Understanding IR Theories I: Realism V. Liberalism

**Powerpoint files**

I. Introduction: when thinking about how the world works IR scholars usually subscribe to one of two dominant theories, realism or liberalism. One, classical/neo-realist thought, is more pessimistic about the prospects of peace, cooperation, and human progress whilst the other, liberalism/idealism, is more upbeat and sanguine about human nature and human possibilities. In this lecture, we examine each worldview in depth...at the end I'd like you to think about which, if any, view you subscribe to...


sotl   realism    pon

II. International Relations Theory


A. What is theory? One word often used to describe theory is "paradigm". According to Ray and Kaarbo, a paradigm is simply a way of thinking about and approaching an area of scientific or scholarly inquiry that is widely accepted within a particular discipline. 

1. In other words, a paradigm provides a simplified map of reality; it takes the complexity of the real world and reduces it to a core set of assumptions that make global events that seem so isolated, unrelated and complicated more comprehensible.

2. So thats what theory and paradigms are all about: they help us systematize and simplify a very complicated world. Good theory is generally simple (see Ockham's Razor...William of Ockham said [a long time ago!] that "when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better."), accurate, and elegant.

or       wofo

                                                                        -William of Ockham

3. Note that to be valuable, a paradigm of world politics needn't explain every event. This is b/c theory, by nature, simplifies reality so that certain things are missed. This simply can't be helped.

4. Ray and Kaarbo (p4) make the point that studying theories "allows students of international relations to analyze global politics in the future, long after they finish reading this book or taking courses on the subject. When students learn only history or contemporary issues...their knowledge of global politics is limited in time because new issues and events are always arising." In short, by studying theories of IR, you will be able to see events in a broader, more analytical, more systematic framework rather than a limited and time bound one...analytically, that's vital.

5. In this lecture we will be examining two dominant paradigms in world politics: Realism and Liberalism (along with sub-theories within the same larger paradigm)

III. The Realist Worldview

      A.  Let's start with a quote from Thomas Hobbes (1651), whom many characterize as probably the major citidel of the modern theory we call classical realism:

th       lev

      -The stylish Mr. Hobbes                                                                              - Cover of his seminal work, "Leviathan"


"Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man...To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notion of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues."

1. You should note from the above that realism embraces a more pessimistic view of world politics, state relations, and the possibility of "perpetual peace"...That's why I started with this b/c Hobbes' more pessimistic view of the world really underscores the theory we call classical realism (and which is now called structural/neo realism)

B. Definitions and Description of Realist Theory.

1. According to professors Kegley & Wittkopf (31), classical realism is “a paradigm based on the premise that world politics is essentially and unchangeably a struggle among self-interested states for power and position under anarchy, with each competing state pursuing its own national interests”

2. Ray and Kaarbo (p4) write that realism is "a theoretical perspective for understanding intl. relations that emphasizes states as the most important actor in global politics, the anarchical nature of the intl. system, and the pursuit of power to secure states' interests."

3. The founding father of this theory is the Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote the seminal account of the war between Athens and Sparta. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides argues that the war broke out b/c Athens was concerned about Sparta's growing power. His writings greatly influenced theorists and statemen alike through the next two thousand years, including the modern proponents (Morgenthau, Kissinger, Waltz, James et al) of classical and neo-realism...

4. In short and in sum, realists see international relations as driven by the unrelenting and competitive pursuit of power by states in the effort to secure state interests.

5. For realists, the most important source of power is military capability, and the acquisition and use of that military capability makes the realists' world one prone to violence and warfare.

6. At the core of this theory is that world politics takes place within a context of anarchy (ie the absence of world govt. which is different than how the world of domestic politics functions), which Thomas Hobbes likens to a state of nature. In this state of nature, Hobbes argues that because there are no rules, no laws, no enforcement mechanisms etc, that conflict turns into war (he calls it a perpetual "war of all against all") which is why INSIDE countries, people consent (ie the so-called social charter) to live under a government that makes and enforces laws, order, security, etc. In this state, people don't have absolute freedom BUT they sacrifice some liberty to that govt. in order to get order and security...

7. In world politics, we don't have this, ergo, realists argue that we live in a "state of nature", or in a world of perpetual conflict. Therefore, the violence, chaos, death and destruction that often accompany world politics reflect the "war of all against all" that intl. anarchy directly implies...

8. Realists also assume that states, or countries, are the "key actors and determine what happens in the world" (Ray and Kaarbo: 5). Ray and Kaarbo (p. 5) add that "states can, if they choose, control all other actors, according to realism."

9. State interests, rather than human rights or ideological preferences, are the reason behind every state action. Ray and Kaarbo (p. 5) suggest that "it is the maximization of power that is in a state's interest. Thus, everything a state does can be explained by its desire to maintain, safeguard, or increase its power in relation to other states."

10. In the world of anarchy and state sovereignty, there is no higher authority to impose order, and there is no intl. 911 number for states to call when their interests are threatened. States must therefore provide for their own defense and protection. Realists refer to this effort by states to defend their own interests as SELF-HELP (usually though the acquisition of military capacity or joining alliances...)

11. In short and in sum, without an "intl. world authority, they must look out for their own interests" which realists suggest is all about securing and maintaining their power. To realists, this is the only rational way to behave in an anarchic intl. realm...

