How useful is liberalism as a framework for thinking about war in world politics?

How useful is liberalism as a framework for thinking about war in world politics? Discuss with reference to readings by Tony Blair and Michael Doyle.
By Libin Farah

Liberalism has been one of the most dominant theories in international relations for analysing world politics. World politics can be understood at the state level through foreign policy and at the systemic level by looking at the international structure. Usefulness will be the measured by how well liberalism can uphold to its own values.

This essay will be split into three sections with the latter two considering how liberals analyse foreign policy and the international structure.

The first section will discuss liberalism as a discipline of international relations highlighting the core features and key thinkers. The second section will address the limits of the Democratic Peace Theory. Lastly this essay will discuss Small War and use the Iraq war as a case study for analysis.

Through each section this essay aims to argue that liberalism in practice is scarcely in accordance to liberal theory especially in relation to non-liberal states thus limiting liberalism’s usefulness in analysing world politics.

Liberal theory
Liberal thinking emerged during the European enlightenment period but as a ‘systemic political creed liberalism was a product of the breakdown of feudalism in Europe and the growth, in its place, of a capitalist society’ (Heywood, p.25). Liberalism’s core values and beliefs are both moral and ideological.

The foundation of the ideology is underpinned by its commitment to individualism and freedom. Individualism refers to the ‘supreme importance of the individual over any social group or collective body’ (Heywood, p.28).

Freedom can be understood from a classical view referring to an absence of constraints or from the modern view which advocates personal development and fulfilling ones potential (Heywood, p.28).

The concept of war is interpreted and explained differently by liberal thinkers. Locke departs from the Hobbesian view that a state of nature is a state of war. Locke creates a clear distinction between the two.

For Locke, the ‘state of nature is peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation; and a state of war is enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction’ (Locke, p.113). Locke describes war as a rational act that is made when one’s liberty, property or health is impinged on by another (Locke, p.113).

The state of war only occurs when the peace and tolerance of the state of nature is not followed (Bishop, p.14). Therefore, humans are not inherently war-prone or brutish but, within conditions, war is a measured, acceptable and necessary response to preserve liberty.

J S Mill highlights an alternative perspective on war sometimes categorised as the just war theory. This is the idea that some wars are morally worth fighting for and tackle against injustices however they manifest themselves.

Mill condemned war but also saw the need for it in the pursuit of liberty ‘War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse’ (Mill, 1862).

Further, Mill describes the state of war as a constant so long as there is injustice, ‘as long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy.’ (Mill, 1862). The idea of fighting for the greater good and wars/intervention fought for morality have prevailed till present day. These perspectives create the framework for which liberal states claim to be based off of today.

Democratic Peace Theory
The Democratic Peace Theory is ‘the closest thing we have to an empirical law in international relations’ according to Jack Levy (Levy, p.662). It is the idea that liberal states do not go to war with each other (Doyle, p.1152).

Doyle argues that the reasons for democratic peace lie in the ‘commitment to liberal ideals by liberal states and material interests lie in peaceful trade’ (Doyle, p.1163). This overlaps with Constructivist thinking about ‘shared identities creating a community of like-minded states’ (Reiter, 2017).

However, there is a flaw in Doyle’s argument. He claims that that ‘Liberal democracies are peaceful’ (Doyle, p.1152). It is too far a claim to suggest that liberal democracies not going to war with each other then makes them peaceful. Liberal thinking, embodied by Blair’s speech, suggest that liberal states such as the ‘US are a force for good [because] they have liberal and democratic traditions’.

Following his thinking, the zone of peace that Doyle describes is possible because the internal makeup of the state is democratic making them inherently peaceful. Yet the peace between the liberal states, from a Realist perspective, is not because of regime type but because of ‘national interest and/or by a functioning balance of power’ (Reiter, 2017).

Moreover, ‘democratic peace was a temporal phenomenon and studies suggests that that democracies shared common interests after 1945, confronting the Communist threat, and therefore unsurprisingly were less likely to fight each other’ (Reiter, 2017). Therefore, national and material interest between liberal democracies is a more useful analysis of liberal peace rather than similarities in regime type.

The Democratic Peace Theory is a theory about nation states yet the development of the nation state is a relatively new phenomenon. Liberals take for granted the sovereign nation state as the unit of analysis. ‘For 250 of the past 300 years the dominant political form in the international system has been the imperial state and empire not the sovereign territorial state’ (Barkawi and Laffey, p.6).

Liberalism tends to have historical amnesia surrounding imperialism and does not fully recognise that the political and economic history of many modern liberal states, such as Britain, France and the United States to name a few, have imperial origins. (Barkawi and Laffey, p.6). Often the relationship between liberalism and empire is seen as contradictory, however they are strongly related.

To argue that liberalism and empire completely contradict each other would negate the fact that liberal thinking was used to justify and execute empire in the first place and was supported by ‘progressive thinkers’ such as Bentham, Mill and Macaulay (Mehta, p.200).

In this light, liberalism as a framework naturalises the sovereign territorial state and fails to fully address its own past thus reducing how useful it is in analysing world politics because it has a narrow view of history. This narrow view eliminates the imperial state as an actor and thus its actions towards to the colonised.

However, the Democratic Peace Theory is an important tool of analysis in one regard. It provides insight into the minds of Western policy makers. Tony Blair’s speech in 2003 is useful in understanding states as actors and why they behave as they do.

