[Special] Realism v Liberalism – A Persistent Conflict in International Politics

There are two conflicting schools of thought that still play a leading role in today´s debates about international politics – Realism and Liberalism. In order to understand and discuss them, the term international politics has to be defined and the origin of these two views has to be illustrated.

There are three basic forms of world politics defined, which have occurred in world history. The world imperial system, in which one government is dominant over most of the world, the feudal system, in which loyalties and political obligations are not fixed primarily by territorial boundaries and the anarchic system of states, with no higher government above them. Examples of each form can be found in world history. A territorial state-system existed in China and India in the 5th century B.C. as well as in the ancient Greece with its city-states. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 marks the rise of modern states and the establishment of the anarchic state system as the dominant form of world politics until today. Anarchy means no ruler. Therefore international politics can be defined as the interaction among entities with no common sovereign above them.

The basic idea of realism is expressed by 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes´ description of a anarchic systems as a state of nature. Under the impression of civil war he paints a picture of nastiness and brutality. According to him anarchy creates war of all against all in the absence of a higher ruler to enforce order. Deriving from Thucydides´ analysis of the Peloponnesian War and enforced by the contemporary witnesses of World War II, realism follows a rather pessimist view based on world history. Realism focuses on the struggle for power among self-interested states. The liberal school of thought has been shaped by German philosopher Immanuel Kant and applied by Woodrow Wilson, US president and creator of the League of Nations. Liberalism highlights the existence of a global society alongside the states, which sets part of their context.

Both theories have been developed and regained popularity in times, in which they were able to explain the prevailing political situation. Where realism has been stressed during and after major interstate conflicts such as World War II, liberalism has been the dominant school of thought in times of peace. Nevertheless, both fall short in consistently explaining international politics. In order to get a more detailed look, light needs to be shed on the actors, goals and instruments proclaimed by both schools of thought.


Realists claim, that the only actors of significance are states, and only the big and powerful ones are of importance. This does not accommodate the rise of a multitude of nongovernmental actors of international influence, especially since World War II.  The economic relevance of multinational corporations has to be considered, generating annual revenues that are higher than the annual GDP of many countries. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has reported that in 2008 Transnational Corporations had employed 77 million workers which amounts to trillions of dollars of wages and taxes to governments worldwide. They create jobs, spread technology and foster social development but also pollute the environment, exploit natural resources and influence governments across borders on a global level. Non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross or Amnesty International interact with governments all over the world. Transnational ethic groups are another major driver of international politics. A recent example is the conflict in Mali, where Tuareg tribes have occupied the country´s northern territories.  The berber-speaking Tuaregs are nomadic people and their political organizations extend across national boundaries including Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso und Mauretania. In fact, ethic or civil wars, not wars between countries, account for the majority of armed conflicts within the last decades. Religious movements, drug cartels and mafia organizations have transnational influence. International terrorism has forced governments worldwide into new challenges. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaida have created a multinational network – a threat to national security that cannot be eliminated by interstate war. Intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations or the Arab League are a recent example for actors in international politics, as can be seen in Syria right now.  Finally regional supranational organizations like the European Union have risen. Its member states haven even partly transferred their sovereignty to the organization. Certainly this has not abolished national policy making and foreign politics completely – the impact on international politics can nevertheless hardly be denied.


The most fundamental goal of states has historically been military security. This is the case still today, however, a state´s goals cannot be limited to this single factor. Economic wealth and social well-being have to be pursued, too. Foreign direct investments and global sourcing has connected companies and countries across the world like never before. This forces governments to defend their economic interests on a global level. The financial crisis in 2008 affected every national economy either directly or indirectly and revealed the global interdependence on the financial level.

The realist theory may be applicable to some extent to some of today´s economic and social goals, like the control over strategic natural resources. Nevertheless, other challenges that we face today cannot be solved by single states through the enforcement by military power. Global diseases like AIDS and environmental issues like global warming are problems that demand for international cooperation. Global interests become national interests.

However, the power of the international society, which liberals claim to influence international politics, is limited. This becomes apparent where global interests and national interest conflict. The Kyoto protocol, an international agreement that targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions shows the success and the failure of the international cooperation at the same time. On the one hand 191 countries have signed and ratified the protocol in order to fight global warming. On the other hand the world´s largest greenhouse gas producer, the United States, has refused to sign, giving national economic interests a higher relevance.


From the realist´s perspective military force is the only instrument of relevance. Today, the ultimate means of military force are nuclear weapons. However, it is arguable whether it is an employable force in international conflicts. As Joseph S. Nye, Jr. states, “the disproportion between the vast devastation nuclear weapons can inflict and any reasonable political goal has made leaders understandably loath to employ them.” Cold War history shows indeed the retention to cross this line, so does it show the awe of an direct war between super powers since World War II. The U.S.´ unchallenged supremacy in conventional force we have today may be only a temporary unbalance in military power. The latest SIPRI report shows an increase of 6,7% in China´s military expenditures, whereas the United States have reduced their military spending for the first time since 1998 due to budget restrictions.

However, other instruments are used in to challenge the world´s hegemonic power. The BRICS countries, emerging economic powers, have decided to create their own development bank in order to establish an alternative to IMF and World Bank, both dominated by the industrialized countries. This shows the importance of international institutions, as much as it shows their potential to be exploited. Especially, the United Nations and its conventions and embargos play a major role in international politics. Nevertheless they all have one problem – the enforcement of their policies relies on states.


The inability of realism and liberalism to explain world politics in the long-run has paved the road for a new theoretical approach – constructivism. It focuses on the ideas, culture, identities, norms, national interests and international governance that change and shape the discourse of world politics. A military intervention to stop violation of human rights and genocides like in Rwanda or Kosovo, led by states neither whose economy nor security were directly impacted, cannot be explained by realists or liberalists. The fundamental change in the perception and acceptance of military force as a daily instrument in regional conflicts between the European Union States of today and Europe 100 years ago goes beyond the explanations of Realism and Liberalism.


New, global challenges, such as HIV, climate change, nuclear weapons or cyber crime as well as an incomparable economic integration have made it necessary to recognize the need for international, non-military cooperation. International institutions  facilitate and encourage communication and its instruments help to prevent and solve international conflicts. While, the influence of non state actors increases complexity in international politics, states remain to be the major ones. Security issues and balance of power stays to be of predominant importance. Force is far from being obsolete and remains the ultimate instrument in international conflicts.

The 9/11 terrorist attack and the following war in Afghanistan have illustrated the fact that both theories, realism and liberalism, are partly able to explain international politics as well as they fail to proof their exclusivity. Firstly, modern states interact with non-state actors – in this case a transnational terrorist group challenged a hegemonic power´s military security. Secondly, when the Taliban regime decided to protected the Al Qaida organization, the enforcement of the international society´s demands failed, and the employment of military force became necessary. Finally, the manifestation that a territorial war can be won by the employment of force, but neither does this guarantee peace and security, nor can the problem of international terror be solved without the help of the international society and the employment of Soft power.

Photos by Natalie Tracy &  Klearchos

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