Realism vs. Liberalism

Topics: International relations theory, Liberalism, International relations Pages: 5 (1438 words) Published: August 17, 2014
In order to effectively analyse and study the intricate web of action and interaction that makes up international relations, scholars have devised theories of interaction. Sometimes called lenses, they are created to give a certain perspective from which to review the international sphere. Since the development of the first chair of International Relations (IR) in 1919, two theories have prevailed over the rest, namely Realism and Liberalism. While designed with a uniform purpose, the values and concepts prevalent in the two theories are starkly contrasting. Yet each of the theories is effective even in the contemporary setting, as can be demonstrated when rationalising the current Ukrainian crisis. Realism

Central to all analysis in Realism is the concept of power. All interactions in the international system are a balance of relative power, with those with having greater power determining outcomes according to their own interests.1 Hans J. Morgenthau worded this assumption well: “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power. Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim. Statesmen and peoples may ultimately seek freedom, security, prosperity, or power itself. They may define their goals in terms of a religious, philosophic, economic, or social ideal. They may hope that this ideal will materialize through its own inner force, through divine intervention, or through the natural development of human affairs. They may also try to further its realization through non-political means, such as technical co-operation with other nations or international organizations. But whenever they strive to realize their goal by means of international politics, they do so by striving for power.”2 This quest for power, Morgenthau argues, is rooted deep within the human psyche. Thus Realists assume that all states act on selfish impulses, to further their own power or security, and that therefore states seek to make relative gains, or gains in power at the expense of the power of another state. He also says that those who seek power will simply employ normative ideologies to conceal their true aims. This reiterates the thoughts of another Realist scholar, Edward Hallett Carr, who states: When utopianism has become a hollow and intolerable sham, which serves merely as a disguise for the interests of the privileged, the realist performs an indispensable service in unmasking it. But pure realism can offer nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society impossible.3

Realists define power as straightforward militaristic power, or rather, the ability to defend oneself militarily.4 Accordingly, those states with the biggest or most effective military dominate the international sphere, as seen in the Cold War era where the two superpowers, the USSR and the USA, controlled international relations. This leads into another key assumption realists make, which is that conflict or war is an inevitable outcome of international relations. This assumption is best explained using the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The brainchild of Robert Axelrod, the dilemma is as follows: two players must independently choose to either co-operate with the other or defect, without knowing what the other player will do. If both players choose to co-operate, each player gets $3. If one defects and the other co-operates, the defector gets $5 and the co-operator nothing. If both defect, both receive $1. The summary is that no matter what the other player does, defection yields a higher payoff than cooperation5. So in International Relations, Realists argue that as states are self-interested, the rational course of action is to defect, or wage war, because the benefit is greater than attempting to co-operate, only to have the other party wage war. Thus in a Realist system of rational, self-interested states, international relations inevitably end in war. Realists argue this is...
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