In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Idealism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Wilsonian Idealism
  • Post–Cold War Neo-Idealism
  • Philosophical Neo-Idealism

International Relations Idealism
Peter Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0089


Idealism is one of the most difficult terms in the vocabulary of international relations because no commonly accepted meaning exists for it. Likewise, no commonly accepted idealist tradition or paradigm from which to distil meaning can be found. While many academics and practitioners have ideals and seek to realize them, a self-consciously idealist school of international thought does not exist nor has one ever existed. Yet the term idealism is frequently used in both the theory and the practice of international politics. Those who use it often have only a vague idea of what they mean by it. It frequently means different things to different people. At the most general level idealism refers to an approach to international politics that seeks to advance certain ideals or moral goals, for example, making the world a more peaceful or just place. This approach rests on a dual premise. First, that current world political arrangements for achieving such goals are inadequate, perhaps profoundly so. Second, human beings have it within their power to change these arrangements for the better, perhaps radically. Often in international political discourse idealism is used as a term of disapprobation. More “realistic” critics frequently condemn an idea or proposal as “idealistic” if it goes beyond what can safely be achieved. Aiming to make the world a much better place, for example, by making it “safe for democracy,” may be noble but it is naive. It is based on a false estimation of what is possible in international politics, certainly at the systemic level. Letting their hearts rule their heads, idealists underestimate the achievements of the existing international order and fail to appreciate the delicacy of the threads that hold it together. For “idealists,” however, the real name of realism is conservatism, pessimism, or defeatism. It is the ideology of those who benefit from unjust arrangements, who find sorry comfort in the thought that all is for the worst in the worst possible worlds, or who lack the moral will to fight for truth and justice. At this general level the contest between idealism and realism is sometimes depicted as a central dynamic of international politics.

General Overviews

Most fundamentally, the lack of an agreed meaning for the term idealism is a consequence of the lack of an agreed ontology. That is, there is little agreement, and indeed there has been little attempt to forge an agreement, on precisely what kind of thing idealism is. For example, it is variously assumed to be an approach to foreign policy, a foreign policy tradition, a phase in the maturation process of international political thought, a general disposition toward political affairs, a Weberian “ideal type,” a perennial force or dynamic in international politics, and so on. Given this, it is not surprising that no general overviews of idealism in international relations (in contrast to realism) are available. The closest approximation is Wilson 2003, which is primarily concerned with interwar idealism, Griffiths 1995, which seeks to strip idealism and realism of their rhetorical uses and restore their analytical utility, and Taylor 1985, which compares and contrasts British and American “Utopianism” (“idealism” and “Utopianism” being commonly used interchangeably).

  • Griffiths, Martin. Realism, Idealism and International Politics: A Reinterpretation. London: Taylor and Francis, 1995.

    Innovative work applying Berki’s understanding of idealism and realism (see R. N. Berki, On Political Realism [London: Dent, 1981]) to the study of international relations. Realism is an outlook that comprehends the ineluctable tension between freedom and necessity. Idealism denies this tension. Applied to three “grand theorists” of international relations (IR), Morgenthau and Waltz are revealed as, respectively, “nostalgic” and “complacent” idealists while Bull is viewed as a realist.

  • Taylor, Trevor. “Utopianism.” In International Relations: British and American Perspectives. Edited by Steve Smith, 92–107. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.

    Contends that one of the by-products of Utopian faith in reason is belief in a universal code of morality and objective ethical standards discoverable through reason. Argues that Utopianism is concerned more with ends (e.g., the formation of an ideal polity) than means.

  • Wilson, Peter. The International Theory of Leonard Woolf: A Study in Twentieth Century Idealism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    Chapter 2 (“What Is Idealism?” pp. 11–21) attempts to unravel the complex meaning of idealism by analyzing its various usages in the study of international relations. Puts much stress on the influence of E. H. Carr’s polemical attack on “Utopianism” in The Twenty Years’ Crisis (see Carr 2003, cited under the Classical Realist Construction of Idealism).

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