Liberalism and the Use of Force: Core Themes and Conceptual Tensions

By Greener, B. K. | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, August 2011 | Go to article overview

Liberalism and the Use of Force: Core Themes and Conceptual Tensions


Greener, B. K., Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Since the mid-1980s, a number of authors have asserted that there is a special kind of relationship between democratic states; or that liberalism promotes peaceful relations between liberal states; or that there exists a hierarchy of states in international society with liberal states at the apex of that hierarchy. Many of these theories touch on issues of liberalism, liberal states, and the use of military force. Yet they still do not directly address the key question of: when, and for what ends, liberals believe that military force may be used. An implicit intimation is often made that there is a monolithic liberal approach to the use of force. In contrast, this article identifies a variety of contemporary liberal views on this topic and argues that these depend upon the priority given to values such as those of tolerance and consent versus progress and civility, or those of cosmopolitanism versus communitarianism. On this basis, the article examines the liberal options for the use of force that can be justified in different ways by these different values, from self-defense to the creation of liberal entities, depending upon which liberal values predominate.

KEYWORDS: liberalism, force

Liberals have declared themselves averse to war and yet have waged it with "uncommon zeal." (1) Though mistrustful of "the man on horseback," liberals also admit that military forces might be necessary to protect liberal states and societies, and some suggest that such forces may even be used to advance liberal aims. This article explores these paradoxes by asking for what ends liberals support the use of military force. The first section demonstrates how liberal theorists place particular emphasis on the importance of individualism, rights, democratic government, the rule of law, tolerance, and consent. It also highlights the belief of many liberal thinkers in the universal applicability of liberal values and institutions. This idea of the universality of liberalism, based on notions of progress and a teleological view of development and civility, provides a major site of contention in theorizing about the use of force when juxtaposed against ideals of tolerance and consent. The second part of the article explores this key site of debate and explores the tension between cosmopolitan and communitarian views identifying in what instances the deployment of militaries can be justified by which of those liberal terms. (2) The article then concludes with some reflections about the urgent need for those of us in the international relations field to be able to articulate just what kinds of liberal values are being pursued in the global arena so that we may better assess future actions undertaken in the name of "liberal values."

Political theorists have suggested that liberalism is essentially contested. (3) Liberals thus constitute a rather diverse group yet are held together by certain foci including the dominant defining feature of liberalism--the focus on individual liberty. (4) This emphasis on individualism has in turn encouraged the dominance of a discourse of individual rights. In liberal political theory this language of rights finds expression in the promotion of both negative and, at times a little less vigorously, positive rights. Liberals such as Gerald Dworkin, Joseph Raz, and Isaiah Berlin in particular advocate a negative conception of liberty. Isaiah Berlin, for example, argues that political freedom is most important as defined in such a way so that he suggests "you lack political freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by other human beings." (5) Critics have therefore suggested, in the vein of Judith Shklar, that "liberalism does not have any particular positive doctrines about how people should live their lives." (6) Yet liberalism may also promote more positive avenues for the attainment of individual liberal goals and rights.

Democratic practices of government have increasingly been advocated as one such avenue for the realization of liberal objectives. …

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