Liberal thinking justifies their means and ends as Blair attempts to convince the population support the administration and the international community of liberal states. Therefore, liberalism is not just a framework for elites but also a tool used by policymakers to mobilise support.

Small War
‘Real war is interstate war between nation-states, fought between regular armed forces and all other conflicts are relegated to derivative categories known as Small Wars’ (Barkawi, p.1). Wars fought for imperial conquest fall into the category of Small War.

Liberalism has a self-understanding that it is a force for good. This is completely contradicted by liberal foreign policy and how these states conduct themselves when fighting Small War’s both historically and contemporarily.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the height of imperial conquest, ‘statesmen began to consider legal provisions that could make warfare more humane’ (Ringer, p.265). ‘New laws of war were developed within a very narrow cultural and historical context’ (Ringer, p.267) The new rules were set up by European, Christian, and ‘‘civilized,’’ states (Ringer, p.267).

This narrow perspective fails to dictate how European states should conduct themselves when fighting non-European, the non-Christian, and the ‘‘uncivilized” (Ringer, p.268). As part of their foreign policy European states adopted harsher methods, violating their own international law, when waging war in the colonies. Small War thereby exposes the hypocrisy of liberal states because they fail to act in accordance to their own institutions, laws and values.

Liberals universalise their values and beliefs however Small War further exposes the eurocentrism that is integral to the liberal ideology. ‘Universal’ only applies to European states so when the theatre of war is outside of Europe with non-European actors, liberal states deem it acceptable and encourage their soldiers to act illiberally.

Therefore, the foreign policy of liberal states can violate their own values, institutions and international law when fighting a non – European/liberal/Christian state. This behaviour continues to manifest itself in contemporary times through the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Iraq war is the ‘largest, longest, and most costly military action by America since Vietnam’. Liberalism justifies the invasion of Iraq because it considers differences between democracies and non-democracies to be a fundamental cause of war (Lieberfeld, p.1).

Non-liberal states are a constant security threat because they do not subscribe to the same values as liberal states. Therefore, the spread of democracy guarantees security and lasting peace in the Kantian/Wilsonian paradigm (Lieberfeld, p.6).

These sentiments are demonstrated in Blair’s speech when he says the ‘Muslim world should move towards democratic stability, liberty and human rights’ with the help of Western states (Blair, 2003). Once Iraq had been turned into a liberal democracy they hoped that it would spread across the Middle East creating lasting peace.

However liberal theory and liberal practices once again do not correlate. In reality, the US led coalition took unilateral action in the invasion bypassing the UN who declared the war illegal and not in accordance to the charter. Liberal states continue to bypass their own international institutions when it stands in opposition to national interests.

Another drawback of liberalism is that policy makers use liberal rhetoric to mask realist motivations. The language used by Blair and Bush reiterated liberal theory and liberal thinking.

However, when that language is unpackaged and motivations are uncovered, it can strongly be argued that realism provides a more useful analysis of state behaviour. Realism emphasises that states are power maximisers by nature which is enhanced by a self-help system in the realm of Anarchy.

From this perspective, the invasion can be explained by the ‘US attempting to maintain hegemony and avoid post-9/11 decline by demonstrating their willingness to use force’ (Lieberfeld, p.1). ‘Avoiding nuclear proliferation and eliminate Iraqi WMD threat against the U.S. and its allies’ (Lieberfeld, p.1). ‘Gain regional military bases, pressure Syria and Iran and assist Israel’ (Lieberfeld, p.1). ‘Secure U.S. oil supplies and reduce energy vulnerabilities’ (Lieberfeld, p.1).

These Realist explanations are more useful for analysis because the US had a vested interest in the geopolitical location of Iraq and its resources. However, Western governments need to mobilise public support while maintaining a liberal image both to their citizens and the international community.

Therefore, the usefulness of liberalism when analysing the Iraq war is highly limited as it does not account for the material interests of the Western powers in the region as well as liberal states contradicting their own values and beliefs.

In conclusion, liberalism as a framework has multiple limitations when analysing world politics. These limitations are rooted in liberalism’s weak understanding of itself which leads to policy makers in Western states to contradict the core values of theory.

In this case, as demonstrated by Small War and the Democratic Peace Theory. However, Liberalism can be useful in understating how Western states think of themselves as actors in the international system and the reasoning behind their behaviour.


Blair, T 2003, accessed 8 November 2017, <>

Barkawi, T 2016, Decolonizing war, accessed 9 November 2017,

Barkawi, T. Laffey, M, 2001, Democracy, Liberalism, and War, Lynne Reinner Publisher, Colorado

Bishop, P S 2007, University of South Florida, accessed 8 November 2017,

Doyle, M. (1986). Liberalism and World Politics. American Political Science Review, [online] 80(04), Accessed 10 November 2017,

Heywood, A 2012, Political Ideologies: An introduction, edn 5, Palgrave Macmillian, London

Levy, J S 1988, “Domestic Politics and War.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 18(4), 1988, JSTOR, <>

Lieberfeld, D 2005, accessed 13 November 2017, <>
Locke, J 1823, Two Treatises of Government, accessed 8 November 2017,

Mehta, U S 1999, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Mill, J S 1862, The Contest in America, Fraser’s Magazine, accessed 8 November 2017,

Reiter, D 2017, Is Democracy a Cause of Peace? Accessed 14 November 2017 <>

Ringmar, Erik. 2013. ‘”How to fight savage tribes”: The global war on terror in historical perspective,’ Terrorism and Political Violence 25(2):

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