Alexa Toole
RPOS 370
Theoretical Critique 1
24 March 2014
There are various types of theories when it comes to the topic of international relations.
The focus of this particular theoretical critique is liberalism. Liberalism is a theory unlike any
other because it focuses on that state-society relations have a fundamental impact on a state’s
behavior.1 Unlike a realist, a liberalist would view that what matters most in world politics are
the states preferences.2 Liberalists believe that what comes first is that you have to know what
the states want. Because liberalism has put emphasis on the ties between states, military power
has been decreased and it has been challenging to define what national interest is. Liberalism
does not look at military power as being the only power. Liberalists view economic power and
social power as being important as well. It is also proven that using economic power is more
beneficial than using military power. Liberalists believe that when a state uses its military power
it is not always beneficial either. They want the states to have international cooperation, not
conflict. The theory of liberalism believes that different states possess different interests among
them. A way to help keep states close even though they have different primary interests is by
implementing international organizations and rules. Most realists would conclude that liberalism
is somewhat idealistic. Liberalism, most importantly, has an optimistic view of the world, and
Andrew Moravcsik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics”,
International Organization 51 (1997): 513.
2 Ibid., 513.
1
that collective cooperation among the states is actually possible. A key assumption of liberalism
is that cooperation among states can be beneficial for all states and produce gains.
There are three core assumptions of the liberal theory. The first assumption is the
primacy of societal actors. This assumption basically states “the fundamental actors in
international politics are individuals and private groups, who are on the average rational and riskaverse and who organize exchange and collective action to promote differentiated interests under
constraints imposed by material scarcity, conflicting values, and variations in societal
influence”.3 In other words, the liberal theory is viewed from the “bottom-up” of politics.4
Societal actors and their interests for liberals are central, but I believe that this is a utopian way
of looking at it. Liberals think that states all have the same interests and that somehow brings
about peace. This is not necessarily a reality because states are continuously engaging in
conflicts for disagreements over interests. The second assumption is representation and state
preferences. This assumption says “states (or other political institutions) represent some subset
of domestic society, on the basis of whose interests state officials define state preferences and act
purposively in world politics”.5 Essentially, liberals view the state as a representative, not an
actor.6 I agree with the liberalist idea that “no government rests on universal or unbiased
political representation; every government represents some individuals and groups more fully
than others”.7 That statement certainly applies to reality. There is the goal of equal
representation but, in actuality, it does not happen that way. The third and final assumption is
Andrew Moravcsik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics”,
International Organization 51 (1997): 516.
4 Ibid., 517.
5 Ibid., 518.
6 Ibid., 518.
7 Ibid., 518.
3
the interdependence and the international system. This assumption states, “the configuration of
independent state preferences determines state behavior”.8 I find this assumption to be very
complex and confusing. It is not clear to me that state behavior is sort of defined by its
preferences.
Only the second assumption on representation could actually be applied in reality. The
first and the third are so complex and idealistically viewed that it is not positive they could be
imposed on reality. It does matter whether the assumptions of the liberal theory can be applied
because that makes the liberalism complete; and without it sort of leaves “holes” in the liberal
theory overall.
The liberal theory’s quality can be evaluated in the seven dimensions of logical
consistency, completeness, explanatory and predictive power, parsimony, empirical validity,
substantive significance, and prescriptive richness. The liberal theory, I believe, is not found to
be logically consistent. It discusses the idea of competing states that essentially all want peace
but it is not coherent. According to Rathburn, liberalism does not possess any type of coherent
logic of its own.9 Rathburn does not even believe that liberalism has a core to start with, and that
it’s independent variables are not connected.10
The completeness of the liberal theory is somewhat poor. As previously stated, the
assumptions of the liberal theory are not easily applicable to actual reality. The liberal theory
leaves room for error indefinitely. It relies too much of the societal actors and not as much on the
political actors which decide much of the “peace” that liberalists want to see.
Andrew Moravcsik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics”,
International Organization 51 (1997): 520.
9 Brian C. Rathburn, “Is Anybody Not An (International Relations) Liberal?”, Security Studies
19 (2010): 5, accessed March 20, 2014, doi: 10.1080/09636410903546558.
10 Ibid., 4.
8
The explanatory power of the liberal theory is concise, while the predictive power is not.
The theory goes through and explains its assumptions however realistic they may be. It also
explains how peace among the states is obtained even though it may not actually happen. But
the idea that states with similar interests preserves this peace in not accurate. Liberalism
incorporates domestic politics, which right then and there does not make it a strong international
relations theory.11 It does not apply to all the states like it idealistically wants to. The liberal
theory may explain the democratic peace theory, but it cannot be used to explain anything else
such as the factors for the First World War.
According to Moravcsik, “liberalism generates many empirical arguments as powerful,
parsimonious, and “efficient” as those of realism”.12 Rathburn would most likely disagree
because this goes back to the idea that liberalism does not have an actual core, therefore how can
it be parsimonious and empirically valid.
The liberal theory does have a substantive significance to it with the idea of peace, but as
previous stated it is not concise and cannot be applied to all states solely on the fact that
liberalism agrees with domestic politics. As far as the liberal theory’s prescriptive richness, the
complexity of the theory itself takes anyway from its meaning. It tries to explain so much that I
feel it lacks much comprehension from those trying to understand it.
The liberal theory’s main idea, I believe, is admirable. The idea of trying to preserve
peace among the states, and leave war to the last possible outcome is a good way to see how the
world should be. Scholars and policymakers should not use this theory to understand
Brian C. Rathburn, “Is Anybody Not An (International Relations) Liberal?”, Security Studies
19 (2010): 4, accessed March 20, 2014, doi: 10.1080/09636410903546558.
12 Andrew Moravcsik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International
Politics”, International Organization 51 (1997): 533.
11
international politics. Liberalism is too idealistic, and does not have a collective way to bring out
peace among states. The liberal theory only addresses how the world should be, not how it
actually is.
References
Moravcsik, Andrew. (1997). Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International
Politics. International Organization, 51, 513-553.
Rathburn, Brian C. (2010). Is Anybody Not An (International Relations) Liberal? Security
Studies, 19(1), 1-25. doi: 10.1080/09636410903546558