The Causes of War: Realism and Liberalism

War results from the perceived opposition of values, interests, and needs. Both realism and liberal perspectives explain the state of conflict together with its resolution (Mac Ginty and Richmond 2013, p.769). Realism is a view of global politics that emphasizes on conflictual and competitive dimensions of war. Nations are thus the principal actors; they secure themselves, follow their interests and, often strives for power. However, realists emphasize on self-interest and power thereby making them skeptics according to the relevance of ethics in international relation (Elma and Jensen 2017, p.17). Liberalism offers freedom to individuals because it stipulates that human nature is good. The core ideas of liberalism emphasize on human rights, individualism, universality, right for equal treatment and social action freedoms (Islam 2018, p.50). Consequently, the concept of representative government erupts from liberalism together with the significance of possessing private properties without political interference. Hence, the people’s sovereign government represents the liberal nation. Realists and liberal approaches contrast in their explanation of causes of war and peace.

Contrasts on the Causes of War

View about Independent Nations

Realist approach believes that anarchy is apparent in human nature, are self-centered and have complications in working collectively for the benefits of the entire humankind (Michelle 2017, p. 6). Contrary, the standpoint of liberalists is that humanity is selfless and there are reason and hope in working collectively and stipulates that harmony can be realized it is pursued from the principles of freedom. The contrast is particularly evident in the perception of international conflict. Realists believe that the state of a global system is full of anarchy, nation's works mainly in pursuing their specific interests and that struggle must exist as nations are struggling to balance their power with the advanced ones. For instance, due to collaboration between South Korea and the United States, North Korea have advanced its military capabilities with the objective of securing itself in case there is war break up (Khan 2013, p. 241). In contrast, liberalists emphasize on pacifism and stipulate that international cooperation is likely if nations maintain peace.

Perceptions about Economic Interests

Opposition in pursuit of economic goals can make nations break into conflict. According to the liberalists, the system of the global trade is interdependent where countries efficiently coordinate with each other (Farrell and Newman 2014, p. 336).  The liberalists also maintain that positive summation game of the international trade system benefits the interacting countries. Also, some countries' economy grows at a higher rate than other nations due to their absolute and competitive advantage. The countries which do not possess similar competitive advantages can also economically advance but requires massive domestic costs. Some of the domestic costs include temporary inflation, diminishing political support, social backlash and unemployment. In contrast, the perspective of the realists is that the system of the global trade is a zero summation where the gain of a nation associates with a loss in another country. Also, realists believe that nations involve into conflict and anarchy in pursuit of power balance (Michelle 2017, p. 7). It is evident that after the Second World War, Germany withdrew much of its trade barriers with aims of balancing with the economy of Britain.

Perceptions about War Initiators

There must be a point from which lies the inception of war. According to the realists, nations are the major actors in the international platform (Vaishnav and Choucri 2013, p.570).  Realists stipulate that market for firms are not natural and hence, nations should strive to penetrate to other countries in international dealings. On the other hands, Liberalists offers freedom for individual needs by stipulating that if individuals are left on their own, they will maximize their efforts in looking for general peace to humanity regardless of their origins. Consequently, liberalists claim that international interference has adverse impacts and advocates for the need of offering independence to countries so that they can govern themselves according to their national strategies (Farrell and Newman 2014, p. 340). Hence, it is therefore evident that there is a difference in standpoints of the two approaches about the initiators of war where realists blame the nations whereas liberalists justifying them.

Opinions about International Market Relations

Deteriorating international trade conditions are likely to incubate war and conflict. According to realists, countries enter into international trade with a primary focus of reaping maximum benefits to its citizens (Nielsen and Simmons 2015, p.197). Consequently, the activities of independent nations, therefore, control the international market conditions. Also, the political agendas reflect the economic activities. Therefore, chances of international conflict increase in case there is intervention from another country. Besides, the nature of the global system reflects the interests of the most advanced countries where the power struggles to dominate the market. Contrary, liberalists maintain that further involvement of countries in the international markets worsens the already unfavorable global market conditions (Islam 2018, p.51). According to liberalists, nations that sustain policies on free trade shun individualistic motives thereby minimizing chances of conflict (Islam 2018, p.51). For instance, the liberal European countries did not join war during the Second World War. Liberalists claim that market reforms are necessary until perfection is reached in an international market.

