Introduction to Political Science PART 12 – Idealism & International Society

In the previous post, we learned about the realist theory of international relations. According to that theory, states compete to satisfy their interests in a world of hierarchy or anarchy. In this post, we’ll study a second theory of international relations: idealism.

According to the theory of idealism, ideas are more important than interests and power in international relations. Let’sstudy the history of idealism, analyze its basic assumptions, and consider its effect on the international system.

The modern international system began in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. The treaties that made peace possible at that time assumed that states would recognize and respect each other’s equal sovereignty. However, states continued to compete and use war to satisfy their interests, especially for security. As technology made wars more deadly, some people tried to make a new international system without hierarchy or anarchy. Their new theory was called idealism. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing through the middle of the twentieth century, more and more states agreed that creating an international society through international laws and international organizations was the best way to have peace.

Whereas realism is a theory of competing states, idealism is a theory of cooperation between states. Rather than identifying power and security as a state’s most important interests, idealists believe that peace is more important, even if states must limit their sovereignty. Idealists believe that anarchy is like a state of nature where states compete for security. If each state gives up some of its sovereignty, then the states can make a social contract. The result is a peaceful international society. Instead of limiting their sovereignty so that one powerful state can rule them, however, they limit their sovereignty through international law. For example, many states in the twentieth century limited their right to go to war through international law.

Scholars still debate whether idealism is a better theory of international relations than realism. What is not debatable, however, is that idealism has had an important effect on the international system. That is most evident in the development and acceptance of international law and international organizations like the United Nations.

One purpose of international law and international organizations is to solve states’ conflicts without violence. Another purpose is to make an international society in which states value things like health, clean water, and education as much as power. That states accept these ideals is evidence of idealism’s acceptance in international relations. Even the most powerful states have limited their sovereignty through international law and international organizations.

Realism may be a good theory for explaining the modern international system, but it emphasizes states’ interests and power instead of ideals like peace. The development of idealism was a result of realism’s ability to explain but failure to prevent wars. Idealism is the theory that states can cooperate in order to satisfy their common interest in peace. Although there are still wars, international law and international organizations have helped to decrease the use of violence in international conflicts and increase states’ emphasis on ideals like health, clean water, and education.

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