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on Relations
Theories of
Research proposal
The First Great Debate - Did the
Realism/liberalism really happen? What was
its purpose?

Written by Dimitar Emilov Dimitrov



International relations have existed basically since neighbouring

tribes started throwing rocks at, or trading with each other. Started
from the Peloponnesian War, through European poleis to ultimately
nation states, Realist trends can be observed before the term
existed. The evolution of Liberalist thinkingm from the
Enlightenment onwards, expressed itself in calls for a better and

more cooperative world before even finding practical application if little success - after the Great War. Generally it felt that there
have been four international relations Great Debates,
Reliasm/Liberalism, Tradionalism/Behaviouralism,
Neoralism/Neoliberalism and the most recent one
Rationalism/Reflectivism.International relations is a field of
political science that is focused on relationships between countries,
the roles of sovereign states, inter-governmental organizations,
international non-governmental organizations, non-governmental
organizations and multinational corporations. International
relations analyze and formulates the foreign policy of a state.
International relations dates from the time of the Greek historian
The "First Great Debate" also known as the "Realist-Idealist Great
Debate" was a dispute between idealists and realists and it took
place in the 1930s and 1940s and which is about how to deal with
Nazi Germany. Realists scholars emphasized the anarchical nature
of international politics and the need for state survival. Idealists
emphasized the possibility of international institutions such as the
League of Nations. However, some have argued that defining the
debate between realism and idealism in terms of a great debate is a
misleading caracature and so described the " great debate" as a
myth. So did the "First Debate Really happen"?

International relations theory is about the study of international
relations but from a theoretical perspective, it tries to provide a
conceptual framework upon which international relations can be
analyzed. Ole Rudolf Holsti is an American political scientist and
academic, he describes international relations theories as acting
like pairs of coloured sunglasses that allows person who wears
them to see only salient events relevant to the theory. The most
popular theories are three realism, liberalism and constructivism.
They can be divided into positivist / rationalist theories that focus
on a principally state level analyses and post-positivist / reflectivist
that incorporate and expands the meanings of security from class to
Every international relations theory is reductive and essentialist to
different degrees and they are relying on different sets of
assumptions respectively. The usefulness of an international
relations theory is determined from the number and character of
the assumptions made. For example realism is parsimonious and
essential theory it is very useful for historical actions but it is
limited in explaining systematic change and unable to predict
future events. On the other hand liberalism examines a very wide
number of conditions but can be insightful while analyzing past

events. Most traditional theories dont have much about the

behavior of former colonies but post-colonial theory have greater
insight into this area but it also fails in other situations.

Realism is mainly focused on state security and power. It is also
known as political realism and it is a school of international
relations that is focused on national interest and security instead of
ideals or social reconstructions. Many people synonymous realism
with power politics. The international system in realism is
anarchic. The main purpose for the states is surviving, they are
using self-help dynamic. All human begins are ready to conflict.
National interest is not determined by personal morality because
states face one another as sovereign nation states not like
individuals. Politics function from interest and power not from
The most important key assumptions for realism are:
The international system is anarchic.
There is no authority that is above states capable of
regulating their interactions
The relations between different states should not be dictated
from controlling entity about their arrival
International institutions, non-governmental organizations,
multinational corporations and individuals are having little
independent influence
All the relations between states are determined by their
comparative level of power from their military and economic
States are not guided by universal principles about their
actions, although they only must be aware of the actions of
the state around it, they have to deal with the problems that
In international relations morality causes only reckless
commitments, diplomatic rigidity and may cause a conflict
Basically realists believe that mankind is not inherently
benevolent but more like self-centered and competitive. The
Hobbesian perspective views mankind as selfish and conflictual
unless you give them appropriate conditions under which to
start cooperate, contrasts with the approach of liberalism to
international relations. Realists also believe that all states are
inherently aggressive or obsessed with security issues and that a

