Liberal internationalism is a foreign policy doctrine that supports international institutions, open markets, cooperative security and liberal democracy.[1][2][3] At its core, it holds that states should participate in international institutions that uphold rules-based norms, promote liberal democracy and facilitate cooperation on transnational problems (such as environmental problems, arms control and public health).[3]

Proponents of liberal internationalism argue that the adoption of this foreign policy orientation by the United States during the 20th century has improved American liberty at home and ensured American hegemony in world politics, as well as facilitated the spread of liberal democracy and markets.[3] Critics of the foreign policy doctrine (such as realists and proponents of retrenchment) argue that it tends towards military interventionism and contributes to disorder (for example, through democracy promotion and trade liberalization).[4][3]


Liberal internationalism emerged during the 19th century, notably under the auspices of British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston
Liberal internationalism was developed in the second decade of the 20th century under U.S. President Woodrow Wilson

Liberal internationalism emerged during the 19th century. Prominent thinkers included Lionel Curtis, Alfred Zimmern and Norman Angell.[5]

Among policymakers, liberal internationalism influenced British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, and was developed in the second decade of the 20th century under U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. In this form it became known as Wilsonianism.[6] After World War I, the foreign policy doctrine of liberal internationalism was retained by the intellectual founders of the League of Nations and augmented somewhat with ideas from classical radicalism and the political party platform of the International Entente of Radical and Similar Democratic Parties. Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry have also associated liberal internationalism with foreign policy ideas promoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt.[7][8] Paul K. MacDonald has linked diplomatic practices developed at the 1899 and 1907 Hague conferences as being key repertoires of subsequent liberal internationalism.[9]


The goal of liberal internationalism is to achieve global structures within the international system that are inclined towards promoting a liberal world order. It foresees a gradual transformation of world politics from anarchy to common institutions and the rule of law. To that extent, global free trade, liberal economics and liberal political systems are all encouraged. In addition, liberal internationalists are dedicated towards encouraging democracy to emerge globally. Once realized, it will result in a "peace dividend", as liberal states have relations that are characterized by non-violence, and that relations between democracies are characterized by the democratic peace theory.

Liberal internationalism states that, through multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, it is possible to avoid the worst excesses of "power politics" in relations between nations. In addition, liberal internationalists believe that the best way to spread democracy is to treat all states equally and cooperatively, whether they are initially democratic or not.

According to Abrahamsen, liberal internationalism provides more opportunities to middle powers to advance their economic, security, and political interests.[10]


Examples of liberal internationalists include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair,[11] U.S. President Barack Obama,[12] and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and current Secretary of State Antony Blinken.[13][14] In the US, it is often associated with the American Democratic Party.[15] Some liberal-leaning neoconservatives shifted towards liberal internationalism in the 2010s.[13]

Commonly cited examples of liberal interventionism include NATO's intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia; British military intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War; and the 2011 military intervention in Libya. According to historian Timothy Garton Ash, these are distinct because of liberal motivations and limited objectives, from other larger scale military interventions.[16]

Multilateral institutions, such as UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, and the UN General Assembly, have also been considered examples of liberal internationalism.[17]

According to Ikenberry and Yolchi Funabashi, one of the key pillars of liberal internationalism in practice is the democratic constitution and trade-based prosperity of Japan, which makes Japan a major stabilizer of liberal international order in the Asia-Pacific.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Ikenberry, G. John (2009). "Liberal Internationalism 3.0: America and the Dilemmas of Liberal World Order". Perspectives on Politics. 7 (1): 71–87. doi:10.1017/S1537592709090112. ISSN 1537-5927. JSTOR 40407217. S2CID 146430829.
  2. ^ Jahn, Beate (2018). "Liberal internationalism: historical trajectory and current prospects" (PDF). International Affairs. 94 (1): 43–61. doi:10.1093/ia/iix231. ISSN 0020-5850.
  3. ^ a b c d Deudney, Daniel; Ikenberry, G. John (2021). "Misplaced Restraint: The Quincy Coalition Versus Liberal Internationalism". Survival. 63 (4): 7–32. doi:10.1080/00396338.2021.1956187. ISSN 0039-6338. S2CID 236504260.
  4. ^ Desch, Michael C. (2007). "America's Liberal Illiberalism: The Ideological Origins of Overreaction in U.S. Foreign Policy". International Security. 32 (3): 7–43. doi:10.1162/isec.2008.32.3.7. ISSN 0162-2889. JSTOR 30130517. S2CID 57572097.
  5. ^ Persaud, Randolph B. (2022). "Ideology, socialization and hegemony in Disciplinary International Relations". International Affairs. 98 (1): 105–123. doi:10.1093/ia/iiab200. ISSN 0020-5850.
  6. ^ Stanley Hoffmann, "The Crisis of Liberal Internationalism", Foreign Policy, No. 98 (Spring 1995), pp. 159–177.
  7. ^ Deudney, Daniel; Ikenberry, G. John (2 July 2021). "The Intellectual Foundations of the Biden Revolution". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 4 August 2021.
  8. ^ Drezner, Daniel (2021). "Perspective | Roosevelt redux?". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 4 August 2021.
  9. ^ MacDonald, Paul K. (2021). ""Parliament of Man, Federation of the World": Repertoires of Statecraft, the Hague Conferences, and the Making of the Liberal Order". Diplomacy & Statecraft. 32 (4): 648–673. doi:10.1080/09592296.2021.1996709. ISSN 0959-2296. S2CID 246210893.
  10. ^ Abrahamsen, Rita; Andersen, Louise Riis; Sending, Ole Jacob (2019). "Introduction: Making liberal internationalism great again?". International Journal. 74 (1): 5–14. doi:10.1177/0020702019827050. hdl:11250/2837725. ISSN 0020-7020. S2CID 151226407.
  11. ^ Ash, Timothy Garton (8 January 2010). "Timothy Garton Ash: After 10 years Blair knows exactly what he stands for | Comment is free". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 19 September 2011.
  12. ^ Suri, Jeremi (31 December 2018), Zelizer, Julian (ed.), "Liberal Internationalism, Law, and the First African American President", The Presidency of Barack Obama, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 195–211, doi:10.23943/9781400889556-015, ISBN 978-1-4008-8955-6, S2CID 158666358, retrieved 20 August 2021
  13. ^ a b Lynch, Conor (15 July 2019). "The Democratic foreign policy reckoning". The Week. Retrieved 20 August 2021.
  14. ^ Heinmaa (29 August 2022). "Can Antony Blinken Update Liberal Foreign Policy for a World Gone Mad?". News and Resources Portal for the Summit of Democracy. Retrieved 4 April 2024.
  15. ^ "Debating Liberal Internationalism". The American Prospect. 15 May 2008. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  16. ^ Ash, Timothy Garton (3 March 2011). "Libya's escalating drama reopens the case for liberal intervention". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  17. ^ Abrahamsen, Rita; Andersen, Louise Riis; Sending, Ole Jacob (2019). "Introduction: Making liberal internationalism great again?". International Journal: Canada's Journal of Global Policy Analysis. 74 (1): 5–14. doi:10.1177/0020702019827050. hdl:11250/2837725. ISSN 0020-7020.
  18. ^ Ikenberry, John; Funabashi, Yolchi (1 April 2019). "The Crisis of Liberal Internationalism". Brookings. Retrieved 13 December 2021.

Further reading