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3.4: Theories of World Politics - Idealists

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    “It’s A Small World/We are the World,” aka Idealists

    Building on the ideas of Hume, Rousseau and Kant, Idealists are optimists who focus on international cooperation and the positive, altruistic and cooperative aspects of human nature. They advocate peaceful resolution of disputes, diplomacy, reciprocity, collective security, international cooperation, international law, humanitarian assistance, win-win solutions and the mutual benefits of working through international organizations. They try to spread democracy, human rights, free markets and free trade through peaceful means. The Clinton administration is a good example. It intervened in Haiti, Yugoslavia and Somalia only to protect human rights and provide humanitarian assistance. It expanded the NATO alliance to include several Eastern European countries. It helped finalize the 1993 Middle East peace accord. Both idealists and realists support increasing national economic power through international organizations like the World Bank, IMF and WTO, and trade treaties such as NAFTA.

    Idealists see conflict arising from poor economic conditions and oppressive institutions. They believe that reforming these institutions through democracy and free markets will reduce conflicts.

    Idealists also support international organizations such as the League of Nations (set up in 1920), which was supposed to end war through collective security (all countries defending against an attack against any of them). They also set up the Permanent International Court of Justice in 1922 to resolve international disputes and negotiated arms control treaties, starting with the Naval Disarmament Treaties of 1921-2 and 1930. The United Nations was established in 1945 to carry on the League of Nation’s work, the International Court of Justice continues to work, and many arms control treaties were signed in the post-WWII era.

    Idealists also believe that capitalism and trade will lead to democracy (although China and others are determined to disprove this by allowing economic reform, but not political reform). In addition, Idealists believe that trade will reduce international conflict through increased contact, understanding and interdependence. For instance, one of the purposes of the European Union is to foster international trade and peaceful conflict resolution among previously warring countries.

    There is a lot of successful international cooperation. For instance, how is it that we can travel, email, call, ship goods or send mail to other countries? Because there is a huge, unseen network of international agreements and international organizations to enable and regulate passports, visas, and international mail, phones and email. We take for granted and depend on a lot of mutually beneficial international cooperation.

    Idealists cite the Prisoners’ Dilemma as a parable of the benefits of cooperation. If two captured criminals remain silent, they will both receive one year in jail for a lesser crime. If one of them accuses the other, he will go free, while the other will get three years. If they both accuse each other, they will both get two years. Often they do the selfish thing, but their best bet is to cooperate.

    However, critics point out that peaceful cooperation is not always possible with some countries and leaders (such as Hitler’s Germany, Saddam Husseins’ Iraq and Putin’s Russia). Also, liberal and idealist action works well in trade and financial issues, but security issues are less tractable, and sometimes end up being settled by violence or threats of violence. Critics also say that there are so many repressive regimes in the world that intervening for human rights would result in an endless series of wars.

    This page titled 3.4: Theories of World Politics - Idealists is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.