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The Concept of Idealism in the International Relations Spectrum

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            Idealism allegedly dominated the study of international relations from the end of the First World War until the late 1930s. Idealists are out of touch with current thinking, they put moral principles before practical or prudential considerations, and are naïve about the world around them. They are futurists who seek a perfect world. It is not surprising, then, that it was the self-proclaimed realists who coined the term to describe the liberal internationalism of the interwar years. Whether it deserves such a label is debatable. Recent research indicates that the idealist thinkers of the period were not as “other-worldly” as many realists suggested. R.N. Berki pointed out that idealism in the international perspective “signifies an attempt to simplify political reality with a view to gaining a unitary, seemingly coherent picture; this endeavor involves the necessity of abstracting from political reality, and also the tendency to remain arrested in one’s own abstraction, reading this as the whole” (Berki, 228).

Instead of using and explaining term “idealism,” Carr consistently used “utopianism.” Indeed, on the few occasions Carr did use the term “idealism” he had in mind philosophical idealism -the doctrine that upholds, roughly speaking, that reality is a product of the mind – rather than political idealism (Carr, 20, 115). In contrast the early postwar American realists – Morgenthau, Wolfers, and Herz – used the term “idealism” rather than “utopianism”. From the critical perspective, the two terms have been used interchangeably. Generally speaking, the idealists shared a belief in progress and were of the view that the procedures of parliamentary democracy and deliberation under the rule of law could be firmly established in international diplomacy. This is why they placed so much importance on the League of Nations and on strengthening international law.  A central characteristic of idealism is the belief that what unites human beings is more important than what divides them. The idealists rejected communitarian and realist arguments that the state is itself a source of moral value for human beings. Instead, they defended a cosmopolitan ethics and sought to educate individuals about the need to reform the international system.

            Being addressed by many philosophers and politicians earlier in the history, in the beginning of the nineteenth century the concept of international idealism has been formulated and shaped by the philosophical system of Hegel. According to Hegel, the state is itself an individual that demands recognition and achieves it by struggle, and that undergoes a process of moral development towards full self-consciousness of itself as free and autonomous. Like the individual person, the sovereignty of the state must possess self-certainty and exists “only as subjectivity”. The truth of subjectivity and of personality can be realized only as a subject and person. The individuality of the state is manifest in the individual person of the constitutional monarch (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §279). A state must undergo a process whereby it attains its rational self-consciousness of being-for-itself. Hegel contends that in order to become free and self-determining all nations must experience the harsh discipline of subservience.

The examples he gives are those of Athens and Rome, which had to go through periods of subjection before progressing to their own self-consciousness of individuality. Quite logically, the criteria of conduct which states observe in their relations with other states are, like the internal constitution of a state, historically developing. Hegel posed that there must be a family of states like that which had come into being in modern Europe. This system of states, although politically fragmented, constituted one people. Within this system a balance of power was maintained to protect any one of them from “the violence of the powerful”, and a diplomacy emerged “in which all the members of the great European system, however distant, felt an interest in that which happened to any one of them” (Hegel, Philosophy of History, 430-2).

European states constrain each other not only in the declaration of war, but also in its conduct once war has been declared. One may observe that being an idealist, Hegel had a great deal of faith in the regulatory capacity of custom in international relations. It is not a cosmopolitan ideal or principle that impresses itself upon the individual European states to act humanely in their relations with each other, but primarily their own national customs universalized. It is these, and not international law as such, that constitute “the universal aspect of behaviour which is preserved under all circumstances” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §339).

            Between 1818, when France took its place alongside Russia, Britain, Austria, and Prussia in the Concert of Europe, and the time of Hegel’s death in 1831, the great powers orchestrated the maintenance of the system by means of agreeing to, or acquiescing in, collective intervention in the domestic issues outside their formal jurisdiction. The interventionism which the French Revolution sanctioned provided a convenient practical principle for repressing revolutionary activities against existing states. In the Americas colonies were rebelling against empire. In 1823 the United States promulgated the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that in future the countries of the American continent were not to be viewed as potential colonies for European powers. Furthermore, any attempt to win back the newly established South American republics would be viewed by the United States as a threat to its peace and security.

            Modern international relations theory has recently taken a normative turn and begun seriously to explore the place of ethics in the relations among states. Such theorists at once reject what was the dominant aspiration in various guises in the discipline, namely the search for objective explanation, and deny the Realist contention that talk of morality and ethical principles disguises the underlying motivations, namely power and security. If ethical principles are to play a role in international relations, they must have some basis of justification. A number of theorists have sought to identify the source of the principles of international ethics in either cosmopolitanism or communitarianism, while maintaining at the same time that these two categories adequately conceptualize normative thinking in international relations since the time of Kant.