Perception of Authority in International Relations

            Absence or incompetence of international regulatory institutions is likely to lead to war and conflict. Realists claim that the failure of higher institutions such as United Nations to regulate international wars is to blame for global conflicts (Nielsen and Simmons 2015, p.197). Consequently, realists advocates for power politics as a natural concept of international sustenance, with heavy reliance on a nation's armies, alliances, navies and secret diplomacy. Contrary, liberalists believe that the presence of foreign regulation; authorities minimize outbreaks of war and thus acts as a bonding links for peace and stability (Islam 2018, p.51). Thus, the connection between conservatisms policies and capitalisms helps in minimizing chances of war. Liberalists claim that international regulatory bodies are effective in minimizing war and, the reason why there is prolonged conflict is that of insufficiency of these institutions (Clackson 2011, p. 11). According to liberalists, if the world would empower international regulation organization, they would successfully minimize war through the promotion of peace, disarmament, and cooperation (Clackson 2011, p. 9). It is therefore apparent that realists blame international regulation institutions while the liberalists vindicate them.

Contrasts on Causes of Peace

Perception about Cooperation

            Cooperation is necessary for restoring peace among conflicting nations and, minimizing chances of war for potential challengers. Liberalists believe that it is possible to establish cooperation between countries, for instance, cooperation enabled the Soviet Union and the United States to disarm themselves during the cold world war (Clackson 2011, p.14). Hence, if an interaction is possible among competing superpowers, liberalists claim that the same case can happen for any conflicting countries (Clackson 2011, p.14). In contrast, realists oppose the significance of cooperation by stipulating that there is no change in the global system. For instance, even after the end of the cold war, there were aggressive outbursts in Yugoslavia, the Middle East experienced constant war threats especially in Iraq war of 2003, thereby proving that there is no demonstrate for peace in the world (Clackson 2011, p.15). However, realists claim that peace would be automatic if there is cooperation in the global system.

Mechanism of Peace

            According to realists, the only means of avoiding war is through power balance. For instance, realists believe that the world is worried about anarchy, relative power maximization, war preparations and threats (Ozkan and Cetin, p.5). The factors and conditions necessitate for relative balances of power. Besides, realists assume that since the end of the Second World War, countries regardless of their size, history, location, leadership style, military strength and political orientation inclines on the same motive-to sustain world order through the rationality of power (Clackson 2011, p.15). On the other hand, the viewpoint of liberalists is opposite to that of realists. Liberalists maintain that there is an opportunity for peace in every possibility of war. Besides, liberalists maintain that the activities of a nation are determined by the aspirations of the citizens rather than the international system (Islam 2018, p.51). It is therefore apparent that realists and liberalists differ regarding to peace mechanisms.


            War arises when two divergent parties clash on their values, goals, and needs. Both realists and liberalists attempt to explain causes of war and peace in the international relations, but there is a sharp contrast in their opinions. Realists stipulate that war should exist while the liberalists maintain that chances of peace supersede those of conflict. Regarding their opinions about the causes of war, realists believe that nations must clash in pursuit of their national goals, in seeking financial stability, in establishing international markets and that the international regulation institutions are weak.  On the other hand, liberalists believe that peace is possible in the international relations and that there are few international regulation institutions. About perception about global peace, liberalists claim that cooperation and mechanisms of peace are stable while realists deny it.


Clackson, A., 2011. Conflict and Cooperation in International Relations. The University of HullLecturer.

Elman, C., " Jensen, M. A. (2018). Realism. In Security Studies (pp. 17-32). Routledge.

Farrell, H. and Newman, A.L., 2014. Domestic institutions beyond the nation-state: charting the new interdependence approach. World Politics, 66(2), pp.331-363.

Islam, J.S., 2018. A Critique of Liberal Universalism: The Concept of Secular Philosophical Grounding. Theoria, 65(154), pp.48-74.

Khan, Z.A., 2013. Indo-US civilian nuclear deal: The gainer and the loser. South Asian Studies, 28(1), p.241.

Mac Ginty, R. and Richmond, O.P., 2013. The local turn in peacebuilding: A critical agenda for peace. Third World Quarterly, 34(5), pp.763-783.

Mitchell, R., 2017. Sovereignty and Normative Conflict: International Legal Realism as a Theory of Uncertainty.

Nielsen, R.A. and Simmons, B.A., 2015. Rewards for Ratification: Payoffs for Participating in the International Human Rights Regime?. International Studies Quarterly, 59(2), pp.197-208.

Ozkan, E. and Cetin, H.C., 2016. The Realist and Liberal Positions on the Role of International Organizations in Maintaining World Order. European Scientific Journal, ESJ, 12(17).

Vaishnav, C., Choucri, N. and Clark, D., 2013. Cyber international relations as an integrated system. Environment Systems and Decisions, 33(4), pp.561-576.

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