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Internationalism has a series of overlapping meanings, all of which revolve around an attempt to regulate political life at the global level in the hopes of constructing a more peaceful order. Its most common meaning is that of a political ideology that advocates greater cooperation among nation-states in the pursuit of peace through the creation of international law and institutions. It is closely associated with international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations (UN), although it is not synonymous with these organizations.
Internationalism is also a U.S. foreign policy doctrine that advocates working through international organizations. Obviously related to the first definition of internationalism, this foreign policy idea is based upon the assumption that working through such organization is beneficial to U.S. national interests, and will additionally benefit the global community.
Internationalism is also a form of cooperation advocated by socialists that assumes the eventual disappearance of the nation-state. For some, this would come only through a revolutionary process; for others it would be a gradual reformation of the international system.
Each of these forms of internationalism is premised on the assumption that peace will result only from programmatic attempts at organizing international affairs. It is thus primarily a liberal ideology, although some suggest there can be a conservative version of it as well (Holbraad 2003). The overriding goal, however, is the promotion of peace through alignment of what might otherwise be conflicting interests.
As an idea, internationalism arose from the collapse of a European, Christian institutional order (Ishay 1995). As the Christian ethicopolitical order came under strain as a result of the rise of Protestantism, the Renaissance, and then the Enlightenment, political philosophers turned toward natural law as a means by which to construct a peaceful international system. An important part of this move was the recognition that allegiance to and obligations toward political communities are not necessarily wrong, but that such allegiances and obligations need to be modified by a larger set of rules and norms that might govern relations among those communities. One of the first attempts to construct such an order came from Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), a Dutch theologian and philosopher who helped create modern international law by linking older natural theories to an emerging Renaissance interest in the historical practice of political communities. Grotius’s famous The Rights of War and Peace (1625) proposed a theoretical foundation for governing war that reformulated the “just war” tradition and launched modern international law.
The nineteenth century saw the emergence of positivist international law, which kept the same internationalist agenda but turned to different sources for its justifications (Nardin 1998). International law became the primary focus of attempts to promote internationalism, with its insistence that states remain the central agents and its attempts to limit their ability to launch war (Koskenniemi 2002). Internationalism as a political project arose from these legal attempts to align an unwillingness to give up on the nation-state with a desire for peace.
Internationalism was also an important idea among philosophers. Immanuel Kant famously argued for methods by which the international community could avoid war (Ishay 1995). Kant’s proposal for a republican peace pact has been the foundation both of the democratic peace thesis and for internationalism. Kant argued that as more states became republics, their citizens would demand more cooperation (1795). This located internationalism within the nation, something that others sought to do during the Enlightenment and romantic periods.
A very different type of internationalism arose from the philosophy of Karl Marx. Marx’s argument that the decay of capitalism would result in the construction of communism was meant to apply not just to specific states but also to the human condition more broadly. Lenin took Marx’s ideas to a more specifically international level in his work on imperialism. These ideas were taken up by both revolutionary socialists, who argued that active attempts to overturn the nation-state and its bourgeois foundations were necessary, and reform-oriented socialists, who believed that cooperation through various international fora would lead to the collapse of the capitalist order.
These ideas, particularly those in the realm of international law, became more concrete at the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries. Prior to and particularly after World War I, proponents of greater international institutional arrangements to ensure peace published a number of works (Navari 2000, Jones 2002). With the end of World War I, proposals for international institutions to moderate war came to fruition with the League of Nations. For some internationalists, the League was a concrete expression of their views, but for others it was too weak to create a truly internationalist sentiment. The failure of the United States to join the League and the abandonment of its tenets by Germany, Italy, and then Japan eviscerated it, and World War II finally forced the collapse of the League.
The end of World War II saw a resurgence of internationalism, particularly in the United States. Leading the way to the creation of a new international institution, the Americans agreed to host the newly created United Nations. Once again, some internationalists were enthusiastic about the new institution, but others found it wanting. The creation of the World Federalist League was an attempt to push the U.S. public, and the wider international community, toward greater forms of cooperation. Functionalists argued that as international affairs became more complex, there would be greater need for cooperation among nations.
Coupled with the creation of the United Nations, international law exploded in the post–World War II era. The International Law Commission, a body of international lawyers exploring important issues, pushed various issues forward on the international agenda, with some becoming treaties that led to new international organizations such as the International Criminal Court. As decolonization progressed the UN General Assembly soon grew beyond its few members and passed numerous nonbinding resolutions. After the end of the cold war the UN Security Council aggressively expanded its reach, producing not just binding resolutions but also more regulations to govern wider aspects of international life.
Internationalism needs to be kept separate from two related but distinct terms: cosmopolitanism and globalization. Cosmopolitanism finds its roots in antiquity, with Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Cicero in Rome arguing for the consideration of all persons as equal (Hayden 2006). If all were truly “citizens of the world,” war and strife for the purposes of empire or monarchical advancement were pointless. This sentiment resurfaced in various religious traditions, with Christianity and Islam both arguing for a broadly understood universal community, albeit one founded on their particular religious tenets. Cosmopolitan thinking intersected with internationalism during the Enlightenment, but internationalists such as Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau did not see much point in abandoning the nation-state. Instead, they thought that republican forms of cooperation, in which states agreed to limit their sovereignty for purposes of greater cooperation, were preferable to the destruction of those states in the name of a larger international community.
Cosmopolitanism has been revived with globalization, a process by which the international economic and cultural sphere becomes more unified and interdependent. Especially among analytic philosophers interested in global justice, cosmopolitan ideas have great resonance. Again, though, internationalists find some of these proposals at odds with the current power structure of the international system, in which great powers would be loathe to abandon their position in a formally anarchic, but practically hierarchic system.
Internationalism differs from proposals for a world government, against which it was largely posited in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Worried that a world government would lead to an oppressive and unwieldy bureaucracy, internationalists hoped to keep the nation-state as a foundation, but to moderate its aggressive elements through various institutional arrangements.
Finally, within the American polity, internationalism reflects a support for a foreign policy orientation toward international institutions. Although some international economic institutions—for example, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Foundation, and the World Bank—are widely accepted by the U.S. foreign policy elite, the United Nations continues to generate strong debate. Neoconservatives and libertarians find the constraints imposed by the UN on the ability of the United States to run its own affairs unconscionable, whereas many Democrats and centrist Republicans find the UN and its promise of multilateralism the only real option in a world so interconnected and conflictual. Especially as U.S. power is stretched to its limits in places such as Iraq, the benefits of internationalism as a foreign policy strategy will become more influential. For those who believe in the values of the Enlightenment, such a move would be most welcome, returning the United States to its role as a leading proponent of Enlightenment theory and practice.
- Grotius, Hugo.  2003. The Rights of War and Peace, ed. Richard Tuck, from the edition by Jean Barbeyrac. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.
- Hayden, Patrick. 2006. Cosmopolitan Global Politics. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.
- Holbraad, Carsten. 2003. Internationalism and Nationalism in European Political Thought. New York: Palgrave.
- Ishay, Michelene. 1995. Internationalism and Its Betrayal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Jones, Dorothy. 2002. Toward a Just World: The Critical Years in the Search for International Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Kant, Immanuel.  1991. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. In Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Koskenniemi, Martii. 2002. The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law, 1870–1960. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Nardin, Terry. 1998. Legal Positivism as a Theory of International Society. In International Society: Diverse Ethical Perspectives, David Mapel and Terry Nardin, 17–35. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Navari, Cornelia. 2000. Internationalism and the State in the 20th Century. London: Routledge.
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