conflict from territorial expansion is only constrained by

opposing powers. Although aggressive build-up can lead to a
security dilemma where increasing security can bring to a
greater instability as the opponents build up its own arms in
response. In summary security is a zero-sum game where only
relative gains can be made.
There are four main types of realism that are connect with
international relations classical realism, liberal realism,
neorealism, neoclassical realism. Theories of political realism
begins with the works of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo
Machiavelli, and this
emerged into International Relations based
approach in the 20 century inter-war years. There are also two
main international relations Marxist international theory and
One of the best-known realist thinkers is Niccolo Machiavelli.
In his book The Prince written in 1513, he advised rulers to use
deceit and violence as tools against other states. According to
him moral goals are so dangerous, if someone acts morally this
will bring only disaster. He also advised how to deal with
conflicts between neighboring states and what is the way to
defend your homeland. His methods were brutal.
Classical realism is a theory of IR emerged in the post-World
War II era that was seeking an explanation of international
politics. They believe that it is fundamentally the nature of man
that pushes states and individuals in order to act in a way that
places interests and ideologies. Its ideology is defined as a drive
for power and the will to dominate and this is held to be
fundamental aspects of human nature. The international system
is anarchic, no true authoritative world government exists.
Because of the anarchy here is distrust of long-term
cooperation. Sovereign states are the principal actors in the
international system. States resolve in order to achieve high
levels of security.
Classical Realism and Structural realism holds that the states
are rational actors leaded from their own national interests. The
difference between them is that Structural Realism emphasizes
on the function and the role of the international system and the
way that states interact in it
Liberal Realism or the English school is a theory of
international relations that is based on the idea that there is a
society of states at international level, no matter that there is
anarchy. The theory believes that ideas rather than material
capabilities are important for international politics and this
deserves analysis and critique. It is more based in world history
and international law and political theory. The English School
writer Hedley Bull has a key statement about the believes that

while the English School has a system that is anarchical in

structure it forms a society of states where common norms and
interests allow a lot more order and stability than what you
might find in a strict realist view and his book called The
Anarchical Society is a key for his statement.
Neorealism or so called structural realism is a theory of
international relations, it is associated with Kenneth Waltz and
his 1979 book Theory of International Politics. Neorealism is
also called structural realism which signifies that the theory
centers on the effects of the structure of the international system
and also seeks to explain outcomes in the international politics.
According to Kenneth Waltzs
conception of structure, there are two very important things
about the international system.
First the international system is anarchy. Basically this means
that there is no such things a world government and there is no
higher authority above the states. That means the international
system is a self-help system that consists of autonomous states,
which must be prepared to fend itself. No matter what goal the
units of the system seek, survival is always their first
fundamental goal. The main points it that under anarchy, every
state operates on its own without having recourse to any
authority no matter if it is higher.
The second principle of the structure of international politics is
the distribution of capabilities across the units that are under
international system. Capabilities , or power , vary
significantly between states: states, though functionally
undifferentiated, are differentiated according to how much
power they possess. Variations in power yield variations in the
types and magnitudes of structural constraints that states face,
thereby effectuating variation in how states behave (or
should behave).

Neoclassical realism it considers interactions among states, it

leaves issues of behavior of individual states to foreign-policy
theorists. For example Waltz consider foreign policy as too
complex for theory, this can never parsimoniously make all the
contributing factors endogenous . Gideon Rose confront foreign
issues, falling into four main schools Innenpolitik theorists ,
defensive realists, offensive realists and neoclassical realists.
The first theory of foreign policy called Innenpolitik believes
that foreign policy is a direct outgrowth of domestic politics. Some
issues as ideology, culture and economics are oft-cited factors

shaping states foreign policies. Main reasons why Gideon Rose

criticizes innepolitik theorists is that they fail to give an
explanation why similar states differently or vice versa.
The defensive realists believe that the system is innocuous
anarchic. They believe that states can deal with most external
issues through tweaks of the power balance, violence should break
out only in certain fear-breeding situations. The foreign policy is
much more peaceful.
On the other side the offensive realists believe that the states seek
to maximize their security. It basically consists of nervous states
jockeying for position within this anarchic framework. But
Gideon Rose believes that states in same structural positions
behave dissimilarly.
Neoclassical realists believe security isnt the main issue, but states
should try to use their powers to direct the international system and
achieve their goals. Therefore states that are more powerful will
prosecute foreign policy that is far-reaching and the unit level is
also very important.


Constructivism is not a theory, but rather an ontology. It is a set of

assumptions about the world and human motivation and agency. Its
counterpart is not Realism or Liberalism but Rationalism. By
following the rationalist framework that undergirds many
international relations theories, constructivists are creating
constructivist alternatives and theories.
Constructivism emerged in the 1990s as a challenged to the
dominant realist and liberal theoretical paradigms. It claims that
significant aspects of international relations are historically and
socially structured, they are not inevitable consequences of human
nature or essential part of world politics. Alexander Wends accepts
two basic tenets of Constructivism that the structures of human
associations are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than
material forces, and that the identities and interests of purposive
actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by
Constructivists are not denying that reality is an illusion, they are
arguying that reality that is around us is not merely a product of
purely objective material forces, rather than it is essentially a
product of our shared values, ideas, perceptions and
understandings. Constructivists believe that there is mutually
constitutive or interactive relationship between actors and
structures ( this is referred to structuration, a concept by Anthony
Constructivist theories of international relations holds that
anarchy is social construction. That is not inherently dangerous or

unstable. It can only become so when states interpret it as such, it

is not the only thing that matters but also interaction with others
create and instantiate one structure of identities and interests rather
than another : structure has not existence or causal power apparat
from process.

