Realist Versus Liberal International Relations Theory


International relations theory attempts to create the context through which international relations can be investigated. Realism is part of the positivist theories which focus on facts and principles about the organization of states and governments (Sorensen& Jackson, p. 12). Cooperation between states is necessary to ensure that international peace and development prevails in the world. Multinational organizations, therefore, exist to ensure that nations coexist in peace without anarchy and war.

The realist school of thought

The realist theory states that nations act in favor of their interests in pursuit of security and related issues. This theory believes that all nations exist in an “international system characterized by anarchy” (Watson& Bull, p. 18). According to this system, the nation-state must act to the advantage of its sovereign interests without which competing and contradictory interests from outside the nation would dominate and possibly interfere with the sovereignty of the nation. According to realism, human beings are generally self-centered and naturally competitive in their undertakings (Beitz, p. 15).

On the other hand, states are rational and goal-oriented in all their endeavors. Each state, therefore, makes strategic assumptions as to what interests other nations have on any particular issue before choosing a path that applies to its central interests (Smith & Booth 20). States design interventions that are strategic to achieving their defined goals that guide their operations. Each state, therefore, pursues its goals towards its fulfillment. Despite the role that multinational organizations play to ensure that international order prevails in the global society, it is upon independent states to organize their unique activities. International relations are therefore a product of interactions between nations that share mutual interests.

The international system could be regarded as “anarchic yet no higher controlling entity exist that can dictate international relations between countries” (Wight, p. 24). The realist theory also underscores the paramount importance attached to security without which nations do not hold. Each state, therefore, pursues security interests that serve its central issues best. Collective security is however crucial for international peace to prevail. National security is central for each state to safeguard its interests above the other. The nation-state is therefore destined to engage in war in case it receives threats from outside forces or nations. Power and security interests are at the center of the nation-state as it perpetuates its interests in the anarchic international system (Wendt, p. 13).

Liberal theory

Liberalism emphasizes state inclinations in explaining the behavior of nations (Chandler 25). Liberalist thought believes in a plurality of action as opposed to the realist unilateral approach in state affairs. According to a liberal mindset, state actions consist of the shaped government system, economic profile, and distinct national culture which do not exist singly but act together.

For instance, a country that lacks oil reserves will be forced to negotiate with oil-producing nations to import the product through a specified plan. On the other hand, a nation with plenty of oil simply exports the product without getting engaged in negotiations. This illustration clearly shows that the liberal mindset attracts merit in so far as it proposes that all nations are equal in many aspects (Chandler& Baker, p. 30). Consequently, liberal thought believes that mutual security is achieved through international cooperation instead of the realist express reliance on one single power in maintaining international security.

War is therefore not the ultimate solution towards the common goal of international peace. Instead, liberalist thought envisions a multinational stage comprising of different actors cooperating on the mutual goal of international security (Wendt, p. 27). This established the framework through which the League of Nations was established prior to the current United Nations in the aftermath of the World Wars of the twentieth century.

The collapse of the League of Nations is attributed to its lack of legal mechanisms and legitimacy to undertake its mandate satisfactorily in preventing subsequent wars after the First and Second World Wars. It did not also provide an enabling international platform through which international players could be engaged in a legitimate policy-making process to quench future wars.

The succeeding United Nations has been effective in its peacekeeping operations and diplomatic negotiations. Liberalist thought is about collective security instead of independent compulsive actions a main feature of the anarchic international system. It believes that there are plenty of avenues through which nations can engage in broader consultations on matters of security and economic development beyond the superpower mentality (Kapteyn, p. 10).

Liberalist thought believes that soft power presents lucrative opportunities for international cooperation through attraction rather than coercion (Derian, p. 15). The opportunities are manifested through the creation of allies, cultural exchanges, and economic integration among states. The United States approach on these issues has largely been characterized by “bully behaviors” of a big brother.

The liberalist theory is conceptualized by the international community working together towards achieving common goals for mutual benefit. This is the rationale through which the European Union has been established. The so-called “United States of Europe” provides a strategic opportunity for economic cooperation and maintenance of security among member states (Derian, p. 20).

Realist versus liberal International Relations theory

The debate on whether the realist or the liberalist theory of international relations is relevant for international society is quite inconclusive. This paper shall argue in favor of the liberalist theory of international relations since it presents more merits as compared to the realist theory in so far as the varying interests of nations are concerned.

