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Introduction to Political Science

14.6 The Liberal and Social Worldview

Introduction to Political Science14.6 The Liberal and Social Worldview

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the liberal worldview, including fundamental concepts and possible limitations or critiques.
  • Discuss complex interdependence.
  • Explain the constructivist worldview, including fundamental concepts and possible limitations or critiques.

Liberalism as a worldview differs from liberalism as a political ideology. Ideology is the lens through which an individual makes choices and, if that individual is in a place of governmental power, through which they view policy options with regard to whether they align with their values. Worldviews, such as the ones listed in this chapter, serve as the basis for how states see the political environment around them and their place in it.


In contrast to the realist school of thought, those who adhere to liberalism see investment in the system as a whole, by working within institutions and their constraints to carve out a secure space, as the best way for a state to ensure its protection. Like other theories, liberalism sees states as the primary actors in the international system,40 but liberalism contends that their domestic rules and institutions constrain their actions. As such, states must consider constantly changing factors, both internal and external, when deciding on a course of action. Above all, liberalism views states as motivated by what they see as being in the best interest of the international system.

One bulleted point appears in a horizontal box under the heading Liberalism. The point reads States use international institutions to impact the system to their benefit.

Collective Security

One branch of liberalism, institutionalism, sees international institutions in which states take part as essential to the functioning of the international system.41 In creating international institutions, whose mere existence seems counter to the expectations of a system described as anarchic, states look to each other to form a web of allies that they can count on for support in times of need. Collective security,42 wherein states form alliances to strengthen the security of each member within the alliance, entrenches the idea that no one state can act independently in all instances and emerge victorious. These arrangements are especially beneficial for states with limited resources to put toward their own protection. NATO is one real-world example of an institution designed to promote collective security.

Flags from many different countries fly outside of a large building.
Figure 14.12 Flags of many countries fly outside NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. (credit: “170517-D-SW162-3038” by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Smaller states such as North Macedonia and Bulgaria have limited abilities to divert their country’s GDP for investment in modern military armaments. In joining NATO, these smaller countries agree to allow more formidable powers, such as the United States or the United Kingdom, to install military personnel and weapons in their countries and to use them as a base of military operations in exchange for the promise that the more formidable military power will provide the smaller country with protection should the need arise. In the case of a joint military engagement, the smaller country contributes personnel and financial resources. With the promise of support from more powerful countries, smaller states can deter other states from taking actions against them. All states within the pact, however large or small, are obligated to take part in joint actions, and because all the states in the pact see an attack on one member as an attack on all members, smaller states are assured of protection. Thus, NATO is a true example of liberal international theory in practice. (For more on NATO, see Chapter 15: International Law and International Organizations.)

Complex Interdependence

Complex interdependence43 attempts to cut a middle path between liberal and realist theories. Acknowledging the intricacies of the international system, where all parts of the system—states, individuals, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations, and nonstate actors—have competing interests, complex interdependence posits that networks of actors form to meet common goals. Complex interdependence has three principal tenets:

  • There are many pathways actors can take to achieve their desired ends. These pathways are differentiated based on the abilities of each of the actors.
  • All issues are of relatively equal importance to states.
  • States see the use of force as relatively more costly than any gain it might achieve and so may be inclined to chart paths of cooperation and the use of more stable institutional solutions.44

Consider the relationship between the United States and China45 as a real-world modern example of complex interdependence in action. The economic linkages between the US and China cannot be overstated. Those linkages keep the two countries locked in a long-standing, deeply complicated relationship. The United States relies heavily on the highly developed, highly efficient Chinese manufacturing sector, and the Chinese financial system buys up American government debt to back Chinese currencies. The international community relies on China to keep North Korea in line. However, these interdependencies do not stop China from choosing to engage in cyberwarfare against the United States, nor do they prevent the United States from filing complaints against China for human rights violations, as the United States diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Summer Olympic Games46 in Beijing illustrates. That China and the United States are a part of similar international organizations, such as the United Nations, where both countries hold veto power on the Security Council, does not prevent either country from using military might and prowess to signal its strength to the other country.


The international system is both fragile and highly changeable. The anarchic nature of the system means that there is no centralized enforcement mechanism that can coerce states to act in a generally accepted manner. So, what keeps state actions within the boundaries of appropriate behavior? How do states even know what behavior is appropriate?