Competing paradigms




Concern for power
states competing for leaded by economic
power and security and political
considerations (desire
for prosperity and
commitment to liberal

State behavior shaped

by elite beliefs,
collective norms and
social identities

Main Instruments

Economic and
especially military

Ideas and discourse

Modern Theorists

Kenneth Waltz,
Hans Morgenthau

Differs from
institutions, economic
exchange and
promotion of
Michael Doyle,
Robert Keohane

Keohane After
Fukuyama The end
of History?

Wendt Anarchy is
What States Make of
Koslowski &
Changes in
International Politics

Main Units of Analysis

Representative Modern Waltz Theory of


Back to the Future:
Instability in
Europe after the
Cold War

Individuals - Elites

Alexander Wendt,
John Ruggie

Post-Cold War

Resurgence of overt Increased cooperation

great power
with liberal values,
free markets, and
institutions spread

Main Limitations

Does not account

for international

Agnostic because it
failed to predict the
content of ideas

Tries to ignore the role Better at describing

of power
the past than
anticipating the future

Marxist international relations theory

Marxist international relation theories are not focused on
realist/liberal view of state neither on conflict/cooperation, they
focus on the economic and material aspects. It discusses the
separation of the classes, and focus them on their economic status
more than everything.
The basic principle of Marxism is the whole world should be based
on economic status, rather than stimulating politics. They believe
that people that are wealthy should become more wealthy, which
created a two international relations theories world-systems
theory and dependency theory.
World-systems theory has a historical-sociological approach to
political economy, keep their focus on the systematic level of
analysis. Countries are able to choose between core and periphery.
Immanuel Wallerstein believes that the world is build on a premise
where surplus materials are distributed from the periphery states to
the core states.
The dependency theory explains the dependence of developing
countries on powerful developed countries. Their focus is on the
redistribution of raw materials from poor countries to more richer
countries. This is from a great benefit for the power developed
countries. Poor countries stay dependent from from the wealthier
countries for their sustainability. Dependency theory is an
endorsement is seen as an endorsement of a policy of autarky.
For example policy like the Great Leap Forward in China and the
policy of Ujamma in Tanzania have failed, because such system is

not suitable for economic growth and development.

Some realists and liberals criticize Marxist theories for ideological

reasons. While postpositivists reject the elevation of class conflict,
they believe that this is the most significant aspect of human life
and also a key to understand the human history and behavior.

Idealism is the precursor to liberal international theory and more
specifically Woodrow Wilson, which took place after the
institution builders after World War II. Idealists believe that a state
should make its internal political philosophy, their goal towards
foreign policy.
Liberalism holds that state preferences are more important than
state capabilities and are vital for the determination of states
behavior. Liberalism holds the idea for plurality in the state
actions, unlike realism where the state is viewed like a unitary
actor. Preferences will be different from state to another, depending
on economic system, culture and government type. Liberalists
believe that interaction between states is not limited to the
political/security, but also to economic and cultural - through
commercial firms, organizations or even individuals.
Unlike usual anarchic international system, there are many
opportunities for cooperation and broader notions of power like
cultural capital, for example the influence of firms may increase
the popularity of the countrys culture and can lead to a creation of
a market. Another assumptions is that absolute gains can be made
with co-operation and interdependence, it give us a conclusion that
peace can be achieved.

Democratic peace theory

Democratic peace theory holds that democracies will rarely go to
war with other identified democracies. Unlike theories that give an
explanation to war engagement, this is a theory of peace. Some
theorists call it mutual democratic pacifism, they dont believe

that state of peace is secured but rather that it is easily sustained

between democratic nations. When presented with exceptions,
proponents of the democratic peace theory move the goalposts,
changing the definition of democracy or war so that the claim
remains true (No True Scotsman) Matthew White writes:
Ive witnessed this debate on Usenet several times, and it always
follows the same pattern:
Somebody casually brings up the old factoid about how
no two democracies have ever gone to war with one
Somebody jumps in and lists a dozen or so wars which
have been fought between democracies.
Somebody else points out that those countries werent
democratic, not really.
Everybody gets into arguments over who was or was
not democratic.
The argument fizzles out expect for two guys
continuing to argue over whether the American War
was about slavery.
James Lee Ray thinks that with a sufficiently restrictive
definition of democracy, the claim becomes trivially true
define democracy as true universal suffrage, the right of all,
even give a children a permission to vote, and there have
been no democracies and therefore no wars between them.
Some fear that the democratic peace theory may be a weapon
to justify wars against non-democracies in order to bring
lasting peace, in their democratic crusade.

