Realism And Liberalism Essay


Realism and Liberalism are the two most prevalent ideologies in practicing and analyzing International Relations in the last two centuries. They are playing important roles in the states. They will directly affect the decision making of the governments and bring effects to the peace relations among countries. Realist mainly put a focus on state, power and national security. It was especially quite dominant in the first phase of the Cold War. On the other hand, Liberalism pays attention to people’s freedom and rights. It rose up after the World War II also the end of Cold War. From my point of view, to a large extent Realism and Liberalism are different from each other. They are quite opposite in theory. The differences between Realism and Liberalism outweigh the similarities. In this essay, I would elaborate these two ideologies in different aspects to talk about.

Similarities between Realism and Liberalism
Anarchy nature

Firstly, for the similarities, both Realists and Liberals believe in anarchy nature of international system that it is leaderless in the world system. ‘The major theories of international relations embrace the view that the international system is anarchic’ (Adem 2002: 19). Both admit that there is no sovereignty, rules or systems in the international system. However, these two ideologies got very different perceptions towards what they believe the states should do under this anarchic situation. The differences will be articulated below.

Differences between Realism and Liberalism
The views towards human nature

For the differences, the first is that the Realists and the Liberals hold different beliefs towards human nature. Realists mainly are pessimistic and conservative. ‘It is essential not to have faith in human nature. Such faith is a recent heresy and a very disastrous one’ (Butterfield 149: 47). Realists believe in evil human nature. People are born with hatred and envy, had original sin, war occurred constantly. They think that natural passion of human kind will bring out struggles among countries, ‘conflict is inevitable’ (Niebuhr 1932: xv). This can be manifest in the armament race in World War I. Every country tried to maximize their amounts of weapons and expand their armed forces at that time.

Especially Britain and Germany, their relationship was worsened as there was a dreadnought building competition between them. Conflict is then occurred, paved the way to the World War I. Apart from this, during 1860s, the United States forced Japan to open its market at the threat of attack, which was beneficial for America only (Sr And Teresa 2013:16). Hence, they also perceive human are self-interested, interest is the most important thing of the state. Political action of the government is judged based on national interest (Morgenthau 1978: 4-15). Realists think that national interest is the most important thing of the state.

On the contrary, Liberals mainly are optimistic and progressive. They interpret goodness exists in human nature. People are born to be kind, caring and helpful, willing to build trust with others. Apart from this, Liberals stress interdependence, believing cooperation can be enhanced in countries in order to reduce conflicts. Many intergovernmental organizations and institutions are formed in the late 19th century. They are made up of member states.

For instance, European Union and World Trade Organization, they enhance political and economic cooperation among countries. Institutions enhance the economic cooperation and reducing the transactions cost among states (Keohane 1998: 82-94). Apart from this, the formation of United Nation was also a symbolic intergovernmental organization of Liberalism, providing a more understanding of human rights and reinforcing the protection of it. Therefore, witnessing the comparison above, the differences are clearly shown that the Realists and Liberals hold opposite views towards human nature.

The different perspectives on ‘state’

The second difference is the way Realists and Liberals perceive ‘state’ in opposite angles. ‘State’ is the most important actor in Realism. They hold a view that sovereignty of the state indicates the independence of the political community. Realists ‘Non-state actors such as international organizations are of use only for matters that do not concern immediate security interests’ (Harrison 2006: 21). Realists will simply ignore the other actors if the interest of the state is intervened. The most obvious of a nation’s desire is developing military and technology. The nuclear arm race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War is a significant example. Atomic bomb was invented at that time which brought a huge threat towards world peace. Realists also advocate realpolitik, securing their own country’s interest before care about others’ welfare (Rourke 2007: 21). This shows realists are totally state-centered and tend to pursue self-interest.

On the other hand, Liberals is not statism as Realists do. Liberals maintain good governance between people and state. Liberalism stresses the importance of individuality and liberation of human (Sr & Teresa 2013: 18). Liberals favor values like political and civil liberties, toleration and justice. Hence, Liberals emphasize more on non-state actors, for instance, multinational corporations like the International Media and non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross and the Green Peace. As the Liberals advocate international cooperation, they pay attention to other countries’ rights and interest. The International Monetary Fund promotes free trade and enhances the welfare among states. It is also responsible in reducing poverty by subsidizing to members who have difficulties in economy. In short, from the illustration above, it is manifest that Realism is state-centered while Liberalism focuses both state and other non-state factors.

The Ways to view peace

Thirdly, the ways to see peace between Realism and Liberalism varies. Realists think the best way to seek peace is to have balance of power. During the cold war, the two super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union were in bipolar system which was more peaceful. It was because of the domination of the two super powers, causing restrictions for the minor powers to become strong, conflicts were then reduced. The realists view power is a very crucial element. The best way to maintain peace is to be powerful (Rourke 2007: 22). Becoming powerful, the national security can be enhanced, and therefore this will reduce the chance from attack. China nowadays is becoming powerful in every aspect after the Reform and Opening-up Policy in 1978. She tries to strengthen herself with both hard and soft power in order to avoid the invasion of other countries. She even became one of the members in the World Trade Organization in 2001. Besides, Realists believe every state is responsible to their own survival. However, some critics even argue that realists will rarely define peace.

