Which Security Policy Is Better: Realistic or Liberal?


In the contemporary political environment, preserving global peace and security is a critical concern. Civil wars, terrorism, and counterinsurgency require countries to apply effective policies for maintaining international security and preventing further escalation of conflicts. However, the approaches to global peace and security vary significantly between countries. Whereas the United States is considered to be a proponent of a realist approach to safety, the European Union advocates for a liberalist international security policy. Comparing the two methods and analyzing how they can be applied in different cases can help to outline the strengths and weaknesses of each. The present paper will seek to review relevant academic literature and analyze two separate cases related to international security in order to determine if the realist or liberal security policies are better suited for maintaining international peace and security.


The current geopolitical situation is rather complicated and presents many challenges for international security. On the one hand, terrorism is a persistent threat that is feared by people living in developed parts of the world, including Europe and America. Today, terrorism is an international threat, as there are global terrorist networks that can plan and execute attacks in different countries. For example, ISIS is known to recruit young people from Europe, Russia, Australia, China, and America, which makes it easier for the organization to carry out terror attacks in these countries (Cronin 2015). The ongoing War on Terror that was initiated by the United States following the events of 9/11 requires significant resources and thus has become part of the international security efforts over the past years.

On the other hand, internal conflicts also pose a threat to global peace and security and contribute to the complex geopolitical climate. The instability of the government in countries such as Iraq has prompted the intervention of foreign forces. Cronin (2015) explains that “as chaos erupted in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and occupation of 2003, the U.S. military grudgingly starting thinking about counterinsurgency, a subject that had fallen out of favor in the national security establishment after the Vietnam War” (pp. 94-95).

The Civil War in Syria also involved the interference of many Middle Eastern and European countries, as well as the United States. As foreign support was used by both sides of the conflict, some have speculated that insurgency and counterinsurgency in Syria have turned into a proxy war between the United States and Russia (Hughes 2014). Therefore, internal conflicts, such as civil wars threaten international peace and security due to the involvement of foreign powers. The need for effective global security policy in this geopolitical context is evident. Nevertheless, arguments about the nature of the policy are widespread because realist and liberal security policies both have strengths and weaknesses.

Literature Review

Realist Security Policies

At the core of the classical realist, ideology is the notion that human nature creates motives and opportunities for war. Society is perceived to be anarchic and in need of strong power, structures to preserve control (Ayoob 1997). However, this view does not always apply to the contemporary international context, as it ignores some of the critical domestic forces that affect peace and security (Ayoob 1997). Thus, the ideas of realism were deemed by many to be insufficient for ensuring global peace and security, and the concept of neorealism or structural realism was developed.

As opposed to classical realism, neorealism takes into account the systemic factors that influence the geopolitical environment. According to Waltz (2010), neorealism considers war to be a result of pressures and possibilities that exist in the international system. The actions of a particular country on the global stage are thus the result of its internal dispositions and the pressures that influence its geopolitical position.

Realist security policies are governed by several essential assumptions that distinguish them from the liberal approach. Firstly, realism assumes that nations always act in their own self-interest, and thus political alliances will usually be disregarded if there is a threat to the country’s security (Campbell 2014). Secondly, realism assumes the international system to be anarchic, stating that there is no higher power than the states themselves (Campbell 2014). This assumption means that sanctioning and enforcement mechanisms used by organizations are unlikely to prevent the threat of war. The third assumption of the realist theory is that the states’ primary interest is to gain power in the territory, population, or wealth (Waltz 2010). This assumption is founded on the need for survival since states that are powerful are less likely to fail during an international crisis.

Liberal Security Policies

Liberalism was founded on the notion that human beings have made significant progress, and greed and self-preservation are not the only forces influencing their judgment today. Liberalism believes in the idea of mutually beneficial cooperation between countries (Desch 2008). Organizations such as the United Nations are based on the contemporary views of liberalism and seek to facilitate dialogue instead of using sanctions, enforcement, and violence to resolve conflicts.

Liberal security policies also have several primary assumptions that identify their distinguishing features. The first assumption is that not countries, but individuals are the fundamental actors in international politics (Campbell 2014). Therefore, the actions of a particular state can be influenced through cooperation with its leaders, and the use of violence can be avoided. Secondly, liberalism believes that international politics is shaped not by the power distribution but by the states’ preferences (Campbell 2014). As a result, the final premise of liberalism is that world peace is possible. Owen (1994) explains that liberalism is often connected to the notion of democratic peace because it promotes a peaceful resolution of conflicts through dialogue and negotiation while also placing the power in the hands of individuals and groups.

Liberalism has greatly influenced the contemporary geopolitical environment. Campbell (2014) claims that “the liberalist view is shaped by the perception that states are not only interdependent, but that cooperation vis-à-vis trade relations, international treaties, and shared goals may bring about absolute (i.e., multi-sum) gains, and the possibility for world peace” (p. 35). The contemporary geopolitical landscape mostly represents this view, since the influence of international organizations, agreements, and strategies on global security is profound. However, despite the efforts of the UN and the European Union, issues in international security remain prominent, thus questioning the effectiveness of liberal policies in preventing and resolving conflicts.

