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Using the contrasting views of radical anti-capitalism Marxism and free market championing Liberalism, this essay will explore conflict and hierarchy in International Relations. Scholars have written depth regarding the friction that has been evident in the global society, in the realist approach we can define the friction as been a competition for resources. Though it is hard to define one reason, many have succumbed to the notion that conflict, and hierarchy are prerequisites to systems of global order. Thucydides’ saw this as states rational urge to chase finite resources to please their infinite wants, this issue is what this essay will delve into culminating in the view that we are seeing an evolution in the global that removes conflictual tendencies.

The two main approaches that I focus on are Marxism and Liberalism, both having differing views on conflict and hierarchy. Liberals, taking the view that hierarchy is necessary for order and that conflict is a result of friction in similar state interests. Marxists seeing class as a driver for conflict and seeing the necessity of it to bring about the new communist system (Linklater, 1990: pg. 8). This piece attempts to be a summary of these two views on conflict and hierarchy in World to convey the view that conflict in terms of warfare isn’t inherent to world politics. Attainable through Kant’s republicanism theory that does have hierarchical implications and that Marxism does offer valid points of view on the matter but is ultimately too radical in thinking.

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History shows us a clear pattern of war and conflict between states, we see the prevalence of colonialism in the global order with modern developed states all almost exclusively have ties to historical colonial rule. Both Marxists and Liberals accept this form of power, with Marxists seeing it as a necessity for the foundations of capitalism that is the driver of dialectical change (Marx, Vol. 1) and Liberals attempts to rationalise it as the virtue of economic growth. We see the basis of economic power historically being based on colonies who use violent means to ensure their economic success. Then we have ideological conflicts instead with what we could see as the hegemonic power of the US (Fukuyama, 92) that dictates the state of the global. Under this more recent system, there is conflict of a different kind, a more ‘liberational’ style of intervening in other countries, rather than a state against state style of conflict.

World politics as we know it has been a product of the Westphalian system in 1648, which itself was a reaction to the Thirty Years’ War. The state-centric implications that can be attributed to this is a cause for the liberal view of sovereign states that have agendas driven by social action from within, essentially generating individual states representing their own views. As within domestic politics and economics, interests overlap and generate conflict. Like the liberal individualistic view of self-realisation and chasing own needs, states will follow their own preferences which causes friction (Moravcsik, 2010). Simplifying the liberal thought in this sense we see the quest to domesticate the international (Dunne,2008: p.110), creating a system reflective of democratic states. If we keep this way of thinking in mind we can compare, the three core regards of liberal thinking; interdependence, institutions, and republicanism to that of a democratic state.

As Moravcsik explains behaviour between states can determine preferences and the ability for bargaining to occur between states shapes this without the need for force. He goes on to cite Keohane and Nye’s idea of “asymmetrical interdependence” which creates an international system whereby conflict is limited through different state’s bargaining power. Based upon the assumption that states connectiveness in policy and decisions mean that the interaction within the international sphere is impacted, states are constantly evaluating their involvement with other states and their border based on their own interests and how the factor of interdependence affects them. Globalisation has been the driver in promoting trade as a means of interdependence that ties states together and creates an economic penalty of carrying out conflict (Polachek et. Al, 1999).  Michael Doyle explains how “when free trade prevails there is ‘no class’ gains from forcible expansion” (Doyle, 1986: pg. 73) leading to evolution from the previous popular method of expansionism and deterring states from engaging in conflict.

Without interdependence, the international structure is generally one of sovereign states chasing their own survival which means a lack of control (Griveaud, 2011). The global didn’t have a list of rules to be governed by and was therefore anarchic (Bull, 1977) a view shared by realists and constructivists. Bull points out the purpose of these institutions as a means of mitigating this anarchy, and provide representation for states’ international behaviour (Moravcsik, 2010). By encouraging cooperation through a platform where state’s interest is heard and regulated, peace in terms of conflict reduction can be attributed to this multilateral behaviour (Fearon, 1998). It is important to note that within this practise to limit conflict, hierarchy is evident, for instance certain nations in the UN having veto powers. There is the view that these institutions won’t be perfectly even in power but will ensure that the values of free trade are promoted to reduce conflictual tensions.


Institutions as a premise relies on the importance of providing a solution to systemic vacancy of order in the international, putting a leash on the beast of anarchy (Keohane, 2012: pp 125). Whilst liberals champion this view of institutionalism, Marxists adopt the view that institutions are a vehicle of capitalism and a voice for the elitist mode of thought. The dichotomy in thought is laid bare and Marxists see capitalism as the root of evil, contrary to the liberal view where capitalism is to be triumphed. There is the expansion of domestic issues of class conflict expanded into the international (Uzgoren & Yildiz, 2011: Sonda) with capitalism and the link with inequality is unavoidable. The exploitation of labour is sped up through capitalism and potentially worsened by it, the conflict in Marx’s eyes becomes exaggerated as the national bourgeoisie who channel the elitist views of capitalism becomes the point of focus rather than the more specific owner of the means of production. This economic interaction between the bourgeoisie and the superstructure is the focus and seemingly neglects more socio-political points.