They would like to define peace as the absence of organized violence (Mapel 1996: 57). From the Liberals point of view, there are more ways to view peace. Liberals are altruism which they emphasis on cooperation. In order to maintain world peace, many international organizations are constructed to work on it. For instance, the United Nations would like to put a halt on the violation of human rights of the states. Apart from this, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the military alliance, held a Science for Peace and Security programme in 2006 which aimed to promote peace and support civil science cooperation and innovation. International organizations brought contributions in maintaining world peace.

Also, the Amnesty International, one of the non-governmental organizations, aimed to prevent abuse of human rights and fight for justice for those who have been violated. Liberalism also brings the idea of democratic peace. Liberals abandon wars against liberal democracies, but sometimes do not stop the war within illiberal states (Owen 1994: 93). They see illiberal states in some way dangerous and unenlightened thus they got no tolerance in them (Owen 1994: 96). In my opinion, there are quite many successful examples for Liberals in promoting peace, but still, their views toward peace are quite subjective, which brings limitations and loopholes to maintain peace in the future. In general, by the above comparisons with concrete examples, it is clearly shown that there is a huge difference between the ways Realists and Liberals view peace.


In conclusion, to large extent I think that Realism and Liberalism different from each other. The only similarity is that both of them believe that the anarchy nature is leaderless in the world system. The differences between them are articulates with examples in various aspects. For the view towards human nature, Realists believe in evil human nature while Liberals believe in good ones. For the interpretation on ‘state’, Realists is state-centered, but Liberalists also focus on other non-state actors.

For the ways they perceive peace, Realists advocate to have balance of power while Liberals enhances cooperation between nation states. It cannot be denied that Realism and Liberalism are two very distinct ideologies. From my point of view, these two concepts together with neorealism and neoliberalism will still play very important roles in the future of the International Relations. In order to secure the world peace in a sustainable way, I think the ideologies should coexist and strike a balance instead of only allowing one theory dominating the global world.


Adem, S. (2002) Anarchy, Order and Power in World Politics, Ashgate, Hampshire

Art, R. and R. Jervis (2012) (eds.) International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues (Eleventh edition) (London: Pearson)

Baylis, J. and S. Smith and P. Owens (2013) (eds.) The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations (Sixth edition) (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Donnelly, J. (2000) Realism and International Relations, London: The Press Syndicate of the University Of Cambridge

Dounan, M. (2011) Realist and Constructivist Approaches to Anarchy, [Online], Available: [29 Aug 2011]

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Owen, J.M. (1994) ‘How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace’, International Security, vol. 19, Fall, pp. 87-125.

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Sr, I.N.M. & Teresa, E.U. (2013) ‘Liberalism and Realism: A Matrix For Political Economy’. International Journal of Business and Management Review, vol. 1, no.4, December, pp.15-25.

Any student of international relations can be counted on to study the basic foundations of IR, which are the theories behind the study of IR itself. Among the most prevalent of these theories are realism and liberalism. Until the present, professors still speak of the motto from the 1651 work of Thomas Hobbes, entitled Leviathan, that speaks of the state of nature being prone to what Hobbes calls bellum omnium contra omnes or the war of all against all ( Hobbes : De Cive, 1642 and Leviathan, 1651), as well as Francis Fukuyama naming Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government (Fukuyama : The End of History and the Last Man, 1992).

The above mentioned ‘state of nature’ is a central assumption in realist theory, holding that anarchy is a defined condition of the international system, as well as postulating that statecraft and subsequently, foreign policy, is largely devoted to ensuring national survival and the pursuit of national interests. Realism is, therefore, primarily concerned with states and their actions in the international system, as driven by competitive self-interest. Thus, realism holds that international organizations and other trans-state or sub-state actors hold little real influence, in the face of states as unitary actors looking after themselves.

One supposes then, that with its dark assumptions and premises of antagonistic condition, realism is tied to some of the fundamental questions of what constitutes ‘human nature’ with an emphasis on the limits of humanity’s altruism, well-expressed by Heinrich von Treitschke, saying it is above all important not to make greater demands of human nature than its frailty can satisfy (Treitschke : Politics, 1916). It is then reasonable to contend that realism places man as a creature whose greatest instinct is self-preservation. Following Hans Morgenthau’s thinking that the social world is but a projection of human nature onto the collective plane (Morgenthau: Politics Among Nations, 1948), one can contend as well that perhaps, the international system as viewed from the realist lens, is also a projection of collective human nature (the state) and eventually, this ‘collective nature’ is manifested in the anarchy of the global stage. Insofar as self-preservation and the gain of resources and prestige remain aims of the human creature, then maybe, taken collectively, these aims can and are being projected across state borders. One will remember, I hope, that states act in their own interest, a concept not too far from human choices in the name of self-advancement and the accrual of resources, first for survival, and eventually as whims of luxury, paralleled by the section in Thomas Hobbes work, which says the first [competition] maketh man invade for gain, the second [diffidence] for safety and the third [glory] for reputation (Hobbes : Leviathan, 1651).

