Comparison between Theories: Realism vs. Liberalism Research Paper

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer

Overview of realism and liberalism

Liberalism and realism are among the theories that are commonly used in political science in explaining the relations between players in the international political scene. The assumptions of the two theories contradict each other.

While realism is taken to portray pessimism in the relations between states in the international system, liberalism depicts optimism and positivism in as far as the relations and goals of states in the international system are concerned. Realism depicts competition in the relations between states.

According to the proponents of realism, every action in the relation between states is guided by the urge to pursue and promote the interests of a given nation state. Nation states act to safeguard their interest, which implies that the action of any state is geared towards safeguarding the interest of that state.

They care less about the interests of other nation states. On the other hand, liberalism depicts a change in the international scene that aims to enhance interaction between nation states in various aspects of development. Liberalism depicts optimism in the domestic and international affairs.

Liberalism as a philosophy in political economics focuses on the change in policies and legislation in order to promote the development of nation states. Liberalism concerns the search for a means of embracing freedom and openness in the participation of nations in political, social and economic affairs.

Liberalism, realism and the concept of power

There exist a substantial number of theories that seek to explore the concept of power in domestic and international relations. Power is one of the key concepts that dictate the relation between states on the international system.

Liberalism and realism are two key theories that depict two pictures that coexist, yet they are different in theory. Realism and liberalism differ in the manner in which they depict power in the relation between actors on the domestic and international scene.

One critical thing about realism and liberalism is that they confide and believe in the need for power by actors Lukes (2005). However, there is a difference in the manner in which the two theories expresses the channels of pursuing power by the actors.

Realism and the comprehension of power

According to Wechsler (2010), realism is a theory that is two dimensional. The theory was advanced in the mid of the 20th century by Hans Morgenthau. The development period of this theory is critical to understanding the dimension of the theory in explaining the concept of power. The theory was developed at a time when the world was witnessing a vacuum in the balance of power, which was created by the Second World War.

Realism can be comprehended from the 19th century European politics where power was one of the main issues that brought about conflict between European nations. The 19th century Europe was characterized by numerous wars and territorial conquests.

These developments entered the 20th century and developed through the mid of the 20th century. The balance of power was the key center of friction between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war. The current political developments in international relations, therefore, cannot be separated from the concept of power (Lukes, 2005).

Realism, which is confounded on the antecedents of power by the states, is quite pessimistic when it comes to the issue of power modalities by states. This is backed by the contemporary developments in the international political economy, where each actor uses various tools to consolidate power. Realism believes that power is strongly founded in military dominance of a given state over other states.

The acquisition, exercise and consolidation of military power is the main goal of states, thus most of the actions in relations between states justify the search for power and the need to increase power of states.

According to realism, the recent wars that have been waged by the United States on other states, for example the US war on Iraq and the US war in Afghanistan are forms of actions that portray power through military dominance (Lukes, 2005).

The struggle for power and subsequently war are brought about by the search for power, which is the core dilemma of realism. There are a number of developments that have emerged in international politics, which seem to draw away the linear view about the interest of states. Global politics can no longer be solely explained by basing on a single attribute of power as opined by the proponents of realism (Williams, 2006).

Realistic schools of thought that seek to broaden the attributes of power in international politics include neo-realism, which tries to depict the international system as an interactive system where power is not solely based on military dominance as opined by the realism school of thinkers.

However, the status of anarchy as opined by realists cannot be completely wished away in as far as sovereignty continues to be one of the main pillars that define a state. It is argued that a substantial number of realists have already ascended to the assumption that the status of anarchy is a factor that cannot be ignored in the relations between states (Jackson & Sørensen, 2007).

Liberalism and the comprehension of power

On the other hand, liberalists approach the concept of power from an optimistic point of view. They explain power in terms of the diverse activities that takes place in the interaction among states. Unlike the scope with which power is comprehended by realists, liberalism expands the scale of comprehension of power.

According to the liberalists, power includes other aspects like trade, cultural interaction and cooperate advancements, among numerous other interactions. States obtain power through other means rather than military dominance. Liberalism holds the assumption that power is a broader concept, thus it cannot be based on limited focus as exhibited by realists (Jackson & Sørensen, 2007).

