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Realist and Liberal Theories of International Relations Essay

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Updated: Aug 20th, 2019

Theories assist us in determining the root cause of an event. In international relations, there are various theories that are used to explain the causes of events relating to peace and security in international affairs. There are two key theories in international relations (Baylis et al. 2008: 26).

The first theory known as the realist theory contends that striving for power is the major cause of occurrences in the world affairs. The second, the liberal view, claims that interdependence and institutions are the main forces behind the occurrences in international affairs.

The Realist Theory of International Relations

Realism is a theory of international relations that arose slowly out of the work of various theorists who took a distinctive attitude and view in the analysis of international affairs. The theory puts emphasis on limitations on politics brought in by human nature and the lack of a world government. These two issues make international relations a subject concerning power and interests.

Human nature has remained the same from the days of ancient classicists (Smith 2004: 505). According to realists, humans are naturally egoistic and predisposed to immorality. As Machiavelli pointed out, in politics we must assume that every man is evil and this wickedness will always manifest when an opportunity presents itself.

Other realists like Reinhold Niebuhr think that Machiavelli’s argument was enormously descriptive (Richardson 2012). Machiavelli argues that there are too many egoists in the world capable of making any imaginable risky decision.

Realists tend to put emphasis on political necessities that emerge from international lawlessness (Donnely 2009). According to them, the lack of a world government implies that the rule of the jungle would reign.

The distinction between development and barbarism is a manifestation of basic human nature operating under different environments. Within nations, the basic human nature is subdued by political structures and the rule of law. In international affairs, lawlessness permits and promotes the manifestation of the worst dimensions of human nature.

Although there is a divergence of views among realist theorists, all of them claim that egoistic desires and self-interest are the main forces behind international affairs.

They also claim that since international politics are a reflection of human nature, we should not have faith in international institutions and players (Smith 2004: 508). This theory recommends the establishment of an international government to promote peace and equality in the world.

The Liberal Theory of International Relations

The liberal theory is based on the works of the Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke. This theory, unlike the realists’ view, takes an idealistic attitude towards human nature believing that humans have the capacity to develop morally (Shapiro 2008: 225).

The liberal theory became popular after the end of the First World War. After this war, President Wilson of the US together with other like-minded idealists advocated for the establishment of the League of Nations in an effort to avert widespread political conflicts in the future (Chiaruzzi 2008).

The liberal theory uses the state as the unit of analysis but it also considers international law and international institutions. Liberal theorists oppose the realist assumption that the subject of international relations is a winners-losers game seeing it rather as an arrangement of interactions which can be managed in order to realize mutual gains.

Therefore, according to liberalists, international cooperation and peace are not only desirable, but also achievable (Donnely 2009: 9). Liberals also believe that republican government and liberal capitalism promote harmony in international relations. In addition, the theorists promote the idea that liberal democracies are innately reluctant to wage war against one another (Carr 2001).

Modern liberal international relations theorists advocate for economic and political cooperation and using non-military forms of power such as economic sanctions, together with issues like minority rights and free-trade.

Despite the fact that the liberal theory promotes economic and political integration to secure world peace, some liberal researchers have favored the execution of military action on non-liberal states (Donnely 2009: 12).

One liberal scholar, Samuel Huntington, for instance, views liberalism as a unique European phenomenon which cannot succeed in other civilizations. On the other hand, Francis Fukuyama, another liberal scholar contends that liberalism is the ultimate phase of political evolution (Smith 2004).

A key criticism that has been leveled against liberalism is the failure of liberal structures and institutions to prevent the emergence of the Second World War (Donnely 2009). The rise of the war was viewed as a failure of liberal concepts, giving prominence to realism in the management of international affairs.

References

Baylis et al. 2008, The Globalization of World, SAGE, London.

Carr E 2001, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, Prentice Hall, London.

Chiaruzzi M 2012, An Introduction to International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Donnely J 2009, Realism and International Relations, Cambridge UP, Cambridge International Relations, Palgrave, London.

Richardson J 2012, An Introduction to International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Shapiro M 2008, How Does the Nation-State Work? Routledge, London.

Smith S 2004, ‘Singing our World into Existence: International Relations Theory and September 11’, International Studies Quarterly, 48(3), pp.499-515

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