought
The end of the Cold War buttressed liberal beliefs that democratic societies, typified by protection of
individual rights and free markets, can become an international norm shaping a peaceful global order. In
a confident assertion of the power of liberalism, Fukuyama claimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union
proved that liberal democracies had no real competitor. Fukuyama suggested that liberal democracy may
constitute the “end point of mankind‟s ideological evolution” and hence the “final form of human
While Fukuyama may have been overly optimistic for the short term, he may be proven correct in the
long run.34 Despite occasional relapses, the spread of liberal democracies, the realization by states that
trade and commerce are more closely associated with wealth than territorial conquest, the increasing
number of states under civil rather than military rule, and the rising attention paid to human rights and
international law are all encouraging developments. There is little doubt that the “great powers” are now
far less inclined to resolve their differences through use of military force.
It would be premature to predict the imminent demise of the nation state. At last count, there were 191
member states in the United Nations.35 While globalization has undoubtedly weakened the state, it is still
only the nation-state that can bind its citizens together, arbitrate between them, represent them in the
global arena and, of course, provide for their security. Yet liberal claims about the future of the
international order deserve serious investigation and intellectual engagement. To fail to do so would
ignore an important trend in international relations.
1. Like other schools of thought, liberalism consists of a series of debates about its actual meaning, and consequently there
are many forms of liberalism “Classical” liberalism‟s interest in the power of the state versus the rights of the individual is
marked by a number of important writings. See John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. C.B. MacPherson
(Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, Inc., 1690/1980), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses,
ed. P.D. Jimack (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle CO, 1993), and John Stuart Mill, „„On Liberty,” in Essays on Politics and
Culture, ed. by Gertrude Himmelfard (NY: Meridan Book, 1859/1973). Classical liberal writers calling for a laissez-faire
political economy include Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (NY: Prometheus Books, 1991). Regarding contemporary
international liberalism, there are three major strands. First, republican liberalism (the democratic peace proposal) is supported
by Rudolph J. Rummel, “Democracies ARE Less Warlike Than Other Regimes,” European Journal of International
Relations, 1 (1995): 457-479, Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), and James Lee Ray, Democracy and International Conflict (NY: University of
South Carolina Press, 1995). Second, commercial liberalism is advocated by John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The
Obsolescence of Major War (NY: Basic Books, 1989) as well as James L. Richardson, “The Declining Probability of War
Thesis: How Relevant for the Asia-Pacific?” in Asia-Pacific Security: The Economics-Politics Nexus, ed. Stuart Harris and
Andrew Mack (St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1997), 81-100. Finally, Keohane is the leading liberal institutionalist theorist.
See Robert O. Keohane, “Institutional Theory and the Realist Challenge: After the Cold War,” in Neorealism and
Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate, ed. D.A. Baldwin (NY: Columbia University Press, 1993), 269-300. For all of this
variety, for Anthony Arblaster in The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984) and others, it is
individualism that ties liberalism together.
2. For many, liberalism‟s tenets finally began to emerge in the early 1600s (Richardson, 20), while others such as E.K.
Bramsted and KJ. Melhuish in Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce (London: Longman, 1978)
suggest it was England‟s “Glorious Revolution” in 1688 that led to the first emergence of liberalism. In any case, all agree that
the first great texts of this “classical” liberal period were John Locke‟s The Second Treatise of Government and A Letter
Concerning Toleration, Locke‟s prose became part of the foundation for our own constitution.
3. The metaphor of a “social contract” has permeated much of the discussion on this topic. This metaphor begins with the
individual in a state of nature, enjoying freedom and equality. These individuals consent to a social contract to bind them
together under a particular government. Individuals formed governments to serve a purpose. For Locke, this was to protect
their personal property.
4. Locke emphasized the rule of law to flame the behavior of citizens (71n). Locke considered the role of government to
be a trustee for the citizens. Consequently, governments could be dissolved when they “invade the Property of the Subject” or
become “arbitrary Disposers of the Lives, Liberties or Fortunes of the People” (111).