The anarchical basis on which the realist theory is founded is quite narrow since it fails to capture the dynamics of international politics and the degree to which different players engage in negotiations and dialogue in the international society (Sorensen& Jackson, p. 17). The realist thought that power politics define the course and trend of international relations is factual but limited. It is true that human beings are self-centered individuals and operate within their comfort zones. However, the nation-state in the wider global society does not exist in isolation but is characterized by both competing and mutual interactions.

Security and survival are at the center of international relations. Nations are therefore engaged in different levels of negotiations to safeguard their border’s security and economic survival, to say the least (Watson& Bull, p. 21). Dialogue remains an important tool for negotiations during the war and even in the post-war period. International life is therefore not just limited to the anarchical system often experienced during conflict and war but explores a holistic understanding of common rights, rules, and duties that define states during normalcy.

International politics progress within the realm of the liberalist mindset as nations cooperate with each other not only in conflict but also after the war (Beitz, p. 19). Nations cooperate on matters of health, security, economy, and education among other aspects of international value to strengthen their coexistence.

The liberalist thought believes that actors on the international stage are not just made of states but also include ordinary human beings and non-governmental organizations which work together towards achieving mutual goals through a structure of common rules, values and rights (Smith & Booth, p. 26).

Realism is narrowed down to the relations that exist between states alone. It actually focuses on the relevance of international law in times of conflict and war. In the world of politics, international relations extend beyond national interests but underscore the value of dialogue and cooperation in a comprehensive international society (Wight, p. 29).

Realist theory can therefore be considered pessimistic while the liberalist thought optimistic. In essence, dialogue does not compromise the national interests of power politics such as security in times of conflict. Instead, it creates an opportunity for the balance of power in a complex interdependence of nations (Wendt, p. 18). The realist theory acknowledges the primary importance of the existence of nations but should be supplemented with liberal ideas to gain the substance of the subject matter in international society.

When states are the dominant players in international politics, the system is rendered anarchical and the significance of power politics becomes reinforced (Chandler, p. 25). Superior nations assert their authority over weaker states creating a situation of anarchy. However, the status quo cannot guarantee the sustainability of international politics without being supplemented with international institutions which facilitate cooperation among nations.

Liberalist theory emphasizes the importance of international institutions being entrusted with the task of facilitating multinational cooperation. Through these institutions, states are provided with equal opportunities to share their experiences and ideas based on common rules of engagement (Chandler& Baker, p. 33).

It is therefore believed that these international institutions are transparent enough to engage states in reliable consultations by creating a level playing field. Consequently, nations are provided with relevant information which facilitates policymaking. It is therefore difficult for states to cheat on one another resulting in reliable commitments. Cheating is considered the main problem that frustrates negotiations between nations (Wendt, p. 35).

On the other hand, realists oppose this opinion by stating that the question of relative gains is at the center of controversy in international negotiations since the perception of one state gaining more than the other arises (Kapteyn, p. 15). However, transparent international institutions ensure that reliable commitments are reached through accountability during negotiations. The terms and conditions of engagement defined by international institutions guide the process of negotiations above the selfish interests of any particular state.

Common values and interests among participating nations also consolidate their bond during negotiations. Cooperation is therefore enhanced through an understanding that relative gains are unlikely since participating states share interests, values and goals. Competitive interests are therefore substituted by mutual values under the stewardship of credible international institutions (Derian, p. 20).

The vulnerability of such a consolidated and liberal society being subjected to ulterior motives of selfish states is drastically reduced. A community of nations is founded courtesy of balanced power relations between states refereed by transparent and credible international institutions. It is upon this premise that United Nations and the European Union were established.

The reality of the international situation is that no single state can exist in isolation. Selfish and competing interests of any particular cannot override a solid concerted opinion advanced by international institutions (Derian, p. 26).

The liberalism of imposition believes in paying the ultimate price to ensure that liberty is achieved in the world. According to this paradigm of liberalism, nations are compelled to engage in war to obtain peace and the freedom that peace brings. It underscores the need for liberty, freedom, and peace in the world for meaningful development to be realized (Sorensen& Jackson, p. 22). The liberalism of imposition is definitely the premise through which wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were conceived.

On the other hand, the liberalism of restraint prefers the use of negotiations and collaborations as an alternative to war. Both paradigms coexist in liberalist thinking where war is recommended in situations where diplomacy fails (Watson& Bull, p. 32). There is a need for a balance of the two paradigms in liberalist thinking since the express application of one border is on the extreme.