Additionally, as long as armed conflict, ideological rifts and possibilities of aggression remain, then realism will continue as a valid means of interpreting international politics, since yet another of its core assumptions lie in the measurement of power in terms of military capability, within an anarchic global system, where natural antagonism presents little possibility for peace and cooperation.

All that said, however accurately realism can account for aggression, conflict and militaristic-expansionist policies, its assumptions prevent it from possessing effective explanatory capacity when it comes to the concept of transnational cooperation, free trade, the relative peacefulness of the international system, the prevalence of democratic governance and the growing emphasis on economic linkage and globalization. These concepts are almost anathema to all but the most hedged and doubtful of realism’s proponents. Among the main faults ascribed to realism are its disability to predict and account for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the pervasive peace between liberal nations (McMurtrie : Towards Just International Relations Theory, Honors Thesis, 2007). Thus, we now have the opposite of realism itself, the liberal school of thought.

Liberalism, in stark contrast to realism, believes in the measurement of power through state economies, the possibility of peace and cooperation, as well as the concepts of political freedoms, rights and the like. Francis Fukuyama, quite notably, believed thatprogress in human history can be measured by the elimination of global conflict and the adoption of principles of legitimacy and observed the extent to which liberal democracies have transcended their violent instincts (Burchill :  Theories of International Relations 3/E, 2005).

Furthermore, liberals argue for the progress and perfectibility of the human condition as well as a degree of confidence in the removal of the stain of war from human experience (Gardner, 1990/Hoffmann, 1995/Zacher and Matthew, 1995 ; taken from Burchill : Theories of International Relations 3/E, 2005).

That having been established as core assumptions of liberal international theory, can it be supposed, that since there are observable limits to human nature and altruistic action, as in the realist school of thought, liberalism is therefore overly idealistic in its belief in human capacity and the eventual obsolescence of war as the measure of state power in the international system?

As I believe, liberalism offers the possibility of peace even as states amass power, on the basis that power has now taken a less destructive form, from guns to bank notes and exports. In my opinion, there need not be an overarching stress on the frailties of humanity even if world peace seems too lofty of an ideal. I say this on the basis that a shift in the definition of ‘power’ from military capability to economic status. This shift creates the need for greater linkage (therefore, the new emphasis on globalization) as well as increased cooperation. For this reason, states still amass power even under the liberal system, the main difference being the fact that power is now better accrued if more cooperation is realized within the framework of international politics.

This need for linkage and economic progress then accounts for the liberalist’s stress on free trade and market capitalism, as well as allowing for the legitimate selection of government through democratic action. As it stands, in my opinion, liberalism operates under real-world conditions, reflecting state interest and aggrandizement, if only that such advancement results in peace instead of the expected dose of conflict.

Having said that, I think liberalism is no longer just a projection of how politics ought to be, but is now a modern, practical theory of peace achieved in the midst of anarchic conditions and even after the state’s quest for power.

Still, the debate continues as to which school remains the most relevant and timely, with regards to the interpretation of the international system. Some will always say realism is politics as it is while liberalism is an example of politics idealized. However, as the study of IR continues, we will continue to seek the answers to the engaging questions of foreign policy that confront today’s global system. Whichever way we choose to justify or to answer those questions, despite their polar difference, realism and liberalism are both reflections of various aspects of the international system, which we seek to understand. The significance of both lies in their capacity to explain opposite phenomena, and though both are clearly antithetical, perhaps the answer to the question of how the world operates will lie not in the thesis and antithesis, but in the synthesis of both. One pragmatic approach for state advancement blended with a belief in humanity’s inherent potentials. In my opinion, for all the disagreement that has been in existence with both schools of thought, perhaps the true path lies in combination. A state of anarchy as a condition but peace as a result, and a world that knows the obstacles confronting all of its inhabitants, but knows as well that humanity has always been great at overcoming what seems insurmountable.

Sources Used

Burchill, S. (2005) Realism and Liberalism :  Theories of International Relations, 3/E.

Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man.

Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan; (1642) De Cive.

McMutrie, I. (2007) Towards a Just International Relations Theory : Honors Thesis.

Morgenthau, H. (1948) Politics Among Nations.

von Treitschke, H. (1916) Politics.

Written by: Bea Kylene Jumarang
Written at: De La Salle University Manila, Philippines (DLSU-M)
Written for: Mr. Al James D. Untalan
Date written: June 2011

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