Compare and Contrast of Realism and Liberalism
The world order is usually viewed and explained through the set of the multiplicity of theories. Different approaches analyze certain aspects of international politics from one side while giving less emphasis to others. Realism and liberalism are the oldest and most widely articulated and prevalent theories in international politics. Comparison of different perspectives can offer not only thorough understanding but also reveal the approaches that compete with and complement each other. While some similarities between realism and liberalism are evident, the differences are salient and reflect main principles of each theory.
The central assumption in realism is Hobbes’s depiction of a “state of nature” where due to the absence of rules and laws, conflicts lead to “war of all against all” (as cited in Blair & Curtis). It means that states are in unrelenting pursuit of power to secure state interests. Therefore, people resort to life under a government that is responsible for law enforcement and order. As a result, people sacrifice absolute freedom to the government that is entailed to provide security for them. In comparison with Hobbes, John Locke, the proponent of liberalism, stated that citizens could live peacefully and freely without authoritarianism. Thus, individuals could unrestrictedly unite to form the government that would be responsible for protection. Liberals view people as resourceful enough to handle the problems that international anarchy entails. Contrary to realists’ beliefs, liberals assert that people are involved in conflict only because of their rulers that seek to increase their control over citizens. Moreover, liberal states are strong enough to solve disagreements without war, although, like realists, they realize that war and destruction may be real. Moreover, both realists and liberals support the view that the world is dangerous. This fact serves as an incentive to escape or alleviate repercussions. For liberals, it is more possible than for pessimistic realists.
Both theories emphasize that there is no world government that can prevent states from inflicting harm to one another. In realism, beyond the boundaries of the state, there is dominion of anarchy where “might makes right”. Thus, for realists, anarchy predisposes international politics towards conflict. By contrast, liberal theories reject such approach and state that the impacts of anarchy may be mitigated with the help of liberal institutionalism, free trade and democratization.
Realists give the central importance to states in international politics. Countries are major actors that determine the direction of world’s development and can control others. Keohane and Nye presented a complex interdependence theory, in which they stressed the existence of a number of connections between states and analyzed the role of different international organizations, MNCs and NGOs. The development of many influential MNCs and NGOs undermine the assumption that states are the central actors in international politics. However, liberals do not deny the state’s role in international politics; instead, they stress that other actors also have essential functions. In contrast to realists’ focus on security, liberals do not view it as the most important element, adding economic, human rights and environmental constituents. Therefore, realists’ reliance on military capacity as a viable tool of policy can be inappropriate and counterproductive in the management of issues that do not entirely relate to security.
Realism and liberalism agree that distribution of power is the fundamental force in international politics. Power is important to reach any goal and shape the behavior of others, making a state safe and influential. Consequently, the objective of politics of every state is receiving more power according to realism. Realists believe that the sense of power lies in the ability to dominate, and it can take the form of militaristic-expansionist policies, aggression, and conflict. Such form ensures the security and enables states to deter attacks against them as well as mount attacks against others. However, in an attempt to maximize power, states should maintain a balance of power to ensure stability.
For liberals, the struggle of international politics is not solely reflected in the struggle for power, but also in the struggle for security. Despite the fact that gaining power may enhance security, the latter may be increased due to the agreement with others to limit the pursuit of power. Moreover, liberalism shares the view on the importance of military power placed by realism. Both theories assert that countries without armed authority can be easily affected by other states. However, liberalism emphasizes that military security is not the inseparable part of international relations. If a country is unable to escape the balance of power, it can help maintain stable balance through agreements. Consequently, security would be enhanced, and states would have more possibility to concentrate on other concerns, such as the well-being.
Realism differs from liberalism in terms of the approach to international cooperation and national interest. Although liberals and realist share the common view concerning the importance of own national interest of a state, realists assert that the primary objective of every state is to protect its national interests, which dictate that all other objectives must be subordinated to that core goal. On the contrary, liberals believe that an essential part of national interest is cooperation. They support international cooperation and peace that can be viewed as absolute gains for all as opposed to relative gains that realists value. Even if a state receives less advantage from cooperation than other countries, it still gives the absolute gain for a state because the fact that a state benefits is already in its national interest. By contrast, realists are concerned with the relative gains problem when one side can obtain more than another. Thus, states enlist the cooperation when it is ultimately beneficial only for them. Likewise, world institutions in realism are necessary only if they assist states to pursue their own interests. Eventually, international alliances, arrangement, and agreements can be altered or reneged when they stop to be in the national interest. Therefore, states that are concerned with survival will seek security in the armory defense, which in its turn will lead to more insecurity. Both realists and liberals agree that anarchy creates a security dilemma, which is reflected in the principle that states’ endeavors to ensure security cause insecurity instead.
There are also opposite views on progressive change in the international system. Realists provide pessimistic outlook that emphasizes the centrality and inevitability of conflict among nations as a result of perpetual power struggles with each other. On the contrary, liberals presents more optimistic perspective on a bigger scope for international cooperation, progressive achievements in international affairs and overall peace. They believe that focus on the foundation of new global institutions, common interests and values, and the integration of the world economy will lead to a significantly better and peaceful world.
Realists state that people usually identify with the “nation-state”. It means that most people relate themselves to a specific nation, rather than to the human race or global community. Realists value their state as the only community that matters. In its turn, the state must prioritize national security and the prosperity of its own citizens. Liberals assess people in terms of their core nature and objectives. They suggest that human nature is malleable and potentially good. For liberals, people have the possibility to organize their lives in a just and harmonious way without being dependent on the state.
In summary, realism and liberalism bear some similarities in their views on the possibility of war; danger the world entails; the absence of world government; the power distribution within international politics; and the importance of military power and national interest. However, there are fundamental liberal approaches that contradict main principles of realism. In terms of the possibilities of peace and international cooperation, realism holds a more pessimistic view, whereas liberalism is more buoyant about human nature. Realism focuses on the role of state power in an anarchic world with the intention to guarantee security. This theory values power as the major determinant of outcomes and treats the pursuit of power as the core element of policies. By contrast, liberalism concentrates on both power and purpose, stressing that a state has a wide array of aims. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that liberalism provides a stronger explanation for international politics because it gives a broader focus on the state and world politics. Realism concentrates only on a state, as a single actor; security, as a single goal; and power as a single driving force. In contrast to such narrow and simple principles of realism, in liberalism, there are multiple actors and various aims and incentives. Liberalism can more explicitly define world politics because of international interdependence; diminished significance of military force; the development of many essential non-state actors in international politics; and sturdy peace between democratic states.