Idealism: Idealism in International Relations

Idealism is one of the schools of thought in the theory of international relations that focuses on international cooperation, morality, and institutions rather than strict national self-interest. Idealism emerged immediately after World War I, mainly through the works of President Woodrow Wilson of America. Wilson’s idealistic thought occupied his Fourteen Points speech, which was designed to present his perception of post-war peace, and the founding of the League of Nations. So, the main principle of idealism involves the opinion that nations should follow moral principles and promote international cooperation instead of national interests. Earlier idealist thinkers such as Wilson thought that diplomacy could serve to resolve conflict as opposed to war.

Woodrow Wilson and the Fourteen Points

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was a key exponent of idealism in international relations. Wilson strongly believed that morality, cooperation, and international institutions were the keys to global peace and order. Wilson’s idealistic vision was clearly articulated in his Fourteen Points speech in 1918. The Fourteen Points outlined Wilson’s vision for a peaceful post-World War I order based on liberal democratic principles. Key aspects of the Fourteen Points included open diplomacy, freedom of navigation, free trade, arms reduction, national self-determination, and the establishment of the League of Nations. The Fourteenth Point proposed “a general association of nations…affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” This call for a League of Nations reflected Wilson’s belief that an international organization devoted to cooperation, mediation, and collective security could help eliminate war between nation-states. While the Fourteen Points were not fully realized, they stand as an influential early statement of liberal internationalist ideals.

The Interwar Period
1919 to 1939 was a time marked by the rise of authoritarian regimes and the failure of the liberal world order that Woodrow Wilson had envisioned. Several factors contributed to the growth of fascist and authoritarian regimes during this time:

  • The 1930s economic crisis and Great Depression caused disenchantment with liberal democracy in many countries. Strongman leaders promising stability came to power as economies collapsed.
  • In Germany, the Nazi party under Hitler rose to power in 1933, establishing a fascist dictatorship. Italy also transitioned to a fascist regime under Mussolini in 1922.
  • Many new states formed in Central and Eastern Europe adopted authoritarian styles of government, rather than liberal democracy.
  • The League of Nations, proposed by Wilson as part of his Fourteen Points, failed to become the strong international institution intended to preserve peace. The United States never signed up, and the League was incapable of stopping aggression perpetrated by authoritarian regimes. 1931 saw Japan invading Manchuria and Italy invading Ethiopia in 1935.

The failures of the League of Nations and the proliferation of totalitarian regimes during the interwar period provided evidence that liberal idealism was weak against economic turbulence and ideological extremism. This increased realist orientations focusing on power politics by the end of the 1930s.

Key Supporters of Idealism in International Relations

Other prominent thinkers and writers such as Woodrow Wilson, Norman Angel, Richard Cobben, Mahatma Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, and Aldous Huxley were behind the idealism movement. All these writers expressed the idealist position in their literary works and severely criticized the realist position.

Some key points on the supporters:

  1. Woodrow Wilson: 28th President of the United States and leading exponent of idealism through his Fourteen Points speech and advocacy for the League of Nations. Wilson believed idealism and cooperation could create world harmony.
  2. Norman Angel: British historian and enthusiast for the League of Nations as a path to collective security and international cooperation. Argued power politics should be replaced by a system of international law.
  3. Richard Cobden: British political leader and liberal who promoted free trade and cooperation between states as alternatives to war. Inspired many later idealists.
  4. Mahatma Gandhi: Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian independence movement who advocated for non-violent civil disobedience. Gandhi had his idealism and belief in morality leading relations between peoples which was what inspired many.
  5. Bertrand Russell: British metaphysician, mathematician, and activist who advocated for world government and anti-war. One of the most productive international affairs idealist writers.
  6. Aldous Huxley: Known for Brave New World, an English writer who advocated domestic and global pacifism. VERY critical of realist power politics.

 Core Ideas of Idealism in International Relations

The central thought of idealism is that morality ought to be the basis of international relations. Idealists think that if countries behave morally in interrelationships, the world can be made ideal without war, inequality, despotism, tyranny, violence, etc.

Idealism promotes the idea of political morality and a ‘world government’ based on moral values. Idealists believe countries need to make moral considerations “not just national interest calculations) when dealing with one another. They argue that international relations should be driven by ethical norms like justice, human rights, and democracy.

Idealists consider it a moral duty to stop war and reshape the international system. They promote countries to cooperate in the interest of common goals and collective security. Idealists hold the idea that common moral postulates and values can help unite the world community regardless of the lack of a central global authority. On the other hand, idealists seek to advance toward an ideal world order guided by principles of universal ethics and cooperation over force.