There are, of course, different types of cosmopolitanism, and similarly, communitarianism comes in different guises, but Hegel is exemplified as its principal exponent.  Simultaneously, Marx’s cosmopolitanism is typically identified as one of its main variants along with utilitarianism and Kantianism. When we use the categories of cosmopolitanism and communitarianism to explore the theories of international relations of Hegel and Marx we find that the states-based international system of Hegel, with its emphasis upon individuality, recognition and international right, stands in marked contrast to Marx’s emphasis upon a stateless international community in which alienation, exploitation, and estrangement are overcome in a universal moral community. According to Marx, human beings are constituted by the social relations of production and international ethics, and the international system itself is a function of the mode of production. Marx’s version of cosmopolitanism is one in which the universal moral community has little or no place until the end of a process considerably enhanced and facilitated by the particularistic circumstances of capitalism.

            The concepts of idealism, in its various forms (cosmopolitanism, communitarianism, etc) exhibit further logical development in early twentieth century, and had been generally referred as inter-war idealism. In an influential article John Herz equated idealism with an astonishing array of other “isms”: universalism; cosmopolitanism; humanism; optimism; liberalism; socialism; pacifism; anarchism; internationalism; ‘idealist nationalism’; and chiliasm (Herz, 157-80). Uncertainty as to the nature and scope of idealism as a category of thought is matched by uncertainty as to who the idealists actually were. Few of the commentaries on the period name more than two or three individual idealists, a remarkable fact given the extent to which they are said to have dominated inter-war thinking. Reference is made, of course, to Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points, Norman Angell and Alfred Zimmern.

Practically, the number of political writers and publicists who devoted themselves to international questions during the inter-war period was immense. This does not, of course, come as any great surprise given the degree to which the period was dominated by international problems and crises of one kind or another. In his book, Carr provided a brief synopsis of inter-war idealism, identifying the following as utopian, hence idealistic: plans for an international police force; collective security; general disarmament; the idea of outlawing war; proposals for a “United States of Europe”; the claim that national self-determination automatically leads to peace; the distinction between “justiciable” and “non-justiciable” disputes; “visions of world federation”; and “blue-prints of a more perfect League of Nations.”

            If assessed critically the creation and further development of the latter became the apogee of the international idealism doctrine. Whilst seeking to avoid dogmatic adherence to liberal ideals, such politicians as Woodrow Wilson and Zimmern hoped to use these principles to modify the existing structures of the international system. This approach emerged most clearly in their discussions of the organization of the League of Nations after the First World War and analysis of postwar developments. Zimmern’s idea was that the organization should be based on a series of regular conferences of nations. “The fundamental principle of the League”, he wrote, “would be that it is a meeting of Governments with Governments, each Government preserving its own independence and being responsible to its own people” (Zimmern, 203). Such a league would be a kind of executive committee managed by the great powers on behalf of the international body of sovereign states. This idea contrasts with that of the liberal left and socialists who argued for an international government with more extensive powers and a concomitant reduction in national sovereign powers.

These proposals did much to counter Woodrow Wilson’s more ambitious ideas and to limit the League’s role to one where it was more of an institutionalization of the nineteenth-century notion of a Concert of Europe (Winkler, 253-4). Zimmern has been particularly enthusiastic about international cooperation through education. He was especially critical of those who saw the League of Nations as a panacea, for it was “only by courtesy” that the Supreme Council of the League could be described as a Concert of Europe. This Concert was a fragile structure which was, even by 1922, “visibly giving out as the memory of the great common struggle grows dim”. It also suffered from the fact that it was not based on a clear policy or outlook (Zimmern, 49).  It was, therefore, “little more than a self righteous soporific” to preach that the League could be the solution to international conflict. Simultaneously, Zimmern remained a strong advocate of the ideals of the Commonwealth while at the same time being critical of the view that the Commonwealth alone could act as a decisive force for world peace. From the critical standpoint, the idea that the Commonwealth could be a model for internationalism has been partly convincing since the Commonwealth did not have a good success rate on the handling of interracial affairs, particularly regarding the issue of Asian immigration into Australia or South Africa.

            Idealistic scholarship on international relations in the inter-war period, while varied in its own ways, evidenced at least three common threads: an overriding concern with international organization as a provider of security in international relations; state-centrism; and a normative though not necessarily utopian interest in the avoidance of war. In academic scholarship the predominant common concern was the League of Nations or, more generally, the importance and future of international organization as mechanisms of collective security and international order as a whole. The study of international organization was initially dominated by the writings of international lawyers and those that wrote in the legal idiom, concentrating almost exclusively on the formal, that is, constitutional structure of the League.

