This essay examines the differences between the two theories; Realism and Liberalism together with their latter-day variations of neo-realism and neo-liberalism to offer clarity on whether both theories are mutually exclusive or do they have many instances of congruence that makes their practical application more viable.
The essay first explains the characteristics of Realism and Liberalism to bring out the theoretical differences.
The essay then develops the practical application of the two theories through examples that explain why countries adopt such approaches. To explain the Realist approach, the example of the United States of America is taken and to explain the Liberalist approach the European Union is examined.
The essay next explains through examples that though there are differences, these are not mutually exclusive. To illustrate the congruencies, examples of former communist countries joining the European Union and America’s internal liberalistic policies coexisting with its external Realist policies are explained before summarising the entire essay in the conclusion.
Theories of International Relations such as Realism and Liberalism have many differences and yet in practice have numerous congruencies. Many in the Western world dismiss liberalism as being too permissive and a theory of the ‘weak’ and that Realism is the only theory that offers practical success in managing international relations. This essay examines the differences between the two theories; Realism and Liberalism together with their latter-day variations of neo-realism and neo-liberalism to offer clarity on whether both theories are mutually exclusive or do they have many instances of congruence that makes their practical application more viable.
The Realist school of international relations posits that the international system is always anarchic and that struggle, survival and national security of every state are the overriding national interests that determine the relations between countries (Baylis, Smith and Owens 5). Under such circumstances, the relative military and economic power which today is being defined in terms of ‘Comprehensive National Power’ (CNP) determine the ‘pecking order’ of nations in the global order. Concepts of morality, ethics as understood by humanists, therefore take a back seat and are viewed in relative terms when compared to the fundamental national interests of the state (Baylis, Smith and Owens 127). Thus leaders of nation-states have to take a differing yardstick on what constitutes ethical behavior irrespective of their personal beliefs to remain in consonance with stated national interests in which national survival is the supreme factor. Under such circumstances ‘self help’ (Baylis, Smith and Owens 103) is the best help that a nation can hope or aspire for. ‘Self help’ in such cases includes developing CNP in ways that best describe the interests of the nation even if it involves resort to use of force, turning a blind eye to ‘crimes against humanity’ if it does not directly or indirectly affect own state and propping up dictators and autocracies if it suits the purposes of the state. Neo-realists just extend the same argument with over-emphasis on security and military issues as the main factors determining a nation’s national security and foreign policy.
Liberalism, on the other hand, looks at states as bureaucratic organizations each having their “own interests” (Baylis, Smith and Owens 5). Liberalism emphasizes the importance of individual freedom and that every person of a country had equal rights, equal opportunity and enjoys basic freedoms such as the right to life, property, speech and a host of other freedoms that define the human condition. The words of John Locke that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (Locke 73) inspired the foundation of the American liberal state. Equal opportunities and freedom to conduct one’s own way of life also implies having a tolerance of other ideologies and religious beliefs as has been enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. federal constitution (Green 316) which has also been the case in all enlightened democracies the world over.
The differences between Realism and Liberalism are many but these are not necessarily opposite ends of the poles in international relations theory. Liberalism emphasizes the importance of the individual as against the overriding importance of the State as the realist theory propounds. Liberalism recognizes that the international system is anarchic but unlike the Realist theory which believes that power politics is the only answer to maintain peace and stability, it believes that while military power is valid, a “complex system of bargaining” (Baylis, Smith and Owens 5) between states can achieve international cooperation and produce peace and stability. Liberalism in its newer variations also called neo-realism flags issues such as universal human rights, climate change, global warming and global ecological balancing as more important than just global politics dominated by the exercise or the threat of the exercise of power as is propounded by the Realist school. Liberalism also believes that economic interdependence and cooperation are more conducive to peace and stability than ‘economic dominance’ as believed by the Realist school. Liberalism reasons that tend to dominate, to threaten either overtly or covertly as the Realist school preaches only leads to negative counter-reaction by states on the receiving end of such overtures. This in turn leads to greater turmoil and the so-called ‘balance of power’, which in any case is based on fear, is continuously challenged and thus brings greater instability. The Realist school scoffs at such ideas emphasizing that humans by nature are prone to violence and that such proneness to violence can only be controlled by coercive power. Issues such as global warming, climate change and global ecosystem for the Realist school are only important in as much as they can help further own national interests. For example, if it is not in the interest of the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol then it must be rejected (Roberts and Parks 3) irrespective of its legitimacy and international acceptance. If the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) 1982, which has over 159 signatories is seen to impinge on the American notions of ‘Freedom of the Seas’, then it must be challenged and not be allowed to pass the Senate (Winkler 1840). These are some examples of Realist opposition to liberalist formulations for the development of international mechanisms to regulate human life.
However, to deride Realism as evil would completely miss the mark that the practice of Realism has achieved significant success and progress for its practitioners. The U.S. has been a prime beneficiary of Realist policies. In the early years after its independence, the then-American leadership realistically combined the advantages of geographical isolation, vast natural resources and the need to build a nation rather than seek pre-eminence in the world. This isolationist policy gave rise to the Monroe Doctrine, which was a Realist articulation as it firmly affirmed the principle that America would stay away from interfering in European affairs and would tolerate no interference by European powers in the Americas. However, after the Second World War, with the threat of expanding Soviet power and the receding British Empire, it suited the only other Super Power, America to take over the mantle of the ‘leader of the free world’. America then rightly concluded that it was a matter of national survival, of world freedom, of democracy that the U.S. rise up to contain the Soviet Union. This again was a Realist articulation of foreign policy that led to the Cold War and endless proxy wars that dominated the next four decades. American Realist approach worked successfully as the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and the economic strain of having to match the U.S. led Western Bloc militarily. Had America used the Liberalist approach of ‘cooperation’ with respect to the Soviet Union, the world today would have probably become a unipolar entity where life and liberty would have been severely proscribed under Pax Sovietana.
Liberalism also has its fair share of successful practitioners. It is because of liberalism that the world today has a more equitable and just system of jurisprudence and laws governing civil society. The European Union is a typical example of what inspired Liberalism can do. Here was a continent wracked continuously with conflicts resulting in deaths of millions since settled life first began. The Continent through the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and the Modern Period right until the end of the Cold War had nation-states that held on dearly to their concepts of national interests. Those European countries could get over their dearly held concepts of national sovereignty and form a Union is a startling testimony of what Liberalism can achieve (Ingham 245). Even more startling is the fact that the former Communist countries have lined up to join the Union. Here some may say that it was adherence to a Realist strategy on part of the former communist countries to join up with the stronger more prosperous bloc, but even then such a strategy would only reinforce the importance of Liberalism and in such a reading, be termed as happy collusion of Liberalism with Realism. The U.S. is another example of how Liberalism and Realism co-exist almost harmoniously. American domestic laws and civil society interaction are based on a liberalist philosophy while its external interactions have for the most part been based on a Realist approach.
It, therefore, can be concluded that the theories of international relations; Realism and Liberalism together with their ‘neo’ variations have a grounding in practical application by nation-states across the world. While both theories have many differences, they have many congruencies. The prime practitioner of Realism, the U.S. has more often than not gained from its Realist policies, while the European Union, practitioners of Liberalism has gained tremendously from their liberalist policies.
Baylis, John, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Green, William Scott. “Religion and Society in America.” Neusner, Jacob. World Religions in America: An Introduction. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. 315-321.
Ingham, Mike. EU Expansion to the East: Prospects and Problems. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2003.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). Massachusetts: Digireads.com Publishing, 2005.
Roberts, J. Timmons and Bradley C Parks. A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
Winkler, Adam. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, Volume 4. NY: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000.