5. Liberals do not deny that the international system is anarchic in some sense, but disagree with realists about what this
means and why it matters. Liberals suggest that realists overemphasize the importance of anarchy while neglecting the
growing trend toward interdependence. See (for example) Robert Axelrod and Robert Keohane, “Achieving Cooperation
Under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions,” World Politics no. 38 (October), 226-254.
6. In Kant‟s words, peace can be perpetual. See “Perpetual Peace,” in Kant: On History, ed. Lewis White Beck
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1963).
7. The mercantilist view prevailed in seventeenth and eighteenth century international thought. With their emphasis on
preparation for war and relative gains, many view the mercantilists as early realists. See David A. Baldwin, Neorealism and
Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate (NY: Columbia University Press, 1993). II.
8. Liberals stress the absolute gains available from international cooperation, while realists stress relative gains. The
classic realist statement is provided by Ken Waltz in Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1979):
“When faced with the possibility of cooperating for mutual gain, states that feel insecure must ask how the gain will be
divided. They are compelled to ask not „Will both of us gain?‟ but „Who will gain more?‟ If an expected gain is to be divided,
say, in the ratio of two to one, one state may use its disproportionate gain to implement a policy to damage or destroy the
other” (105). Liberals counter by stating that it is often in the interest of the state and the individuals who constitute the state to
acquire absolute gains through international cooperation, thus mitigating the effect of anarchy.
9. Kant, 114.
10. Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, and Richard Cobden backed this point of view. See Scott Burchill.
Richard Devetak, and others, Theories of International Relations (NY: Palgrave, 2001), 39.
11. This is the view of many including Stanley Hoffman in his book, The Crisis of International Liberalism. See James L.
Richardson, Contending Liberalisms in World Politics: Ideology and Power (Boulder: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2001), 55.
12. The existing literature generally gives recognition to Immanuel Kant for the idea of a “democratic peace,” an idea he
explained in his book Perpetual Peace, Kant advocates a republican constitution (a separation of powers; he was adverse to
democracy) because the “consent of the citizenry is required to decide that war should be declared” (94). Since the citizens
must bear the material and human costs, they will be loath to embark upon senseless warfare.
13. Liberal internationalists such as John Mueller in Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (NY: Basic
Books, 1989) and Francis Fukuyama in “The End of History?” The National Interest 16: 3-18, are confident that we have
already entered a period in which war as an instrument of diplomacy is becoming obsolete. Fukuyama, at the time a senior
official at the State Department, wrote a short but contentious article in which he suggested that liberal democracy may
constitute the “end point of mankind‟s ideological evolution” and hence the “final form of human government.”
14. Free trade and the elimination of trade barriers are at the heart of modern interdependence theory, the intellectual
precursor to liberal institutionalism. This theory suggests that nation-states are becoming increasingly sensitive and vulnerable
to economic and social change in other states and the global system as a whole. The classic work in this field is Robert
Keohane and Joseph Nye, Power and Interdependence (NY: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1977).
15. International institutions are organizations of states, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade
Organization (WTO), the United Nations (UN), or others designed to promote international coordination.
16. Amos A. Jordan, William J. Taylor, Jr., and Michael J. Mazarr, American National Security (Baltimore: The John
Hopkins University Press, 1999), 21-23. They break institutions into international organizations and transnational
17. For John Mearsheimer in “Disorder Restored,” Rethinking America’s Security, ed. Graham Allison and G.F. Treverton
(NY: W.W. Norton, 1992), nations that “depend on others for critical economic supplies will fear cutoff or blackmail in time
of crisis or war.” Consequently, “they may try to extend political control to the source or with its other customers.”
Interdependence, therefore, “will probably lead to greater security competition” (223).
