Twenty Years of Institutional Liberalism

June 2012
International Relations, Vol. 26, Issue 2

The world has now experienced what could be regarded as 20 years of Institutional Liberalism: the dominance of the view that cooperation in world politics can be enhanced through the construction and support of multilateral institutions based on liberal principles. E. H. Carr was famously skeptical of liberalism as he understood that tradition. This essay, prepared originally as the E. H. Carr Lecture at Aberystwyth University, interrogates Institutional Liberalism through a lens provided by Carr’s most famous book on international relations, The Twenty Years’ Crisis. It points out three trends since the 1990s that may be associated with Institutional Liberalism: increasing legalization; trends toward more legalism and moralism; and a decline in the coherence of some international regimes. Reviewing these trends in light of Realist critiques of liberalism, the essay rejects Realism as a good moral or practical guide to world politics, but reaffirms the value of the Realist view that institutions depend on structures of power and interests. Increases in legalization, legalism and moralism reflect a fusion of the social purpose of liberal democracies with their unprecedented geopolitical power since 1991. But declines in the coherence of international regimes reflect a greater divergence of interests, weighted by power. All international institutions are flawed and in some ways precarious, but strengthening them in ways that reflect legitimate social purposes remains a major challenge for our time.