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Summary Article: Freedom
from A New A-Z of International Relations Theory

This is a concept which characterizes a certain type of human condition. While at first glance a simplistic enough term, ‘freedom’ does in fact have a very broad and flexible definition which results in the concept actually being complex. Freedom in its simplest form represents a condition entirely without restrictions or boundaries. However, in this sense freedom is an entirely unachievable condition as there are always boundaries to the human condition – these boundaries vary from physical forces and matter (such as gravity) to intangible institutional structures which govern how humans may behave. However, within international relations one can be concerned with more discrete or limited – as opposed to absolute – forms of freedom. This may include the ability to obtain and maintain possession of physical goods. Furthermore, in IR, concern with the freedom of action can be applied to the study of the full range of types of actors (states, MNCs, IGOs, NGOs and the individual). J. S. Mill, in On Liberty (1859), maintained the fundamental importance of individual freedom, but also pointed to the dangers of tyranny by a majority over minorities, and the importance of the protection of individual rights through the protection of minority rights. Isaiah Berlin (1969) drew an important distinction in discussing liberal writing on freedom between negative freedom – the freedom from control and especially from state control; and positive freedoms – which included economic freedoms and freedom from discrimination, which generally require state intervention to sustain them.

While many non-liberal writers, including anarchist and feminist scholars, see freedom as equally important, they might seek to understand it – and achieve it – by different means. Most writers, except for more extreme liberal theorists such as followers of the American radical right writer Ayn Rand, recognize that there are always also structural constraints on both individual and collective freedoms, and that states too, in their foreign policies, face limited choices and limited freedoms to act as they choose because of global political and economic restraints on their freedom of policy making. Some theorists go further to argue that freedom in IR is of limited value since structural constraints are so compelling – but writers who argue that states and individuals have no meaningful choices at all are very much the minority in IR today, where they were relatively common in the 1920s and 1930s (see separate entry on Determinism). At the same time, in the post-9/11 era, governments around the world, but especially in Europe and North America, have sought to protect freedom by placing restrictions on certain freedoms. In the United States the Patriot Act (2001), which was passed into law just a month after the terror attacks, dramatically undermined the Bill of Rights which had long been a cornerstone of American democracy and liberty. This act allowed the government to unconstitutionally monitor and police its citizens, imprison individuals without charge or representation, and regulate citizens’ financial transactions. In Britain the 2006 Terrorism Act contains similar provisions that infringe civil liberties.

Copyright © 2015 Chris Farrands, Imad El-Anis, Roy Smith and Lloyd Pettiford

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