Key Differences

Based on the literature review, there are four vital ideological differences that affect liberal and realist security policies. The primary difference between the two approaches is that realism is focused on the power of countries, whereas liberalism seeks to promote cooperation among individuals and groups (Campbell 2014). Therefore, when it comes to maintaining global peace, liberalist security policies engage parties in dialogue, and realism relies on the countries’ strive for power and their willingness to survive a crisis. For example, the U.S. strategy towards China and its development is largely based on the concepts of realism because it takes into account the country’s economic, political, and military power (Silove 2016). Global organizations that promote a liberal approach, such as the UN, design their strategy in a way that fosters collaboration rather than competition.

Another critical difference is that realism does not support the possibility of global peace, and serves to address specific threats to prevent large-scale conflicts. Liberalism, on the opposite, strives to achieve world peace by building mutually beneficial cooperation among countries (Campbell 2014). These differences affect the specific strategies used by the proponents of each approach. Campbell (2014) exemplifies realist security strategies using the tactics utilized by the Obama administration during the War on Terror, including targeted killings, extraordinary rendition, and torture. Desch (2008) also states that these methods oppose the values of liberalism, which is mainly concerned with individual rights and freedoms. An example of liberal security policies can be observed in the strategies used by the United Nations to resolve conflicts, such as negotiations and sanctions.

Application of Realist and Liberalist Security Policies

Case 1: Ukraine and Russia Conflict

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia emerged in 2014 after Euromaidan protests removed the Ukrainian President from power. Yanukovich was known for his ties with Russia and his opposition to Ukraine’s economic integration with the European Union (Council on Foreign Relations [CFR] 2018). After his removal from power, Russia started a military intervention that was designed to secure strategic military and navy positions around Crimea. Later in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea based on the results of a widely contested local referendum (CFR 2018). The annexation led to a further escalation of the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government as the regions of Lugansk and Donetsk declared their independence from Ukraine (CFR 2018).

Russia continued to supply military resources to these regions, which affected its relationships with major global forces, including the UN and NATO. Russia has since faced numerous sanctions imposed by the United States, Ukraine, and the European Union. Recently, the conflict developed further, and the President of Ukraine introduced martial law in 10 border regions after Russian boats seized three Ukrainian vessels and 24 crew members in the Sea of Azov (McMcLaughlin 2018). In case of further aggressive actions by Russia, the two countries could enter into a war, which would have significant repercussions for global peace and security due to their ties with other nations. Therefore, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is among the main points of concern for international security policies. By applying the principles of liberalism and realism to the case, it would be possible to exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

Case Analysis

The position of other countries and international organizations with regards to the conflict mostly followed the principles of liberalism. Owen (2018) explains that liberalist security policies accept the countries’ freedom to engage in a particular activity, including military operations, as long as it does not impact international security on a global scale. Nevertheless, in the present case, the escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine could threaten international security due to the support networks that these countries utilize. Russia has close ties with some Middle Eastern and Asian nations, which means that she could rely on their military support in case of a full-scale war. Ukraine, on the other hand, would probably receive the help of the European Union and NATO, which currently have a strained relationship with Russia. Therefore, a war between these two countries could extend beyond their territories and involve other countries in a large-scale military conflict.

For the cases when the actions of a particular country threaten international peace, liberalism allows for influencing the country’s willingness or capacity to engage in violence. Owen (2018) states that “individuals may form networks across states and cooperate to constrain or propel states. They may do so directly, through mobilization of various societal groups to pressure states, or indirectly, through the formulation of rules and institutions to bind states” (p. 3). Thus, the pivot of liberal security policy, in this case, would be to impose economic constraints on Russia until it ceases military efforts in Ukraine. The sanctions imposed on Russia and Russian-owned companies by the United States and most European countries are an example of this strategy. The sanctions were somewhat effective in reducing Russian military activity in Donetsk and Lugansk regions; however, they were unsuccessful in returning the annexed Crimean territory to Ukraine and resulted in Russian sanctions on foreign trade and international business.

A realist approach to preserving security and peace, in this case, would be to act on the aggressor’s essential interests, which are power and survival. In the realist framework, Russian efforts in Ukraine are a struggle for territorial power. Although power is of critical importance to Russia, survival remains the main priority of the country. Thus, realist international security policy would involve establishing a threat to the survival of Russia in order to prevent it from further military activity in Ukraine. For example, placing NATO forces in neighboring countries would be a possible way of pressuring Russia into ceasing its aggression towards Ukraine. Even though this strategy could be potentially useful, it could also contribute to further escalation of the conflict, which would be counterproductive.

