The Liberal Challenge to Realism

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Explain the liberal challenge to realism, and assess its effectiveness.

Liberalism poses as an alternate framework to realism for understanding international relations. There are three main positions held by liberals that contrast those views held by realists. The issues of conflict and cooperation, relative and absolute gain, and the pessimistic and optimistic outlook on individuals will be focused on. Liberalism is effective, to an extent, in illustrating the rather one-dimensional approach adopted by realists. This paved the way to the new formulation of both neoliberalism and neorealism that was heavily influenced by behaviourist methodologies. The neo-neo synthesis thus arose in response to the challenges each theory set out for each other. Nevertheless, this essay will argue that despite these obvious challenges, the two theoretical ideologies are fundamentally similar rendering the contrast ineffective. The core ‘truths’ and assumptions forming the backdrop of the two theories are constructed forms of knowledge that lead to a certain perception of the international system, its operations and capabilities. The methodologies they both used to set a liberal and realist framework are also identical. They both adopt a scientific approach to understanding international relations, which drastically undermines the intrinsic nature of the human world. Liberal and realist methodology is brought to critical analysis by theories such as constructivism and Marxism. The neo-neo debate serves to further these similarities especially in terms of methodological approaches. Contrasting liberalism and realism may be effective on each theories interpretation of certain aspects of IR, but fundamentally they are both more similar than different and the liberal ‘challenge’ is deemed ultimately ineffective.

Liberalism provides an interestingly contrasting substitute to realist theory. Liberalism is in essence the complete opposite to realism with regards to the weight it places on power, the perception of an anarchical system and the ultimate goal for survival. Realism as a theory is largely concerned with the effects of an international system in IR. Despite the fact that “both [realism and liberalism] agree that the international system is anarchic”[1], the two theories differ in what they consider to be the potential and operational capacity within an anarchic system. The presence of anarchy in the international system is a core assumption of all the braches within realism. Sovereign states are understood to exist within a necessarily conflictual system where they are perpetually competing for power. The power politics of realism is constructed upon the notion of conflict between nation states and the presence of a security dilemma. On the other hand, liberalism holds that anarchy does not have exclusively negative consequences. They introduce the prospect of cooperation between states, as they believe states to be rational actors similarly to realism. Institutionalist liberals regard anarchy as a potentially positive factor that could accommodate consolidated liberal democracies with peace. The main point is that for all liberals -unlike realists- “there exists the firm possibility of state peace”[2] which could arise from the state of anarchy in the international system. This liberal challenge to realism is effective in that it aids the development of the neo-neo debate, whereby neorealists as well as neoliberals reassess their conceptions of what could be possible from an anarchical system.

In relation to the anarchical system, the determined actions of states can be explained by absolute or relative gains; how states would primarily act in the international system. Realists lean towards relative gain which describes the action of states in accordance to the balance of power while disregarding all other factors. The zero-sum game dictates that the only way states can gain wealth is through imperialistic...
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