“It is Liberalism, not Realism that offers a more realistic understanding of contemporary international relations” Essay
The study of international relations is a competition between different theoretical perspectives and policymakers and practitioners in international affairs who often dismiss these theories with compelling reason1. One cannot, however, divorce the inescapable connection between the abstract world of theory and the reality they face in the world.
Theories in international relations are necessary in order to understand the enormous amount of information that we receive daily. Policymakers have to rely on their own ideas about how the world works and in order to organize this information and ideas in order to make sound policies, they have to use principles.
The recent example is the ascent of China in the world arena fueled by its influence and ambition that is likely to upset the global balance of power. The question many policymakers are grappling with is how to respond to China.
Many viewpoints have been put forward, with some saying that its behavior will be modified by the spread of democratic principles while others maintain that relations between this country and other nations of the world will be formed on the basis of culture and identity2.
The question that remains in the minds of scholars and practitioners of international relations is whether China will regard itself as an ordinary member of the world community or will see itself as a special member who deserves exceptional treatment and how will the rest of the world treat it.
A realist will look at international affairs as a competition and conflict of nations as actors fight for their own security, pursue national interests and power.
Liberalism, however, promotes several ways of dealing with conflict tendencies, which are democratic peace, cooperation, free commerce and economic interdependence3. In view of this, it is liberalism, not realism that offers more realistic understanding of contemporary international relations.
Realism in international relations
Realism is based on several approaches, which originated from Thucydides between 460-411 B.C.E, who thought of politics as involving moral questions.
In regard to relations among states which power was critical, Thucydides stated that they can be guided by norms of justice, ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ and ‘Melian Dialogue’ portrays partial accounts of armed conflict between Athens and Sparta and opposing speeches regarding an issue4.
It is from these works that realism is expressed and which continued to inspire theorists such as Hobbes, and modern day scholars of international relations.
The forty year Cold War period, realism guided most of the international relations, but this changed with the collapse of socialism to pave the way for a new system where international cooperation, international norms and institutions gained a lot of acceptance5.
This was referred to by US President Bush Sr as the “New World Order” where the bi-polar Cold War order was replaced by consensus among major powers that relations between nations be based on international norms, principles of international law and human rights.
This was seen by some critics as a framework in which US as the world superpower will advance its national interests and preserves its power in the international system. However, after the cold War, many non-American voices have become prominent6.
Realists believe that anarchy prevails in the international system, and this is why the world is always in conflicts. This is shown by states wanting to maximize their power and security, and since there is no international organization to enforce order and define its interests, each country has to secure its boarders, which is generally a self help system.
This necessitates the building up of military capabilities and if necessary the use of military force to maintain security and power. Realists also think of human nature as defining international relations7. What this means is that, human beings being egoistic and self interested as they are, will let self interest override the morality.
This is demonstrated by Thyucydides’ History where Athens confirms that people will not turn away from chances of enrichment presented by superior strengths.
Further, realists view international politics as lacking in morality which lead them to claiming there is no chance of morality in international relations8.
This assumption leads realists to believe that there exists strain in the demand of morality, and the needs for a thriving political action and thus morality is only used when justifying the actions of a state against another9.
This assumption is based on the Melian Dialogue where the Athenian envoys clearly states that decisions about justice only apply when both parties are under equal obligation in the force of the law, but when one party is stronger than the other it gets as much s it can and the weaker one has no choice but to accept the outcomes10.
This simply means justice is not served in international affairs since the stronger will always dominate the weaker.
Liberalism in international relations
Liberalism is derived from a variety of theories that stand to challenge political realism in international affairs. Some liberal schools of thought believe economic interdependence discourages states from applying force to each other since this threatens their prosperity. Another school of thought, whom President Woodrow Wilson falls into states that democracy in the world would bring peace.
This does not mean that democracies do not fight just like authoritarian states, but they rarely if ever, fight among themselves11. Different scholars such as Michael Doyle and Bruce Russel have given explanations in support of this with the common one arguing that democracies hold rules of compromise that do not allow use of force against groups holding the same principles.
The most modern of these believes that international institutions such as International Monetary Fund, Arab League, European Union, World Bank and International Energy Agency will be able to neutralize the selfish behavior of states by encouraging them to sacrifice short term gains to the greater benefits of a lasting cooperation12.
According to13, such institutions to be realized, members must share common values and down the line greater cooperation is achieved. Another thought on the international institution in international relations is that they can be used as tools governments can use to address specific problems. This is through information sharing on their behavior on these issues as agreed commitments.
