In the field of International Relations, realism and liberalism are considered the most prominent theoretical approaches. In fact, because of their competing and/ or differing views about the nature, scope, and focus on understanding IR, these two are seen as divergent paradigms – each holds abundant assumptions and empirical proofs that span centuries. In this essay, I will compare realism and liberalism (similarities and differences) based on assumptions about the nature of the international system, interest of actors, and the bases of how actors behave in the international system.
Let me begin with the nature of international system. Realism holds that the international system is anarchic – meaning, there is no central government that enforces norms and rules in the system of states. Classical/ human nature realism holds that because human nature is dominantly aggressive, opportunistic, and rational, it would always pursue its interests in a way that places interests over ideologies (Walt in Katznelson, 2009). States are parallel to humans who live in an anarchic setting. This is the premise of neorealism, an offshoot of realism, but it emphasizes that it is actually the anarchic nature of the international system, and not human nature, that compels states to seek survival (Waltz, 1979). On the other hand, liberalism asserts that humans are essentially good, and that they can live in peace. Although it recognizes that humans, and states for that matter, have the tendency to pursue their interests, they will nonetheless prefer collaboration in matters that will benefit them. Classical liberalism (such as in the works of Kant, Perpetual Peace) therefore believes in utopia – a society that exists in harmony, and where justice, rule of law, and order are firmly upheld. Neoliberalism, an offshoot of liberalism, maintains that there is indeed anarchy in the international structure BUT this can be overcome through complex interdependence and, by means of global institutions and regimes (Nye, Keohane, 83). Therefore, while realists see the nature of the international system as helpless, liberals see with optimist lens.
Second point of comparison is on the interests of actors. Basically, realism holds that states seek to survive and acquire power for security (Walt in Katznelson, and Goldstein). The realist tradition has always been keen on the notion that states would always strive to attain power primarily because of the uncertainties prevalent in the international structure. If we trace classical realism, from Thucydides (400 BC) Peloponnesian War to Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations (1948), the school attests to the notion that states like humans would always pursue relative gains – one state’s gain is another’s loss. Fear, jealousy, suspicions and anxieties fuel further insecurities. The more states are insecure, the more they increase with the use of power, and force when necessary. Liberal tradition recognizes the need for states to collaborate in order to achieve their common goals. Nye and Keohane, in Power and Interdependence, adhere to the realist assumption that states seek to survive in anarchy. In fact, to them, anarchy is a big problem; but they emphasize the argument that global institutions can mitigate the degree of anarchy, and can actually be instruments or viable means to achieve the common interests of states.
As to the bases of how actors behave in the system, the demarcation is clear: realists want relative gains while liberals prefer absolute gains. In the realist line of thinking, the uncertainties of power structure all the more make states hunger for more power in order to secure themselves in an anarchic setting. For one state to gain, the other should lose. But liberals strongly oppose to this view, arguing that power struggle will only complicate anarchy. As a resolve, states should focus on what can benefit them more. Liberalism buys rationality (rational behaviour of states to achieve ends) but sees it only as a factor that would eventually benefit the majority.
Steve Smith (Positivism and Beyond) observed that both realist and liberal paradigms are dominantly positivist in ontological terms. “What is out there” is clear: material acquisitions such as security through military strength, economic prosperity through complex interdependence, and the pursuit of national interests. For centuries, scholars supporting either tradition apply scientific methods akin to that of natural science to come up with empirical findings (Marsh, Stoker). However, as contemporary scholars of IR would attest, there is more to positivism, realism and liberalism.
Therefore, alternative theories have eventually emerged in the field of IR. These “non-mainstream” theories veer away from the “materialist” goals of both realism and liberalism, and rather adapt non-conventional means to understand international politics. Constructivism (social constructivism) is considered a more prominent alternative to the mainstream theories. In social constructivism, “ideational goals” replace “materialist goals.” It also holds that the world is a social construct (Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics). According to this theory, ideas and images play important roles in the transformation and revolution of international relations. Another alternative is the English School. Although its proponents recognize some salient features of realism and liberalism as important factors to understand IR, they nonetheless move toward the “via media” (middle path). It therefore criticizes traditional theories as narrow perspectives in IR problem-solving. This School is built on the foundations laid by Bull (Anarchical Society), Wight, Vincent, Watson (1960s-1980s), Dunne, Jackson and Wheeler (1990s) and recently, Buzan and Littler (2001). Critical Social Theories also either deconstruct (Postmodernism), critique and offer alternative view (Marxist), and suggests and reassess (Feminism) particular issues not addressed, or not fully attended to, by the traditional theories.