Case 2: ISIS

Another case that could be used to exemplify liberal and realist security policy and its impact on international peace are that of ISIS. This terrorist organization emerged as a branch of Al Qaeda and is responsible for committing or inspiring deadly terror attacks in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Although ISIS was initially treated as a regular terrorist organization, it has some distinguishing features that affect the success of counterterrorism efforts against it. As explained by Cronin (2015), ISIS is a major territorial power that relies on oil trade for income. Therefore, ISIS can sponsor its military operations without relying on investors or criminal activity, which contributes to its independence.

In addition, ISIS has a complex structure with a global recruitment network. Instead of training jihadists and tasking them with carrying out terror attacks in various countries, ISIS focuses on recruiting or inspiring young people to commit acts of violence in its name (Cronin 2015). This requires extensive use of telecommunications and technology, which are also among the prominent features of the organization. ISIS’ independence and global reach make it difficult for international security efforts to achieve results. Disrupting ISIS’ communications channels is a temporary solution that would not be effective in the long term, while military action against its forces in Syria could lead to a significant number of casualties and cause future terror attacks in countries that oppose ISIS. For example, a flight carrying Russian tourists was allegedly bombed by ISIS in 2015 following Russian military intervention in Syria, leaving over 200 passengers and crew members dead. ISIS poses a significant threat to the territorial security of countries in the Middle East, while also affecting the national security of most countries that are involved in the conflict.

Case Analysis

The case of ISIS is complicated from both liberal and realist viewpoints. The realist security policy with regards to ISIS would include a military intervention designed to impair ISIS’ territorial power. This would help to reduce the organization’s access to oil, thus decreasing its income and making it harder for ISIS to continue seizing territories in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. This strategy is already used by the United States, Russia, and some European countries as part of the aggressive containment policy (Cronin 2015). However, this strategy does not address ISIS’ strong global network aimed at recruiting fighters and inspiring terror attacks all over the world.

From the liberal perspective, constraining ISIS resources by interfering in the oil trade would be a possible solution to the issue. As oil trade is the primary source of income for ISIS, it would be an effective means of reducing its military activity in the long term. Nevertheless, attempts to intervene in oil trade in the Middle East would also weaken other countries in the region that rely on oil trade. This is a significant weakness of this strategy, as it would have severe consequences for the global economy. The realist security policy offers more promise in this case, although it has limitations and would not be sufficient to address foreign recruitment and the threat of terror attacks. Thus, it would also require strong national counterterrorism policies to disrupt ISIS networks in various countries and prevent the organization from committing or inspiring terror attacks.


All in all, the findings from the literature review and the case analysis show that both realist and liberal international security policies have strengths and weaknesses. The liberal approach is beneficial because it does not contribute to the escalation of local conflicts by using the threat of violence. It also helps to achieve democratic peace by respecting the states’ independence and interests (Desch 2008). Both features contribute to its effectiveness in de-escalating local conflicts. The case of Russia and Ukraine offers an example of how liberal security policies can be used to address local conflicts, such as civil wars. Sanctions against Russia and Russian businesses affected the country’s economy and helped to contain its aggression towards Ukraine.

Nevertheless, the case also highlights some limitations of the liberal approach. Firstly, sanctions and similar enforcement methods impaired the trade and cooperation between Russia, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which contradicts the goals of international liberalism and could influence the global economy. Secondly, the approach did not help in eliminating the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and thus there remains a risk of violence in the future.

Realist security policies, similarly, have certain strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, the threat of violence and military action can help to contain aggressive territorial powers in the case of ISIS, attacks on the organization’s forces impaired its military and financial resources, thus influencing ISIS’ capacity for further expansion in the Middle East. A liberal policy would probably fail to achieve the same effect due to ISIS’ independence and the importance of oil trade to the global economy.

The realist approach also has some drawbacks that affect the success of its use for maintaining global security. The notion that world peace is not possible is at the core of the realist ideology (Campbell 2014). The use of violence or a threat thereof to resolve local conflicts could lead to their escalation and threaten global security. Furthermore, military activity or large-scale operations aimed at fulfilling realist security goals are expensive and thus influence the countries’ capacity for defense in case of a conflict. Based on these considerations, the liberal approach is more beneficial for maintaining global peace and security. However, realist security policies should still be considered for complex individual cases that cannot be effectively addressed by liberal strategies.


The research sought to identify the differences between liberal and realist policies for maintaining international security and peace, as well as the strengths and limitations of both approaches. The analysis of literature and cases showed that liberal policies can be successfully applied to contain local conflicts threatening international peace, although they would be insufficient to address the threat of ISIS due to its complexity. Realist security strategies proved to be effective in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts but pose a threat of conflict escalation and violence. Hence, whereas liberal policies are better suited to achieve the goal of global peace, the realist approach could be used for individual terrorist threats. The combination of the two methods would help to promote international security by addressing the most pressing risks in the contemporary geopolitical environment.

Reference List

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