05 Apr

Richard Beardsworth on why the 21st century needs cosmopolitan liberalism

Posted By Politybooks

beardsworth_portrait2This book opens up a needed space between cosmopolitan moral and political thought and the way in which international relations are theoretically framed.

Since the end of the Cold War, the cosmopolitan moral principle has informed, to a greater or lesser extent, the terms through which both states and peoples argue about basic human needs and basic forms of human solidarity in the face of global issues. As soon as one speaks, for example, about human rights, about the ‘conscience of humanity’, about global solidarity and cooperation, about a universal aspiration towards freedom (however then defined), about a minimal universal culture, one is necessarily postulating norms that transcend the empirical borders of the world. Although there is much disagreement about the breadth and depth of these cosmopolitan norms, they are, since 1945, historically embedded in a globalized world, underpinned by material interdependence. The question that the book addresses is accordingly, what are the most interesting ways of articulating the relationship between these norms and our understandings of the force-field of international relations?

 I take as my way in the three schools of international relations theory that are constitutively the most resistant to universalism in this field: realism, Marxism and its avatars, and postmodern IR thought. Through a series of ‘debates’ between the basic assumptions of these schools, and their consequent critiques of contemporary cosmopolitanisms, on the one hand, and a cosmopolitan response to these assumptions and critiques, on the other, I advance a sophisticated cosmopolitan position that assumes contemporary dilemmas among morality, legality and politics. In doing so, the book shows both the importance and difficulty of relating the present theoretical and practical interest in cosmopolitan thought to international political dynamics.

From out of these three debates I draw several conclusions. These conclusions are both particular responses to the assumptions of each school and more general. With regard to the realist critique of cosmopolitanism, I argue for a cosmopolitan realism of the lesser violence: that is, the need for states to assume, in their own interest, minimal cosmopolitan commitments and to work for a global public realm in which practices of domination and violence are reduced as much as possible. With regard to the Marxist critique of cosmopolitanism, I argue that endogenous development strategies can only be properly articulated through global governance structures given the global reach of the capitalist system. With regard to postmodern criticisms of cosmopolitan universalism (particularly in the context of the human rights regime) I argue that legal cosmopolitan norms form the basis for protection from violence, but that international legal proceduralism must be supplemented by political argument and justification (the most recent example of this need is the intervention in Libya). These three arguments criss-cross and dovetail each other, allowing me to expound a general theoretical position that foregrounds, between norm and experience, the importance of cosmopolitan political judgment.

With the ongoing pluralization of power centers in the world, some theorists of IR argue that cosmopolitan liberal norms are in decline (and that, given the necessary complicity between universalism and imperialism, this is a good thing). On the basis of my understandings of a politics of the lesser violence and cosmopolitan political judgment, I argue, rather, that the ideological future is open and uncertain, and that a sophisticated cosmopolitan liberalism could help to orient the world and its plural power structures to less domination and violence during this century. The book constitutes, consequently, an engaged argument in political ethics. By confronting political theory with the specificities of international relations and, inversely, it seeks simultaneously to channel cosmopolitan theory towards the requirements of political agency and to re-orient political agency towards global vision and global leadership.

Richard Beardsworth is Professor of Political Philosophy at the American University of Paris and the author of Cosmopolitanism and International Relations Theory.