Basic Assumptions of Idealism in International Relations

Idealism makes several core assumptions about human nature and international relations:

  1. Fundamentally, human nature is benevolent and can contribute to the good. Idealists believe that humans are reasonable creatures and it is oriented to cooperation rather than conflict. Moral upbringing and reform can enable the good in human nature to win over crude instincts.
  2. War can be eliminated with peace and cooperation. Idealists hold that war does not have to occur and that it is not a natural way of representing human tendencies. Wars result from misunderstandings and poor communication between nations and their leaders. Open dialogue, moral appeal, and nonviolent diplomacy are means through which wars can be prevented.
  3. Idealists assert that enduring peace requires nations to band together in international organizations aimed at collective security, arms control, conflict resolution, and human rights. These are expressed in institutions such as the League of Nations.
  4. To ensure peace, prosperity, and development, international institutions that are dedicated to protecting international peace, international law and international order must be developed. Idealists argue in favor of the strengthening of global governance and the rule of law among nations, rather than military force and balance of power.

Summing up, idealists remain positive about human nature and the feasible future of war elimination via moral evolution and international collaboration. Developing credible international institutions is instrumental to achieving these ideals.

Features of Idealism in International Relations

Idealism holds that changing the environment and international relations can eradicate misconduct and war. Some key features of idealism include:

  1. Reforming Environments: Idealists argue that, since humans can transform their environment, it is possible to eliminate bad human behavior. The right conditions can take the best out of people.
  2. Reforming Relations: There is a belief that reforming international relations and diplomacy is a way of ending war. Nations can avoid war by cooperation instead of competition.
  3. Eliminating War Practices: The idealists feel that the whole world should work on a massive scale and arrive and new deal principles to prevent the negative practices that initiate wars; tyranny, violence, inequality, and despotism. These are issues that have to be addressed.
  4. Developing Institutions: It is therefore also possible to establish international institutions that are dedicated to maintaining peace, order, and prosperity. One of the earliest was when several countries signed the formation of the League of Nations. Institutes help countries to cooperate peacefully rather than to fight.

The idealist program is focused on making the world more peaceful by creating an environment and principles there. Idealists see whether conditions, relations, and institutions can be reformed to prevent war.

 Idealist Approach in international Relations

Idealists hold that international relations should be aimed at ideals instead of self-interest. Idealists believe that countries can work together through international organizations and institutions to achieve long-term peace and prosperity.

Idealists regard relations between countries as based on moral principles such as justice, freedom, and human rights. Conflicts among international nations can be resolved in a non-violent manner through diplomacy, negotiation, or compromise. There should also be no war or threat.…

Some key ways idealists approach international relations:

– Focus on global collaboration, not rivalry between countries.
– Resolve conflicts through diplomacy and negotiation.
– 3 Advocate for shared interests through international laws and organizations.
– Refuse power politics and concentrate on ideas and ethics when making decisions.
– Believe in enlightening citizens with moral principles which include justice and the rights of humans.
– Advocate for gradual reforms to change the international system.
– Faith that appeals to reason and morality can end hostility between nations

The idealist tradition reflects the effort to reconstruct the world based on universal ideals rather than short-sighted national interests. By promoting global collaboration and doing the right thing, idealists hold that we can establish a more peaceful international structure.

Criticism of Idealism in International Relations

Idealism has been criticized for the following reasons:

  • Ignores power politics – Idealism overly depends on institutions and moral litmus and does not pay enough attention to the role of the power relationships between states. It assumes that states will therefore cooperate based on moral reasons and does not understand that states act based on their self-interest and use power politics to accomplish their objectives.
  • Idealism is overemphasis on human reason In idealism, it is believed that human reason and morality have the power to outdo self-interest. Critics argue that this vision of human character is overly optimistic and that there are factors such as nationalism and emotions through which people can easily be drawn into conflict.
  • Idealism pays little heed to the self-seeking behavior of states by focusing on international institutions and common values. CRITICS states idealism does not address the behavior of states that are not motivated by moral considerations and the solving of national interests above all else.

Realistic solutions are needed for international problems and conflicts, but idealism has been criticized for being utopian and impractical. Idealism is a good thing, but far from the reality of power politics in international affairs.


The years after World War I were dominated by Idealism and international relations theory, largely thanks to President Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points speech. Wilson argued for morality in international relations, establishment of the League of Nations, and building collective security. The 1930s saw a decline in the popularity of idealism owing to the emergence of authoritarian regimes in Europe and the failures of the League of Nations. Realist theories stressing national self-interest gained ground. Idealism, however, had a long-term impact on international relations. Some of the main principles of idealism were realized in the United Nations and later developed ideas of human rights and humanitarian intervention. As realism and other theories came to hold their positions, idealism continued to be an integral part of the discourse. The principle that nations had an opportunity to work together in the drive to achieve peace and collective prosperity continued to inspire multi-national efforts. Idealism transformed how leaders and scholars contemplated the potentialities of global governance and order. Its spirit still lives on today to reform the international system. Though idealism waned from leadership, its outlook remains alive because states have cooperated more closely than ever before.