This, way members are able to pressure non-conformists to act to the agreed goals. One common thought the liberal scholars agree on is that states entrenched in domestic and international civil society which determinedly limit their actions at both fonts.
Comparison of liberalism and realism
The focus of Realism in state power, national interests and unitary decision making is thought to dominate western politics since the Renaissance14. This focus is thought by even critics as still being central to the international political thought of the West which together with its endurance, thriftiness and appeal to policy makers are things that put this theory into a privileged position15.
The real scientific reason for this privilege is its well articulated theoretical approach. This, however, does not prevent it from being criticized persistently from all angles.
The most critical of this is from the liberal front are Immanuel Kant, John Stuart among others who hold such thoughts as democracies are more specific that other forms of governments; unequal distribution of power in a state and among states is a motivation for international conflicts; economic interdependence among states is a strong motivation for peace and cooperation, and international law creates a space for international accommodation among others.
All these thoughts, though held as independent critics to realism, have liberal theory associations.
Another assumption of liberalism which gives it more privilege than realism is the behaviors of states which mirrors the nature and configuration of state preferences and, therefore, define the levels of international conflict and cooperation16.
In addition, convergent state preferences result in interstate cooperation while divergent preferences result in conflicts17. This in essence means that, for a liberal state, its purposes are the most important in the world politics as compared to its power and what it gets will determine its actions. Though this is where Realists criticize liberal theory most, Waltz says that states do determine what they can get.
Both realist and liberals agree that states always have purpose and events in world politics are viewed in two stages18. In the first stage, states define their preferences and then they position themselves strategically to engage with others either through negotiation, coercion, or institutional decision making. The difference in both theories lies in the fact that the two groups emphasize different things in the two steps.
For realists, focus is given to the international bargaining which excludes changing state preferences from theoretical analysis and treats them as irrelevant or secondary. Realists, therefore, formulate their strategy and goals in light of external constraints in terms of military might or economic power and in modern days, international institutions, uncertainty, and cost of bargaining among other concerns.
Liberals, on the other hand, stress on variation of pre-strategic purposes of the state in accordance to domestic and international relationships with the civil society as the basic policy guiding behavior and international diplomacy. This simply means that it is an outcome not means that matter.
On this point, liberals are able to determine the outcomes of interstate bargaining and domestic preference formation as systematic outcomes are borne of interaction of state preferences, but not because of the distribution of bargaining resources as it’s the case in realism in which case it is hard to predict outcomes.
In the modern world where globalization has converted the world into a global village, liberal international relations are the most applicable19. Liberalisms emphasizes free trade where the benefits are realized by both sides and entire societies benefit since societies cannot efficiently produce all goods and services they need at home, but can be obtained abroad20.
Another argument is that, it is naïve to imagine that given a choice between war and trade, leaders will prefer benefits of trade than those of war, states are likely to cooperate more in trade than engage in war in the modern world21. This is demonstrated by the example of United States, Europe and Japan after World War II who are now engaged in deep economic ties which rules out any possibility of war among them22.
Trade has also fostered the growth of democracy in the world23. It is argued that economic interdependence in the modern world will force states to adopt common policies, which will open the way for procedures, for countries to open discussions and coordinate actions that traditionally have been thought of as domestic concerns24.
The international relations in the contemporary world should also be looked at from the liberal point of view in that liberals look at foreign policy preference of states as being directly influenced by recognized institutions that connect the state to the society25. These institutions include political parties, electoral systems and bureaucracies.
Though precise representation of social interests in politics has not always been achieved, and even in societies that have highly representative institutions have not been able to entirely avoid biases in governmental decision making. The more this accuracy is achieved the individual preferences are taken into account, the less likely the government will aggravate interstate conflicts26.
One liberalist, William Godwin, states that war only benefits few at the expense of the majority and this small group will make the majority incur the costs; therefore, they may not be undertaken in the modern world which is more democratic than ever than those of other types of regimes.
Liberals also argue that imperfect representation of social interests in the state policy is a catalyst for war27. In order for governments to provoke war, they need a purpose. If there is an “aggressor” with an agenda that does not sit well with this state or does not conform to “status quo”, a war is likely to break. In this situation, this conflict is highly unlikely to benefit the entire society but, an elitist class within this state.