An outright adoption of the liberalism of restraint could limit opportunities for solving problems from an international perspective. On the other hand, the liberalism of imposition alone can lead to extremist tendencies leading to anarchy. The context of international relations requires that equilibrium is established between the divergent paradigms of liberalist thinking to enhance world order. The balance is particularly necessary for promoting peace, human rights, and cosmopolitan values in the world (Beitz, p. 25).

A bias towards liberalism of imposition is likely to cause massive violations of human rights. A bias towards liberalism of restraint could result in the reckless approval of illegitimate policies.

Liberalism is the tool through which democracy is cultivated and peace secured. Democratic states operate within the “security community” that ensures that peace prevails at all times. Democratic peace within the context of the “security community” is not merely the absence of war but a comprehensive element that ensures that sustainable development and coexistence prevails over fear and conflict in the world (Smith & Booth, p. 36).

Transnational relations and collaborations on matters of physical security are a common phenomenon in the current international society as a result of the escalation of mass murder terrorism (Wight, p. 38). The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC constitute a threat to the national and regional security of the Western Liberal democracies. It also illustrates the shortcomings of lenient immigration policies that allow criminals and terrorists to cross international boundaries freely.

The freedom that exists among countries that share a common neighborhood and immigration policy allows for greater interactions between citizens of different nationalities which results in a mutual exchange of goods, services and ideas. The physical security of citizens of the participating countries is however exposed to threats created by open borders available to criminals (Wendt, p. 23).

Civil liberties of resident citizens get interfered in the process since liberal democracies permit the free movement of persons without too many restrictions. As such, countries that are a common target for terrorist threats can create a “security community” to address the issues arising from porous borders and unregulated movement of persons. The security community shall therefore provide an enabling environment for multi-level international cooperation on security matters such as greater police and intelligence surveillance around common borders. From this perspective, it is evident that international relations are driven by the need to solve common problems satisfactorily without which individual states could engage in futile conflicts (Chandler, p. 30).


The liberalist thought, therefore, deserves merit in international relations due to its optimistic and collective system of engaging actors in a level playing field on international affairs (Chandler& Baker, p. 40). First and foremost, states are engaged through the facilitation of international institutions in negotiations and associations that not only seek to solve conflicts but also promote international development.

The liberalist theory underscores the importance of human beings exchanging ideas for mutually beneficial cooperation. Liberalism allows for progress in all aspects of human life by providing equal opportunities to participants including international relations (Kapteyn, p. 28). Relations between people, states, and non-governmental organizations create a transnational network that supports peace, order, and development in the world.

Relationships between people are quite easy to establish and sustain as compared to transnational relations since the latter is characterized by complex and competing interests. The general welfare of nations matters in liberalist theory instead of security. Transnational interdependence among nations facilitates cooperation in the global arena as opposed to military interventions proposed under the realist theory.

International institutions actually facilitate negotiations between states by creating an enabling environment characterized by mutual trust and the alleviation of fear. International institutions, therefore, act as stewards of the nation-state since they are considered to be independent, transparent and reliable. Anarchy is not the only alternative to international peace. Interests that are central to a nation do not supersede mutual goals and common goals that serve everyone. International relations are not stand-alone activities but consolidated interventions which address the wider interests of nations in the international society (Derian, p. 24).

The liberalist thought accommodates the interests of all actors as equals. Interdependence between states is emphasized in liberal thought towards greater ties of economic integration, peaceful conflict resolution and cultural integration (Derian, p. 33). Nations, therefore, coexist despite their sovereignty and ability to self-help. International peace is realized through a balanced approach between diplomatic and military interventions.

Works Cited

  1. Beitz, Charles R. Political theory and international relations. Cambridge, MA: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  2. Chandler, David & Baker, Gideon. Global Civil Society: Contested Futures. London: Rutledge, 2005.
  3. Chandler, David. Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
  4. Derian, James D. Critical Practices in International Theory: Selected Essays. Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 2009.
  5. Derian, James D. International Theory: Critical Investigations. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.
  6. Kapteyn, P. J. G. International Organization and Integration: B-J, Volume 2. Belgrade: BRILL, 2003.
  7. Smith, Steve & Booth, Ken. International Relations Theory Today. Oxford: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.
  8. Sorensen, Georg & Jackson, Robert H. Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches. Texas: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  9. Watson, Adam & Bull, Hedley. The Expansion of international Society. Michigan: Clarendon Press, 2008.
  10. Wendt, Alexander. Anarchy is what States make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics. Cincinnati: Alexander Wendt, 1992.
  11. Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  12. Wight, Martin. Power Politics. Gibraltar: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002.

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DemoEssays. "Realist Versus Liberal International Relations Theory." February 21, 2022.