Realism and Liberalism in International Relations

Understanding and explaining the relationship between states and their behaviour towards each other remains a complex undertaking even to the political scientists. Tracking the historical occurrences and comparing them to the contemporary global developments reveals a host of contradictions and parallels in the ever dynamic international stage. Due to the complex international system, many scholars have attempted to develop theories that would help explain the unfolding and functioning of the international relations. Many of these theories have failed with only a few regarded as relevant. Some of these accepted theories include realism and liberalism theories of international relations. This paper discusses realism and liberalism, compares realism with liberalism, and examine the gaps and strengths of each theory concerning the contemporary global environment. 

It is imperative to assess the critical background and arguments of these theories to foster the understanding of these theories. This will aid in the proper application of the theories in the currents events.

To begin with, realism theory draws its roots from the classical period in Europe that was characterised by regular occurrences of inter-state conflicts, widespread poverty, and little hope for betterment (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2017). Violence was perceived as a logical means of settling disputes and underscore either state or individualistic goals. It is under these circumstances of the classical Europe that renowned philosophers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes portrayed the world in such a pessimistic manner that gave no room for a peaceful future. Although they lived in different places and times, Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote in the same tone. Their ideas resonate with those of the other realists; believing in the evil and selfish human nature, all-time military preparedness, and that it was only through the power balance in the global scale that could ensure peaceful cooperation between nations.  

It is through these philosophers, Machiavelli and Hobbes, and other followers who supported the same ideology that realism was developed. Major features of realism as a theory in international relations include the belief in the importance of state power and military power, evil human nature, and anarchy (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2017). The basic assumptions underlying this school of thought is that nations only self interest in their relation with another which is dependent on a self-help system; thus cooperation is not an attainable aim for any country. Every state should, as a result, seek individual benefit. Since the theory considers states as acting in their own interests, it places the state as the central focus and the major player in the theory.

Furthermore, the theory postulates that the evil nature of human and the self-help acts of states births the need for states to consolidate military power, even more than economic power (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2017). This leads to another assumption of the theory: the importance of the military power. Considering the world as anarchist and believing in the relative gains, the realism theory posits that some states benefit from their relation more than the others. This implies that from a realist perspective, it is not worth settling for an exchange that has the other player gaining more as this would lead to the weakening of the state-putting it in a risky position. The primary points of realism theory are the importance of state power, the brutal nature of humans, and the world’s anarchical state (Cohn, 2016). In short, rather than looking to change the world, realism encourages the view that world should be seen as what it is and that man should work towards maximising best outcomes that fulfil own interests.

The alternative theory that has also gained worldwide acceptance, liberalism, have a very different standpoint from the realist views. Liberals despise the pessimism inherent in the realists' arguments and see a possibility of the world changing into a peaceful place. The idea of the liberalism started during the Enlightenment period in Europe that brought optimism and a break from the dark past (Blanton " Kegley, 2016). Major pioneers of liberalism include Kant and Rousseau who rejected the claim by realists that human nature was evil. Liberals, instead, argued that human beings are cooperative and capable of peacefully negotiate to achieve solutions. Therefore, the theory argues that war is not a logical step to a disagreement or conflict; but a means to offer proper tools for states and individuals to reach a peaceful and mutually-benefiting resolution to a conflict. Liberalism is founded on the assumption that states believe in progress and considers nations, individuals and international institutions as the key players in the international relations (Blanton " Kegley, 2016). The theory also believes in the unity and cooperation of humankind and is thus against military power. The theory, instead, believes in institutionalized peace and international institutions. According to liberals, therefore, using military power is never justified. Another major assumption of liberalism is the belief in absolute gains which posits that all the participants in the international relation gain from their relation. The theory argues that it is of no use objecting involvement of a state in a relationship where the other state gains more as such an exchange would still make the state better off, even if not in equal measure. Unlike the realists who support the zero-sum game, the liberals do not believe in the zero-sum game in the international relations. The theory states that in case of a conflict, no single party incurs a complete loss as the judicial system could be used to resolve the conflict with both parties could agree on benefitting each other (Blanton " Kegley, 2016).

As already mentioned, liberalists believe in cooperation that yields mutual gains. This concept is accompanied by the belief in strong international institutions responsible for providing the states with tools for resolving conflicts, and creating a complex global interdependence that strengthens the bond between countries and in the process ensure sustained peaceful relations (Blanton " Kegley, 2016). Emphasis on the role of international institutions set by the theory limits the role of the state as stated in the realists’ argument. The importance attached to the international institutions, the resulting transnational bonds and the interdependence of nations mark the key characteristics of the liberal ideology.

Whereas the realists hold that military readiness and power, and the balance of power ensures the prevalence of peace in the world, the liberals argue otherwise. Liberalists portend that state peace or world peace cannot be achieved through the power and military control. Liberals suggest that the only way of ensuring peace in the world is through democratisation and judicial system (Blanton " Kegley, 2016). Through democratisation, citizens are granted the individual freedom and the right to voice their concerns relating to the actions of the state and therefore ensure peace within the state. Further, the liberals hold the view that global peace could be achieved through the establishment of international laws enforced by international institutions (Cohn, 2016).