If a wide range of social interests are taken into account, the situation for war is impossible. Care should be taken here because liberals do not suggest that conflict of interests is absent in international relations, but they are unlikely to go the war path because it is costly to all.
This is the reason Kant forecasts that states with representative institutions, checks and balances, individual rights and respect for the rule of law would not provoke war with another28.
The study of international relations is a competition of different theoretical perspectives, however, liberalism, not realism that offers more realistic understanding of contemporary international relations.
Realism looks at international affairs as a competition and conflict of nations as actors fight for their own security, pursue national interests and power, while liberalism promotes several ways of dealing with conflict tendencies, which are democratic peace, cooperation, free commerce and economic interdependence.
Realism was introduced by Thucydides several thousand years ago, and, during the forty years of Cold War, it guided most of international relations.
After the collapse, of socialism, leaders and liberal scholars of international relations joined US president Bush Sr in suggesting that a “New World Order” was born where relations between nations will be guided by international norms, principles, international law and human rights.
In this new way, of relating with each other nations suggestions by realists that anarchy prevails in the world and that international politics lacks morality were challenged. Generally liberal views of international relations are optimistic in nature as opposed to realism and; therefore, international relations should be looked at from this viewpoint.
Baldwin, D, Neorealism and neoliberalism, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993.
Bluth, C, Norms and international relations: the anachronistic nature of neo realist approaches, University of Leeds, Leeds, 2004.
Booth, S & Zalewski, M, International theory: positivism and beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.
Carlsnaes, W & Simmons, B, Handbook of international relations, SAGE, Washington, 2002.
Clinton, D, The realist tradition and contemporary international relations. LSU Press, New York, 2007.
Held, D. & Mepham, Progressive foreign policy: new directions for UK, Polity, London, 2007.
Jackson, R. & Sorensen, G, Introduction to international relations. Oxford University Press, oxford, 1999.
Keohane, R, International institutions and state power: essays in international relations theory, Westview Press, Boulder, 1997.
Lebow, R. & Kappen, T, International relations theory and the end of the cold War, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996.
Moravcsik, A, Liberalism and international relations theory, Harvard University, Massachusetts, 2006.
Rosenburg, J,The empire of civil society: a critique of the realist theory of international relations, Verso, London, 1994.
Walt, S, ‘International relations: one world, many theories’, Foreign Policy, Vol. 21, No. 7, 1998, pp. 239-249.
Williams, M, The relist tradition and the limits of international relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.
1 Keohane, R, International institutions and state power: essays in international relations theory, Westview Press, Boulder, 1997, p. 78.
2 Jackson, R. & Sorensen, G, Introduction to international relations. Oxford University Press, oxford, 1999, p. 25.
3 Baldwin, D, Neorealism and neoliberalism, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993 p. 46.
4 Booth, S & Zalewski, M, International theory: positivism and beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 56.
5 Bluth, C, Norms and international relations: the anachronistic nature of neo realist approaches, University of Leeds, Leeds, 2004, p. 56.
6 Clinton, D, The realist tradition and contemporary international relations. LSU Press, New York, 2007, p. 67.
7 Rosenburg, J,The empire of civil society: a critique of the realist theory of international relations, Verso, London, 1994, p. 34.
8 Clinton, p. 37.
9 Walt, S, ‘International relations: one world, many theories’, Foreign Policy, Vol. 21, No. 7, 1998, pp. 240.
10 Clinton, p. 37
11. Keohane, p. 67.
12 Carlsnaes, W & Simmons, B, Handbook of international relations, SAGE, Washington, 2002, p. 56.
13 Jackson & Sorensen, p. 167.
14 Bluth, p. 49.
15 Clinton, p. 78.
16 Moravcsik, A, Liberalism and international relations theory, Havard University, Massachusetts, 2006, p. 87.
17 Moravcsik, p. 88.
18 Lebow, R. & Kappen, T, International relations theory and the end of the cold War, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996, p. 245.
19 Held, D. & Mepham, Progressive foreign policy: new directions for UK, Polity, London, 2007, p. 78.
20 Williams, M, The relist tradition and the limits of international relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, p. 67.
21 Walt, p. 231.
22 Held & Mepham, p. 59.
23 Moravcsik, p. 95.
24 Carlsnaes & Simmons, p. 98.
25 Jackson & Sorensen, p. 146.
26 Moravcsik 2006, p. 80.
27 Moravcsik, p. 81.
28 Carlsnaes & Simmons, p. 147.
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