18. For more on the liberal view, see Keohane (1993), 269-300. For a realist critique, see Joseph M. Grieco, “Anarchy and
the Limits of Cooperation,” in Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate (NY: Columbia University, 1993),
19. James Lee Ray in Democracy and International Conflict (NY: University of Carolina Press, 1995) argues that
democracies are not as conflict prone as others.
20. Jack S. Levy, “Domestic Politics and War,” in The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars, ed. Robert J. Rotberg and
Theodore K. Rabb (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 88.
21. Michael W. Doyle, Ways of War and Peace (NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), 284.
22. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), suggests this legalist paradigm fails to tell the
whole story, concluding that allowing pre-emptive strikes (such as Israeli action in the 1967 Six Day War with Egypt) is “just
23. Colonel James Forsyth, “Realist Thought and National Security,” in NS Coursebook (Maxwell AFB, AL: ACSC,
24. Kant stated that intervention was inappropriate even if a state gave “offense” to its subjects. The only time intervention
was acceptable was if a state should “fall into two parts, each of which pretended to be a separate state: (89). As Kant stated,
“interference by foreign powers would infringe on the rights of an independent people struggling with its internal disease;
hence it would itself be an offense and would render the autonomy of all states insecure.” On the other hand, he expected states
to honor the rights of man, saying, “The rights of men must be held sacred, however much sacrifice it may cost the ruling
25. See Mill, 368-384. See Doyle for an excellent summary of these arguments (395-396).
26. While some have claimed that Walzer makes a case for realism (Forsyth, n13), I find this to be disingenuous. Chapter
1 of Walzer‟s book titled, “Against ‘Realism,‟” takes great pain to describe the moral elements in decisions to go to war,
pointing out that “moral anxiety, not political calculation” (9) influenced much Athenian thought in Thucydides‟ History of the
Peloponnesian War. Walzer‟s assumption that “we really do act within a moral world” (20) does not fit well within the realist
27. Walzer, 107.
28. This is the definition used by Joseph Nye in his recent The Paradox of American Power (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2002), 79. Chapter 3 of his book provides an excellent summary of the arguments swirling around
29. In 1944, 24 states met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to plan how to rejuvenate a global economy marked by
high trade barriers and destroyed economies. In 1947, an agreement created the three “Bretton Woods” international
organizations: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT; now the WTO), the International Bank for Reconstruction
and Development (IBRD) and the International Monetary Fund.
30. Stanley Hoffman makes this point particularly well in his “Clash of Globalizations,” Foreign Affairs, July/August
31. See National Intelligence Council‟s Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future with Nongovernmental Experts
(Washington, DC: CIA, 2000), 9.
32. The Magna Carta in 1215 and the development of English Common Law and the Bill of Rights in 1689 are significant
events. Grotius (the law of nations), Rousseau (the social contract), and Locke (popular consent and the limits of sovereignty)
all made intellectual contributions. Of course, the American Declaration of Independence (“we take these truths to be self-
evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among
these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789
are later contributions.
33. Stephen M. Walt, “Beyond Bin Laden: Reshaping US Foreign Policy,” International Security, vol 26, no. 3, Winter
34. Fukuyama, 15.
35. United Nations, “Growth in United Nations Membership, 1945-2003,” n.p., on-line, Internet, 1 June 2004,
available from http://www.un.org/Overview/growth.htm.
AUTHORS: Lt Col Fiedler is a graduate of the University of Idaho with a doctoral degree in political science. His
operational background includes tours as a rated USA warrant officer flying the OH-58 and UH-I helicopters, a USAF
helicopter pilot flying the CH-53, and a USAF fixed wing pilot flying the EC-135. Dr. LaSaine earned his B.A. A.M. and
Ph.D. degrees in history at Brown University. From 1988 to 1997 he was a member of the Department of History at the
University of Georgia and a Visiting Professor of Military History at Air War College in 1993-95. Since 1997 he has been
an associate professor of national security studies at Air Command and Staff College.