“Theory of Idealism” in International Relations

In philosophy, the term idealism identifies and describes metaphysical perspectives which assert that reality is indistinguishable and inseparable from human perception and understanding; that reality is a mental construct closely connected to ideas. The theory of Idealism is very popular in international relations. So, here in this article, you will find the “theory of idealism” in international relations.

Theory of Idealism

Idealism is something referred to as utopianism. Idealism, in fact, is a different version of liberal institutionalism. Some famous idealists are Immanuel Kant, Richard Cobden, John Hobson, Norman Angell, Alfred Zimmern, and Woodrow Wilson.

The era of idealism received impetus from the desire to avert war. However, many idealists were suspicious that laissez-faire economic policies like free trade, would deliver peace.

Idealists like J.A. Hobson argued that imperialism, the subjugation of foreign peoples and their resources, was becoming the primary cause of conflict in international politics. Hobson believed that imperialism gave roots to underconsumption within developed capitalist societies.

This prompted capitalists to look for higher profits overseas that set a competition between states and radicals for enhancing military capabilities leading to war.

Idealism came to the fore in reaction to the First World War. Most of the policy-makers of the day accused the realpolitik of the European great powers for the outbreak of war and took the responsibility for eradicating war as an instrument of statecraft. Philanthropists donated huge sums of money to study the problem, peace groups were formed, and universities began to teach international relations as a separate discipline to do research on how to ensure peace.

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 which is why they placed too much importance on the League of Nations and strengthening international law.

The core principle of idealism is the belief that what unites mankind is more important than what divides it. The idealists turn down the realist arguments that the state itself is the source of moral value for human beings. Instead, they preach cosmopolitan ethics and like to enlighten individuals about the need to reform the international system.

Idealism lost its appeal with the demise of the League of Nations and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Although the idealists had brought to use the League system to replace European Realpolitik, in fact, it simply became a forum that reflected the competing national interests of the great powers of the day.

E. H Carr a British Marxist in his classic work entitled “The Twenty Years Crisis” (1946) discussed that the aspirations of the idealists were only to be expected in a new field of study where the desire for change and the dictates of the moment overshadowed all else.

Only with disillusionment and failure, do scholars become more careful and clearer, headed about the nature and purpose of their subject matter.

Carr refers to this attitude as a realist because such a view does not shy away from a hard, ruthless analysis of reality. Furthermore, he suggested that idealism was an expression of the political philosophy of the satisfied great powers.

The idealists were not fully conversant about the role of power in international relations.

In his famous fourteen points speech, addressed to Congress in January 1918, Wilson demanded that a general association of nations must be formed to preserve the coming peace.

The League of Nations was, of course, the general association which idealists formed. For the League to be effective, it had to have the military power to deter aggression and when necessary to use massive power to enforce its will. This was the idea behind the collective security system which was central to the League of Nations.

Collective security refers to an arrangement where ‘each state in the system accepts that the security of one is the concern of all, and agrees to join a collective response to aggression. It can be contrasted with an alliance system of security, where a number of states join together usually as a response to a specific external threat known as collective defense.

The venture of the League of Nations was a horrendous debacle. The fiery eloquence delivered at the launch of the League of Nations exuded idealist ideology but afterward, the states remained lukewarm in their self-interests.

The best example of this reluctant attitude is the US decision to keep away from the organization which was sponsored itself.

The Soviet Union for ideological reasons abstained from joining and the League wars rendered to be virtually a mere talking forum for the satisfied great powers. Hitler’s decision to re-occupy Rhineland in March 1936, proved the last nail in the Leagues’ coffin.

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