The Theory of Idealism in International Relations.

Chogwu Enape
6 min readJul 25, 2020
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Theories in International relations are assertions that try to explain and justify how international structures work. They explain the characteristics of ever-changing interactions across territories. Each theory has been developed and grounded on various perspectives relating to human nature and the world in general, but as the world is constantly evolving, the usefulness of each theory is also constantly being tested in the face of critical issues as they arise and the success or failure of these applications will determine in essence which of these theories will stand the test of time. This essay is an analysis of the theory of Idealism and whether or not its application in modern international politics is capable of working successfully to solve the problem of common goods.

The Theory of Idealism

Idealism is one of the major theories in international relations. “The basic insight of this theory is that the national characteristics of individual States matter for their international relations.” (Slaughter, 2011) This means that all states do not have the same goals based on selfish interests but that a state will relate with another state based on its internal norms and culture. Idealists believe that human nature is not inherently bad and that states are capable of cooperating to the extent of forgoing their interests to achieve a collective goal. Idealists strongly rely on the principles of identity and reciprocity to explain how peace and cooperation can be achieved example through forming international organizations, fostering international cooperation and general interdependence among states. “Idealism emphasizes international law, morality, and international organization, rather than power alone, as key influences on international events” (Goldstien & Pevehouse, 2014). This means that Idealists believe that morality is a very important aspect of interactions on an international level and that power is not the sole determinant of how these interactions go. The major goal of Idealism is to create a democratic and peaceful world where every actor from an individual to an international level can be seen and heard.

The 21st century is considered one of the most peaceful eras of the world and despite regional conflicts here and there, the aftermath of these conflicts on a global scale cannot be compared to other eras e.g. the first and second world wars. In other to achieve a complete state of total cooperation and peace in the world, Immanuel Kant who is considered as the major proponent of the theory of Idealism gave three key solutions: “The civil constitution of every State should be republican, the law of world citizenship shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality and the law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free States.” (Kant, 1795) This means that every state should operate within a democratic system that has checks and balances, there should be a world federation that will facilitate cooperation among states and that trade among states promotes a situation where actors will be less likely to go to war in order not to jeopardize a process that brings economic gain. These answers can be exemplified in today’s European Union and United Nations. Idealists believe that the more people are educated and understand that they can hold their leaders accountable for their actions; the world will be a better place. “They believe that the spread of education and democracy — including increasing democratic control of foreign policy — will empower world public opinion, and make it a powerful force that no government can resist.” (Wilson, 2012)

The differences between Idealism and Realism.

Idealism is in stark contrast to the second major International relations theory which is realism. Realists strongly believe that the International system revolves around the concept of power and that states actively pursue their self-interests in an international system that is anarchic because of the lack of a central government. Unlike Idealists, realists believe that democratization is not the answer to peace as democratic countries will still go to war against each other. They believe that the state is the only actor that matters and that the international system which is in a constant state of anarchy, can never transition to peace in the absence of power. Now in the light of the argument presented by Realists, a new school of thought developed out of idealism which is the Neo-Liberalism. This theory agrees with realism on the assumption that “states are unitary actors rationally pursuing their self-interest in a system of anarchy.” (Goldstien & Pevehouse, 2014)

The Theory of Idealism in Practice

One prominent example of idealism in practice is the United States current foreign policies under the Obama administration. In his speech at the U.S Military Academy at west point’s class of 2014, President Obama made statements that are directly in line with the theory of idealism- “Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Free and open economies perform better and respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence”. Under his administration, President Obama has tried to shape America’s policies in a way that its military capabilities are not always called into play in international relations (choosing not to send in troops in the war in Syria.) That is, we can choose the realist way and use our power (military) to fulfil our national interests but instead, we choose international cooperation and reasoning.

Limitations of Idealism

Although the idealistic approach has been considered successful to an extent given the fact that the world is experiencing its most peaceful era and more international organizations have been formed, it does not always work for every situation. For example, the United States decided to back down from the plan to build a ballistic missile defence shield in central Europe because Russia was against it and threatened to deploy missiles but at the end of the day, Russia still went ahead to deploy missiles to Kaliningrad. It has also been criticized on the fact that it “minimizes considerations of power, and assumes that norms of right behaviour can substitute for national capabilities and material interests and that it neglects political prudence.” (Goldsmith & Krasner, 2003) This means that the fact that the theory of Idealism refuses to acknowledge power as a key component of international relations, it will always be lacking in effect. Some people have argued that Realism is the way to go because that’s the way the world is and we need to look at international relations as they are not as they should be, others think that the only way to achieve total peace and cooperation is through realism i.e., there has to be a major power play whereby the aftermath will restore the international system and create a world government and international organizations that will facilitate cooperation and general transition to world peace.

Still, there is no denying the fact that the theory of idealism is composed of interesting keys to solving the problems of war and international relations even though it will be quite difficult to achieve:“ ideals can be pursued effectively only if decision-makers are alert to the distribution of power, national interests, and the consequences of their policies.” (Goldsmith & Krasner, 2003) This means that Idealists need to factor in the current state of International relations and find a way that the utopian world that they envision can be achieved regardless of the “obstacles” they perceive.


Goldsmith, J, & Krasner, S. D. (2003). The limits of idealism. Daedalus, 132(1), 47–63. Retrieved from

Goldstein, J. S., & Pevehouse, J. C. (2013). Realist Theories. In International Relations Brief,2013–2014 update, 6thEdition (6th ed., p. 35). Retrieved from

Slaughter, A. M. (2011). International relations, principal theories. In Max planck encyclopedia of public international Law. Retrieved from

Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace”. (1795). Retrieved from

Wilson, P. (2012). Idealism in International Relations. Retrieved from LSE Research Online.



Chogwu Enape

Researcher, writer, and the ultimate idealist. One day I moved to Paris and many things have happened to me since then.