Liberal international relations theory sees international relationships and dynamics as having positive power in alliance and coordination. Power politics are rejected, since the concept assumes winners and losers, where liberal IR seeks all nation states to be winners through constructive efforts (Burchill, Linklater, Devetak, Donnelly, Nardin, Paterson, Reus-Smit, and True, 2013.). The objective of IR in these perspective is mutual cooperation and benefit, but determining and coordination of actions and goals requires institutions to govern them. These are the main assumptions of liberal IR theories are a counterpoint to the orientation of the realist view which seeks to proactively prepare for war, and to posture appropriately on the world stage to maintain security through fear of retaliation.

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Much of realist theory pertains to pre-emptively maintaining security through a significant force which prevents the desire to attack. The core beliefs of liberal IR theory are illustrated through a classic exchange of academic arguments made by Mearsheimer, a realist adherent, and Keohane and Martin, who are institutional liberals. Mearsheimer (1994) wrote a scathing critique which was called “The False Promise of International Institutions” that was meant to show the error of liberal institutionalist theory. He pointed out that despite lofty ideals, little had been accomplished in preventing war. Mearsheimer further noted that unlike realist theory, liberal institutionalism was not meant to prevent war, but rather it had a goal of maximizing collaborative capacity. Keohane and Martin (1995) responded to Mearsheimer’s piece by stating that he had correctly understood the theoretical orientation of liberal institutionalism, but that they took issue with the many incorrect statements and falsehoods which were espoused in support of realism. Keohane and Martin therefore provided evidence that liberal institutionalism has its flaws given that it cannot enforce decisions or assert control over disorder, however without the common interests created by international institutions there would be a greater level of miscommunication, misunderstanding and posturing which would prove realist theorists to be correct as violence and tensions escalated.

The liberal perspective sees international law as a means of supporting the existence of international institutions. While there is no real authority to oversee international law, there are agreements that function as law. The foundation of the implementation of those agreements are institutions such as the United Nations and its various programs, the World Bank and others. Cortell and Davis (1996) wrote that international rules and norms have the capacity to influence domestic decisions as well as those between national actors. To that end, security means something at the individual level since it is not just security between countries that is protected, but the security of individuals from threats whether they arise from their own state or a different one. The power to influence states for good lies not in the exertion of force, but the pressure of norms, and this soft pressure is a powerful force for good.

The UN Security Council is a case in point. While certainly the actions that are taken to support international security are important, the very existence of such a force is a deterrent from making threats, in the realist sense, but it is also connected to those institutions which help to support growth, trade and development through other international institutions. Even without military or state based threats, it is likely that the UN Security Council would remain engaged by supporting other forms of security, including order after natural disasters and environmental security. These countries have a history and habit of working together for good, and this lays bare the promise of liberal institutionalism.

The liberal institutionalist argument has at its core the idea that better coordination of power and resources helps to prevent problems and leads to better outcomes for populations. Oneal, Russett, and Berbaum (2003) describe the analysis of what peace is constructed of, and they found through research of conflict and interdependence of nations from 1885–1992 that trade is an important factor predicting a reduction of disputes involving military force. They further noted that even more important than alliance to predictive trade volume was shared membership in an international institution (Oneal et al., 2003). They also undermined the basic tenets of realism with their findings when they stated that “contrary to realists’ expectations, allies are not less conflict prone than states that are not allied” (Oneal et al., 2003, p. 371). The evidence is there to support the empirical fact of liberal institutional allegations; what remains in dispute is the extent to which economic interdependence is a logical and workable strategy for international dynamics and positioning.

One could further support this by analysing the success of the neoliberalist agenda of the United States or Great Britain, however the obvious counterpoint is that the problem is not friends or allied nations, but rather the presence of enemies. A case in point is the United States which, despite the decades of the neoliberalist agenda, continues to have threats to its security made by countries who do not have and do not seek economic interdependence with America. The UN Security Council is filled with nations that conduct trade with one another and share at worst a neutral relationship; these countries are not the threat to international security; it is the nations who are outside of it who are the focus of the realist view, which is pessimistic and focused on worst case security scenarios. On the other hand, the liberal institutionalist strategy, and the efforts of international organizations such as the UN Security Council, seek to proactively work on cooperation in order to make threats between nations counterproductive to that which might be achieved together.