12. The implications of all of the above for realists is somewhat obvious: war is inevitable...this is b/c in a world with no higher power to impose order and resolve disputes, with almost 200 sovereign actors looking to defend their interests via self-help, and where efforts at self-help and self-defense can threaten other actors in the system, states sometimes need to use force to resolve disputes with other states...

13. Realists conclude a few other things--the possibility of cooperation and change is limited, that world politics is not primarily about good and evil, that power trumps justice, and that the road to order lies through the balance of power...

a. Ray and Kaarbo site Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait as an example of how states act to maximize their power above all else...

      C.  The core of classical realist theory is best summarized in the form of 10 assumptions:


IV. The Liberal Worldview


A. As in classical realist theory, I will start the discussion of liberalism with a quote from one of the founders of this paradigm, Immanuel Kant (1795):

ik     perpetual peace

      -The perspicacious Dr. Kant                                                      -Kant's towering "Toward Perpetual Peace"

"But the homage which each state pays (at least in words) to the concept of law proves that there is slumbering in man an even greater moral disposition to become master of the evil principle in himself (which he cannot disclaim) and to hope for the same from others...For these reasons there must be a league of a particular kind, which can be called a league of peace (foedus pacificum), and which would be distinguished from a treaty of peace (pactum pacis) by the fact that the latter terminates only one war, while the former seeks to make an end of all wars forever."


1. You should note from the above that liberalism, or idealist theory, embraces a more optimistic view of world politics, state relations, and the possibility of "perpetual peace"...That's why I started with this quote by Kant's more optimistic view of the world.

B. Definitions and Description of Liberal Theory


1. According to Kegley & Wittkopf (2006: 28), liberalism is "a paradigm predicated on the hope    that the application of reason and universal ethics to international relations can lead to a more orderly, just, and cooperative world, and that international anarchy [lack of a hierarchy/world government] and war can be policed by institutional reforms that empower international organizations and laws"

2. Ray and Kaarbo (p. 7) define intl. liberalism as "a theorectical perspective emphasizing interdependence between states and substate actors as the key characteristic of the intl. system."

3. Liberalism, or what many also call idealism/idealist theory, can be traced back to Kant's "Toward Perpetual Peace" though more recently, in the period b/n WWI and WWII, the major intellectual challenger to the realist paradigm was idealism. Idealists questioned many of the basic tenets of realism and suggested that it would be possible to transform the world of power seeking and war into one in which peace and cooperation among states might prevail...

4. Idealism, in contrast to realism, suggests a well-intentioned but utopian perspective that realists believe was out of touch with how the real world actually works...which is why the word idealism was shelved for the world liberalism, which couldn't be tarred as fuzzy headed and out of touch...

5. Unlike realists, liberals believe that significant global cooperation is possible and that we can move beyond the power politics at the heart of the realist paradigm.

6. For liberals, the key assumption is that peace and cooperation among states can produce absolute gains for all. As long as your state is better off as a result of cooperating with others, the gains of others should not matter...realists are only concerned with relative gains (why intl. trade isn't the end all be all for classical realists, esp. if you will empower a rival)

7. BTW, whilst Kant argued that the natural state of humankind is one of war and conflict he also importantly suggested a state of peace can be established. He argues that this "perpetual peace" can be established, esp. through the (1) the creation of a loose "federation of free states" whose members were committed to maintaining intl. order and security, (2) the "spirit of commerce" which in Kant's view is "incompatible with war" and which "sooner or later gains the upper hand in every state", and

(3) the creation of republican govts in which executive power is checked by an independent legislature

8. Liberals argue that realist explanations of anarchy and self-help are wrong b/c they miss the REAL nature of world politics in the modern world: COMPLEX INTERDEPENDENCE, which has become the "dominant feature of global politics" (Ray and Kaarbo: 9).

a. Complex interdependence means that there are multiple channels among a variety of actors in intl. politics.

b. Where realists see states as the only important actors, liberals see a world where there are a variety of non-state actors (such as multi-national corporations, intergovernmental organizations, and governmental organizations), share the world stage with countries.

c. They also argue that multiple issues, not just military security, are vital to the global agenda...

C. Modern Liberalism based on the following set of assumptions:

    1. Human nature is essentially "good"
    2. The fundamental human concern for others' welfare makes progress possible
    3. Sinful or wicked human behavior such as violence is not the product of flawed people but of evil institutions
    4. War and international anarchy are NOT inevitable
    5. War is a global problem requiring collective rather than national efforts to control it
    6. Reforms must be inspired by a compassionate ethical concern for the welfare and security of all people
    7. International society must reorganize itself in order to eliminate the institutions that make war likely


 D. The Post-WWI Liberal Reform Agenda

    1. 1st group advocated creating intl institutions which would replace the anarchic, war-prone balance-of-power system
    2. 2nd group emphasized the use of legal processes such as mediation and arbitration to settle disputes and avoid interstate wars
    3. 3rd group followed the biblical injunction that states should beat their swords into plowshares and disarm


***John Stossel on "Ending World Poverty": What would an idealist/liberal argue and how would a realist react to Stossel's video/arguments?***



1. Liberalism                                                         

2. Liberalism's Seven Assumptions                         

3. The Liberal Reform Agenda                                        

4. League of Nations

5. Kellog-Briand Pact

6. Self-Determination

7. Realism

8. 10 Assumptions of Classical Realist Theory

9. Strengths/weaknesses of Liberalism/Realism