According to liberalism, the power is embedded in what is referred to as the loci of power. This implies that power is gained from different sources and not just only military action. Liberalism embraces openness in the relations between states, which gives states a chance to prosper in the social and economic realms. Nation states today compete in other fields apart from military power.

This is spearheaded by the efforts of governments and international bodies, which see the creation of a favorable environment for the advancement of economic and social interaction. There is an increase in social and economic cooperation between states today. This cooperation opens most states to advancement in the social and economic realms, thereby implying power for states (Jackson & Sørensen, 2007).

A substantial number of countries in the world today have gained power through the pursuance of economic goals. Such countries are said to have taken advantage of the open international markets to advance trade. Examples of such countries are found in the South East Asian region. The basis of the power of these countries is the ability to advance in trade and economics.

It can, therefore, be said that there is an agreement on the issue of the exercise of power between the realism and liberalism. However, the difference comes out in the manner in which each theory expresses the pursuance of power of nation states (D’Anieri, 2012).

Realism, liberalism and the international system

The international system is best understood through the exploration of the systems theory. According to this theory, the international system is comprised of actors; states. The interaction between states is controlled by the interests of states.

Both realists and liberalists present their arguments concerning the nature of the relations that take place in the international systems. Such actions are fostered by the interests of states and the approach that is taken by each state when relating to other states in the international system.

Realism and the comprehension of the international system

Realism embraces anarchism in as far as the definition of the international system is concerned. The main actors in the international system are states. Realists believe that the states are independent actors, which act to protect their interests through the application of rationality. As they interact, each state seeks to attain a survival position.

This justifies the question of interest in the relations between states in the international system (Waltz, 2000). The role of other players is drawn away by realists. However, the contemporary theoretical development depicts the advancement of the complex systems theory, which appreciates the existence of other actors in the international system.

While other players are drawn into the international system, they do not depict a significant change in the comprehension of the international system by realists. Realists believe that the other actors in the international system, in as much as they claim to be independent, act to safeguard and promote the interests of states in the international system.

The development of other actors like the international bodies is done by states. States are guided by interests when fostering the establishment of international organizations. An example is the United Nations, which is often seen by a substantial number of anti-western states as a tool for promoting the interests of the United States and other western allies (Harrison, 2013).

Liberalism and the comprehension of the international system

When it comes to the concept of the international system, liberalism seems to differ with realism in terms of what is seen to be the actors in the international system. According to liberalism, the international system is comprised of a large number of actors, thus nation states are just actors in the international system (Harrison, 2013).

Liberalism attempts to bring out the functional differentiation of the actors in the international system. Value is given to each actor in the international system. This differs with realism, which attributes the functions of the non-state actors to the influence that is drawn from the states. One thing that can be noted in the contemporary international system is that the non-state actors are quite critical in the international system (Sørensen, 2006).

Examples are the World Organization, which plays a critical role in liberating the global trading environment. The role of a body like the United Nations Organization can no longer be overemphasized (Harrison, 2013).

However, the issue of power and control in the international system is the main undoing factor in the advancement of liberalism arguments. The question that is often asked concerns the level at which the international actors can be detached from the states.

It is evident that power and control of most of the non-state actors is controlled by states. For instance, approximately one-third of the total UN’s budget is financed by the United States. This implies the influence of the US on the organization (Ekeli, 2012).


D’Anieri, P. J. (2012). International politics: Power and purpose in global affairs. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Ekeli, K. S. (2012). Liberalism and permissible suppression of illiberal ideas. Inquiry, 55(2), 71-193.

Harrison, E. (2013). Post-Cold War international system. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jackson, R. H., & Sørensen, G. (2007). Introduction to international relations: Theories and approaches. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lukes, S. (2005). Power and the battle for hearts and Minds. Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 33(3), 477-493.

Sørensen, G. (2006). Liberalism of restraint and liberalism of imposition: Liberal values and world order in the new millennium.” International Relations, 20(3), 251-272.

Waltz, K. N. (2000). Structural Realism after the Cold War. International Security, 25(1), 5-41.

Wechsler, W. A. (2010). Clausewitz in space rethinking realism in the 21st century. McGill University (Canada). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 507. Web.

Williams, M. C. (2006). The realist tradition and the limits of international relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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