Constructivism47 posits that shared conceptions of the world, how the world works, what constitutes power, and who holds that power result in shared norms—expected patterns of behavior that align with the expectations and behavior patterns of others. For constructivists, these shared conceptions and resultant norms are the glue that holds the international system together. At its core, constructivism is about the interaction of many different actors within the system, each aiming to hold the others in line. According to constructivists, the perceptions states share about the world and the consequences that it is generally accepted a state might suffer should other states view it in a negative light are what keeps state actions within the boundaries of appropriate behavior.

For constructivists, how the world works and how it is perceived are not static. According to constructivism, the commonly accepted view of the world determines who has the most power to convey norms and to influence changes in norms and in ideas about how the international system should work. How the world is and how it works influence how actors choose to act, and this creates the norms and perceptions that will shape the world to come—what can be thought of as “the new normal.”

One useful way to better understand the constructivist view is to use levels of analysis. At the individual level, leaders might try to use their own personal power and charm to shape the perceptions of other actors in the system. In order to change the behavior of other states to benefit their own purposes, leaders of states who are focused on projecting their own strength, such as Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, seek to carefully craft what other leaders think of them.

According to constructivists, states work to establish norms by modeling behavior and pressuring other states to emulate that behavior. For example, changes in a country’s domestic law become part of that country’s national identity; if a state chooses to enact a social safety net program, such as providing open access to education for all children, it can then pressure other states to enact a similar policy. States that enact similar policies sow relationships that can serve as a foundation on which other interactions or agreements can be built.

At the systemic level, constructivism again prioritizes the importance of norms and the tendency of political actors to seek to align with those norms. The way states identify and place value judgments on “democratic” countries or “rogue states” can motivate an individual state to change its behavior. International organizations can establish specific rules or expectations of state behavior, placing further pressure on states to align their behavior with the rest of the world—especially if being in the out group means that a state has fewer resources to support their own economic, political, or social standing.

Consider recent developments in the relationships among China, Russia, and the United States. China and Russia are becoming allies as relations between the United States and these two countries grow more strained. Constructivists contend that how a state views itself—its national identity—affects its goals and how it views and interacts with other states. For decades the United States has been the preeminent power in international relations, setting the tone for interactions. That may be changing. When Russia and China announced a sweeping—if informal—agreement declaring their friendship and opening the door for mutual cooperation, it appeared that the efforts of the United States to keep China neutral on the issue of Russia’s aggressive stance toward Ukraine had failed. Though Russia and China are both powerful autocracies, as economist and former National Security Council official Andrew Weiss notes, they have not always viewed each other as strong allies: “The Russians for the longest time were condescending in their view of China as an uninteresting rural society. Now China looks at Russia and says, ‘What are you good for?’”48 Foreign affairs analyst Robin Wright contends that their new alliance “challenges the United States as a global power, NATO as a cornerstone of international security, and liberal democracy as a model for the world.”49 In changing their views of each other and joining together to form an alliance, Russia and China seek to change the way they are viewed in the world, and in fact perhaps the way the world order itself has worked for decades.

Where Can I Engage?

International relations and international politics are always changing, so having the most up-to-date information and analysis possible is vital to understanding what is happening in the world. Podcasts provide a useful resource for up-to-date discussions of international politics. Some good podcasts to explore include:

Pod Save the World (Crooked Media)

The Lawfare Podcast (The Lawfare Institute)

IS: Off the Page (International Security)

States must rely on norms to communicate expected behaviors. Norms can be repeated behaviors, such as the use of fiat currency—government-issued, physical currency, the value of which is not linked to some other commodity (such as the gold standard)—in modern economies. They can also be actions required by international law, such as the role the United Nations Security Council plays in dealing with matters of international conflict or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which prohibits state control over international waters beginning five miles outside of a state’s continental shelf.50 Norms provide states with a starting point from which to weigh possible courses of action and determine how best to respond to any situation that may come up during the course of normal state relations.


Theory in Action: Constructivism

In the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix, Neo has the ability to change the rules upon which his world is based. In this clip, Caleb Gallemore (then a PhD candidate at Ohio State University and now Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Lafayette College) explains that this is how constructivists view international relations, contending that some actors have more power than others to change the system and how it works.

If members of the international community consider a state’s actions to be in conflict with existing norms, they may not consider that state to be a reliable ally. Once a state loses its standing as a positively regarded member of the international system, it can affect the way other states enter into agreements, whether they be economic or political. In an increasingly interdependent world, a state that is no longer able to enter into beneficial agreements with other states will have difficulty employing its resources in the most efficient way.

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