Another means of attaining peace in the world, according to the liberals, is through the promotion of the free international trade and the opening of the markets. This has come to be known as the liberalisation of the markets. Adam Smith was one of the pioneers of this idea and argued that leaving the markets “untouched” (implying removal of all the trade barriers and government control of the markets) would lead to most beneficial results orchestrated through the power of the “invisible hand.” Adam Smith referred to this state as “laissez-faire” which a French word is meaning free (Cohn, 2016). Several decades after Adam Smith’s advocacy, there developed a new version of liberalism, neo-liberalism, which majorly concentrated on the international economy with a minimal role of the states.

The background of liberalism and realism and the arguments advanced by both schools of thought reveal a contradiction of the theories. The two theories use different approaches in attempting to explain and understand the world and how it functions. Despite the glaring contradictions, both theories have justified their credibility and relevance over the years with various historical developments. It is also observable that both theories have gaps thus neither one can be claimed to be satisfactory in explaining all the major world historical events entirely. For instance, realists have failed to offer an explanation to the waning significance of the transnational connections, a gradually developing of a more borderless world. Also, it was not until the development of the neo-liberalist ideology that realists paid attention to the significance of the increasing number of the international organisations and institutions (Cohn, 2016).

On the other hand, liberalists while providing explanations to the growing number of international institutions, fail to address issues such as the increasing poverty, increasing cases of conflicts despite the presence of the many peace-making international institutions and organisations and the growing inequality in the world (Cohn, 2016). Either way, these two theories provide strong arguments in explaining the developments in world history and contemporary occurrences. Often the case, the liberalists and the realists have failed to give in to the opposing school of thought in explaining events.

The controversy surrounding the debate on which school of thought best describes the contemporary inter-state relations and global politics is still going on. The latest debate has been focused on two theories- realism and liberalism. While realism has been argued to have presented a clearer and more accurate explanation of the world events in the 20th century, this essay argues that liberalism is more accurate in its understanding and explanation of the world when it comes to contemporary issues.

The first observation that supports liberalism is the many and the increasing number of international institutions and organisations. These organisations range from regulations of international trade (exemplified by World Trade Organization (WTO)) to peace-keeping and conflict resolution (exemplified by the United Nations (UN)), to the international humanitarian aid (exemplified by World Vision),), among many other such institutions. These organisations are ideal examples of transnational unifications that are borderless and play a critical role in the international stage. This disapproves of the realists' belief that the state is the most crucial player in the international system. The presence of these organisations emphasises that there are other players in the global arena that plays equal or even greater roles than the state (Blanton " Kegley, 2016). These organisations are formed out of a belief in progress and changing the world for the better through the consolidated efforts. Thus human nature cannot be said to be evil. There are many people who come together and commit their lives to serve and helping others through the many foundations world over.

Another evidence of the relevance of liberalism is the reduction in the incidences of inter-state conflicts and the increasing cases of intrastate conflicts. While intrastate conflicts are a proof of the evils man is capable of, it also shows that a state is not a central factor in the contemporary world. More important than being a part of the state, human beings are bound by common goals, society, religion, among other things. Moreover, it is evident from such incidences that the states are not capable of controlling the happenings within themselves. Similar cases were common in the 1990s; such as Yugoslavia’s collapse, Somalia and Rwanda genocide (O’brien " Williams, 2013). In the present time, the case of Syria offers a classic example of the incapability of the state to control what is happening within it.

Another important point that liberalists develop from these wars is that of the people from all over the world and organizations that come to help the countries torn by wars. These organizations offer assistance ranging from peace-keeping to conflict resolution and developmental and humanitarian aid after the conflict. The individuals who come to help others in the conflicting nations do not only commit themselves to their jobs but are also exposed to the risk of losing their lives. Such selfless acts provide further evidence that human nature is not necessarily evil, even though global peace is not achieved. Therefore, not only is progress possible but also achievable.

The undeniable growth of democracy in the modern times is another proof that liberalism better explains the contemporary world order. More states are continuing to embrace democracy and implement democratic means in state governance. Most of the hitherto Soviet states have embraced democratic ways and have been successful in transforming their political systems and others such as Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have joined the European Union (EU). Besides, liberals have embraced the democratic peace thesis which portends that there is no possibility of democratic states to go to war against each other (O’brien " Williams, 2013). This assertion has been proven by the fact that the Western world (majorly democratic countries) have not gone to war or even experienced major conflicts since the Second World War. 

To sum up, while both liberalism and realism schools of thought provide strong and credible arguments in explaining the occurrences in the international arena and the interaction between states, it is imperative that one understands the dynamism of the global environment. The essay concludes that realism offered a more accurate explanation of events that unfolded in the twentieth century than did liberalism, including the World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. However, an assessment of the contemporary developments reveals that the political environment of the world has undergone a transformation. This change has rendered realism incapable of explaining current events while liberalism has emerged as a more precise explainer of the modern global affairs. This does not imply that realism is entirely ignored nor does it suggest the inability of realism to offer a better explanation of events in the future. Instead, realism offers invaluable lessons for humanity, and with the constant changes in the world affairs, man can only wait to see it will dominate.


Baylis, J., Smith, S. and Owens, P. eds., 2017. The globalization of world politics: an introduction to international relations. Oxford University Press.

Blanton, S.L. and Kegley, C.W., 2016. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 2016-2017. Cengage Learning.

Cohn, T.H., 2016. Global political economy: Theory and practice. Routledge.

O'Brien, R. and Williams, M., 2013. Global political economy: Evolution and dynamics. Macmillan.

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