Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics

Moravcsik lays out liberalism as a theory of international politics and discusses basic assumptions and how it differs from existing theories.  

For liberals, the configuration of state preferences matters most in world politics – not, as realists argue, the configuration of capabilities and not, as institutionalists (that is functional regime theorists) maintain, the configuration of information and institutions. Elsewhere in the article he defines liberal theory’s fundamental premise as follows: The relationship between states and the surrounding domestic and transnational society in which they are embedded critically shapes state behavior by influencing the social purposes underlying state preferences.  

Liberal theory of IR rejects the utopian notion that an automatic harmony of interest exists among individuals and groups in society; scarcity and differentiation introduce an inevitable measure of competition. For liberal theory, since individuals are on the average risk-averse, they defend existing investments but remain more  cautious about assuming cost and risk in pursuit of new gains.  

Three variants of liberal theory:

1. Ideational liberalism stresses the impact on state behavior of conflict and compatibility among collective social values or identities concerning the scope and nature of public goods provision.

2. Commercial liberalism stresses the impact on state behavior of gains and losses to individuals and groups in society from transnational economic  interchange.

3. Republican liberalism stresses the impact on state behavior of varying forms of domestic representation and the resulting incentives for social groups to engage in rent seeking.  

He then argues that liberal theory can be compared with and prevail over other theories. He discusses liberalism on four grounds: parsimony, coherence, empirical accuracy, and multicausal consistency.  

Core Assumptions of Liberal  IR Theory

The primacy of societal actors: The fundamental actors in international politics are individuals and private groups, who are on the average rational and risk-averse and who organize exchange and collective action to promote differentiated interests under constraints imposed by material scarcity, conflicting values, and variations in societal influence.  

Representation and State preferences: States (or other political institutions) represent some subset of domestic society, on the basis of whose interests state officials define state preferences and act purposively in world politics. State is not an actor but a representative institution constantly subject to capture and recapture, construction and reconstruction by coalitions of social actors. Individuals turn to the state to achieve goals that private behavior is unable to achieve efficiently. Representative institutions and practices determine not merely which social coalitions are represented in foreign policy, but how they are represented.  

Taken together, assumptions 1 and 2 imply that states do not automatically maximize fixed, homogenous conceptions of security, sovereignty, or wealth per se, as realists and institutionalists tend to assume. Instead they are, in Waltzian terms, “functionally differentiated”; that is, they pursue particular interpretations and combinations of security, welfare, and sovereignty preferred by powerful domestic groups.  

Interdependence and the international system: The configuration of interdependent state preferences determines state behavior. For liberals, state behavior reflects varying patterns of state preferences. Each state seeks to realize its distinctive preferences under varying constraints imposed by the preferences of other states.  

Liberal theory rejects the realist assumption that state preferences must be treated as if naturally conflictual. Also it rejects the institutionalist assumption that state preferences should be treated as if they were partially convergent, compromising a collective action problem. Liberals causally privilege variation in the configuration of state preferences, while treating configurations of capabilities and information as if they were either fixed constraints or endogenous to state preferences.  

Policy interdependence is defined as the set of costs and benefits created for foreign societies when dominant social groups in a society seek to realize their preferences. Liberal theory assumes that the pattern of interdependent state preferences imposes a binding constraint on state behavior.

Liberal Theory as Systemic Theory  

For realists, results achieved seldom correspond to the intentions of actors, hence, no valid generalizations can be drawn from an examination of intentions. In short, variation in means, not ends, matters most.  

For liberal theory, what state swant is the primary determinant of what they do. State preferences may reflect patterns of transnational societal interaction, they may vary in response to a changing transnational social context. Behavior of a single state reflects not simply its own preferences, but the configuration of preferences of all states.  

Moravcsik argues that, contra Waltz, liberalism can explain not only the foreign policy goals of individual states but the systemic outcomes of interstate interactions. An example for this is the democratic peace literature.