With democratic states, there is the new barrier of economic growth and as this is essentially the rational incentive for states to compromise this with encroachment on other states isn’t in the best interests of a state. Conflict in the liberal view is therefore a result of irrational behaviour that doesn’t pertain between democracies (Oneal & Russet, 1997: p.267).


Looking at the alternate perspective, Marxism generally places focus on the domestic, as put by Andrew Linklater, ‘Marxism was once regarded as having little value for students of international relations’. Relative scarcity of detail on International relations and instead on the pitfalls of capitalism, rather points towards the true negative analysis of the capitalist structure (Fred Halliday 1994: 48). Once we scale up into the global, the issues of the ruling class is again the focus with the global structures perpetuating capitalism and look away from the Liberal issue of (Buecker). Marxists provide a dichotomy to Liberal thought and see capitalism as the cause of conflict and rooting the system in hierarchy which creates perpetual state of conflict of resources. Otherwise, known as conflict theory, the battle between those who are forced to sell their labour (Proletariat) and those who own the means of production (Bourgeoisie), (Crossman, 2017).


             Marxist approach of combining the political with the economical saw hierarchy and conflict built into the capitalist structure that only a revolutionary change could reduce the inherent inequality that exists in the international structure. A series of nationalist movements were Marx’s answer to this conflict to stimulate the emergence of communism and remove class conflict (Buecker). Buecker goes on to explain the need for capitalism to produce the “dialectical change”  that will move beyond issues of conflict and hierarchy by displaying its inherent flaw. For Marxism, conflict and hierarchy are inherent to the world politics of capitalism, once their class consciousness is reached and communism is brought into power then this can be eradicated.


The traditional liberal view “perpetual peace” that Immanuel Kant proposed through his idea of republicanism (commonly referred to as democratic peace theory).  This theory of democratic peace, explains the rationality of those states who subscribe to democratic principles and friction is hindered through the belief of spreading interdependence and liberal thought. This subscribes to the idea of democratic states acting together peacefully in the international system and abiding cosmopolitan law (Archibuigi: pp 429-433, 1995), the idea being that those with a more developed economy no longer need to expand territory to increase their economy.


Kant’s theory of “perpetual peace” offers an explanation for future reference and how the international system overall can achieve stability and hinder conflict, it also offers a indictive point of equality between sovereign states. Kant explains how democratic nations had the right to assert Liberal democracy throughout the globe. We see how multilateral behaviour through the UN is used to collectivised ‘legitimate’ efforts of conflict “acting collectively to uphold international peace and security” (Reus-Smit).  Reus-Smit also goes on to question the hierarchical implications of legitimising power to democracies, by giving authority to certain states and condemning others only perpetuates issues of conflict.


As response to the liberal quest of spreading democratic values, conflict has occurred in those nations who do not adhere to these principles embodied by supranational organisations. Autocratic or general undemocratic states have been continually chosen to host western involvement that has led to an evolved point of warfare as a direct result of the liberal quest of spreading democracy. We see this with George Bush’s New World Order venture leading to the Gulf War in 1991 based on both US hegemony but also embodying liberal views of spreading the liberal agenda. Wherever we look conflict occurs, even in places that attempt to bring about a system of no conflict, this idea of conflict for peace is seemingly contradictory and raises further issues over conflict’s place in the global order.


However, the free trade model of liberals and interdependence does point towards hierarchy, competing states who have access to resources will naturally rise to the top. Further issues of hierarchy are espoused by scholars who subscribe to the liberal expansion mission, believing those who aren’t subscribed to liberal democratic values don’t deserve the same sovereign rights (Clapton, 2014). This ‘anti-pluralist’ sect of liberalism can ‘advocate the formal rehierarchisation of international society’ (Reus-Smit: pp: 72, 2005) and ultimately promotes issues of hierarchy in the venture to bring Liberalism universally.

In conclusion whilst the issue of infinite wants, and finite resources presents the issue of friction in the international over conflicting interests, this can be mitigated in the Liberal view through the three main ventures of interdependence, institutionalism, and republicanism/democratic peace. Thus, limiting conflicting to a matter of difference in political systems rather than inherent to the nature of global politics, however it is important to recognise that whilst free trade limits physical conflict the use of embargoes and other trade tactics presents a new form of conflict between states. Marxism agrees with Liberalism in the fact there is a systemic change needed for conflict to be removed from global politics and see capitalism as the cause of conflict, where there is a ruling class, there is a working class being exploited.

            Liberals espouse a view that is suggestive of a hierarchy, whilst key liberals like Adam Smith seek justice and greater distribution of wealth and income, the international will naturally be made up of states that are larger. Whilst Marxists believe in the need to remove capitalism and replace it with communism to beat conflict and hierarchy in the international. Both views provide the answer that conflict and hierarchy aren’t necessarily inherent and instead there needs to be a structural change to the political economy.



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