            The practical and normative aspect of international theory is exemplified by the topics of the International Studies Conferences that were sponsored by the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation during the 1930s. The first of the conferences in 1931 addressed the growing global economic crisis. Two subsequent conferences addressed, respectively, collective security and peaceful change. Both were held in the shadow of the rapidly deteriorating international situation and the impending decline and fall of the League as an effective collective security system, in the face of events in Manchuria, the Spanish Civil War and the Italian annexation of Ethiopia. Each of the conferences addressed their answers to states, both separately and collectively in the League, and were explicitly intended to be fora for discussion of potential solutions to actual and perceived international crises. For instance, the conference on peaceful change glided over the complexities of the nature of peaceful change and instead directly addressed the concrete, immediate question of change in the international system at the time: that is, the revision of the Versailles Treaty and the attempts to accommodate the claims of the so-called revisionist countries, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

            Whatever the short-term consequences of idealism on the international idealism were, its long-term outcomes are now regarded as positive and strategic. In the essay, “The Neoidealist Moment,” Kegley define “the most valid properties” of the idealist traditions, and redefined “refashioned” realist paradigm “inspired by Wilsonian idealism” (Kegley, 142). Implicit in Kegley’s argument are four claims relating to what he sees as the renewed relevance of Woodrow Wilson’s approach to world politics. First, he contends that the post-Cold War world may be a “far more inviting home for the principles Wilson advocated to guide international conduct’ than the world after the First World War or during the Cold War. Second, and closely connected, he suggests that Wilson’s ideas “now appear less unrealistic and more compelling”, and that they may be ideas whose time has finally come (Kegley, 134). Third, he observes that the “issues that have risen to the top of the agenda in theoretical and policy discourse” are very similar to those Wilson sought to elaborate in his “Fourteen Points” (Kegley, 135). Finally, he suggests that regardless of new paradigms, theories, and other such scholarly artifacts, the world may be actually becoming more like the one Wilson envisaged – recent developments suggest that the post-Cold War world may be cast more in the idealist than the realist image (Kegley, 139).

            Foremost, the international idealism impacted the concept of human rights. In contemporary “domestic” and international politics the appeal to universal rights has achieved unprecedented prominence. Governments are frequently brought to task for their human rights abuses. The United Nations, modified version of the League, and a great many non-governmental organizations monitor human rights throughout the world, and cases are brought against governments in the various international courts by individuals who claim their human rights are being violated. Failure of governments to uphold the basic rights of their citizens may be grounds for pronouncing them illegitimate. In the case of failure to sustain subsistence rights, the implications may be quite far-reaching because it may be that the international economic system, and not the domestic government, is at fault. This gives rise to the question of economic justice and the redistribution of resources (Beitz, 150).

John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice” distinguishes strongly between the internal and external relations of states. A social structure that gives rise to inequalities is unjust unless it can be rationally justified. In the international sphere, however, inequalities of wealth do not need such justifications. The reason for this is that Rawls believes society to be a cooperative venture productive of a social surplus for mutual advantage, which is in excess of the aggregate of individual goods. Principles of justice have to ensure the fair distribution of these goods. The socalled world society is a collection of coexistent states and not a co-operative venture in the same sense as a state-based society, and is therefore not in need of principles for the redistribution of wealth. The rules of justice needed for a world society and arrived at by means of a second contract to which states are parties, are rules of that articulated by international idealists, namely principles of  coexistence, respect for state autonomy and self-determination, sovereignty, and non-interference, and conventions of war.


Berki, R.N. On Political Realism, London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1981

Carr, E.H. The Twenty Years’ Crisis, London, Macmillan, 1946

Hegel G.W.F. Reason in History, trans. Robert S. Hartman, Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merril, 1953

Hegel G.W.F. The Philosophy of Right, Chicago, Benton, 1952.

Beitz C., Political Theory and International Relations, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979), 150.

Herz J., “Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma”, World Politics, 2 /2 (1950), 157-80

Zimmern A., Europe in Convalescence, London, 1922

Zimmern A., The League of Nations and the Rule of Law, London, 1936

Winkler H., The League of Nations Movement in Great Britain, 1914-1919, New Jersey, 1967

Kegley C.W. “The Neoidealist Moment in International Studies? Realist Myths and the New International Realities”, International Studies Quarterly, 37/ 2 (1993), 131-46

Beitz C., Political Theory and International Relations, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979.

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