History and basic assumptions

Throughout history various actors have followed the path of
self-interest, power projection and the path of conflict. For
example Thucydides chronicled Athens' zero-sum war with
Sparta from 431-404BC, while even centuries later
Machiavelli noted that " the first way to win a state is to be
skilled in the art of war" (1999, page 47). In Thomas Hobbes'
Leviathan, he suggested that a hegemonic power was
required to impose order, ensuring man's survival and
security and protecting him from his nature, that of war and
power ( Bull 1981, page 190).
Cosmopolitanism was a greek socio-political philosophy, it
states that all people, regardless of difference were members

of a community. While not identical, similiar Liberalist

sentiments were advanced by Enlightenment writers. After
that many advocated the interests of the individual and called
for states to be conductive to these, such as John Locke's
espousal of inalienable natural rights and the Utilitarianism
advocated by jeramy Bentham. Immanuel Kant also believed
that " a cosmopolitan whole, a system of all states" could
eventually establish a perpetual peace ( Hoffe 2006, page
There are very basic summations of their proposals and there
were differences between them and yet this highlights a
gradual evolution in proto-Liberalist thinking, with these
principles and others coalescing into advocating cooperative
approaches that are between states and the bringing of order
to the anarchical international system for the benefit of
human rights,justice,law and economies.

The hypothesis

The carnage of the First World War was principally

responsible for the upsurge in Liberalist thinking. WIth
Woodrow Wilson at the vanguard, the belief that conflict
could be tamed and eventually vanquished through
institutional order was applied with the creation of the
League of Nations. This was very ambitious but also ill-fated,
the League was immediately undermined by the failure of the
American legislature to ratify participation in an organisation
that at least during its formative years enjoyed considerable
public support (Knock 1992, p.239).
All of this leads to Realists long historical narrative of powerplays and conflicts from which to draw, it was little wonder
they questioned the views of Liberalists during the later InterWar period, labelling them idealists or Utopians. Just as
Liberalists regarded Realists as far too pessimistic about
change and lacking in imagination to see all posibilities of
cooperation and extension of law, diplomacy and security, so
did Realists see their idealistic opponents as dangerously
Even though Realists generally agreed that morality should
be observed and even advanced, even they felt these were
best incubated in domestic environments made secure thanks
to the states power. Loading all security guarantees onto the
weak shoulders of international bodies was seen as very
dangerous, given the risks posed to national survival if such
arrangements failed. Indeed the very idea that the League

could function well as envisioned given the variety of states

involved, their ideals and relative power, was suspect (Carr
1939, p.30). The actions of Germany, Italy and Japan
throughout the 1930s prove the impotence of the League in
the face of aggressive expansionism by revisionist states. The
credibility of both it and Liberalism were seriously
undermined, then it finished off with the commencement of
World War Two.
Realists had the opportunity to effectively gun down the
Liberalist case, and no one wielded the weapon more brutally
than EH Carr in his 1939 text The Twenty Years Crisis.
Carrs contrasting of Realism and Liberalism, and his
essential critique of the latter, was that the complete realist,
unconditionally accepting the causal sequence of events,
deprives himself of the possibility of changing reality. The
complete utopian, by rejecting the causal sequence, deprives
himself of the possibility of understanding either the reality
which he is seeking to change or the process by which it can
be changed (1939, p. 12).
Some people dispute the need for such assaults. Lucian
Ashworth charges that basic idealist tenets applied to
Liberalist writers of the time failed to accurately describe
them, that this distorted debates they conducted between
themselves and exaggerated their differences with Realists;
altogether drastically oversimplifying the issue to the extent
that Ashworth even questions calling this a Great Debate at
all (2006, pp. 291-292). Indeed it can be suggested that a
more pragmatic Liberalism enjoyed a revival following the
War with the formation of international organisations, such as
the United Nations, NATO, the EEC and its descendants,
which have enjoyed accomplishments despite inherent issues.
Even John Mearsheimer (2005, p. 140) points out that
Idealism remains entrenched in the British school today not
the hallmark of a fatally undermined position.
At the end, the bulk of the literature calls this Debate for
Realists. The impact was that Realist theory found far greater
respect in academic and policy circles than its opposition,
and indeed it is clear that Liberalism has since grown closer
to Realist sentiment, as evidenced in the Neo-Neo debate
discussed later. And all the negative impact was the effective
shutting out of alternative positions in the face of Realist
dominance. All of these established a pattern in American
and European academies, generally Realist and Liberalist

respectively, where rebels were and are often given short

shrift, ultimately doing no favours for the overall
development of International Relation theory.

I think that the "The First Great Debate' did take place, all the
Great Debates happened even though they have been glossed over
by some myths and readjustments. As some scholars have
suggested, that the Great Debates are "half-truth, or highly
distorted and overly simplistic caricature, rather than a complete
fiction" (Quirk and Vigneswaran 2005: 91). In short, any
metanarrative has always been colored and constructed for some
purpose. Nevertheless, the Great Debates maintain their virtues and
were very important by rectifying IR as a clear-cut discipline. This
is similar to Weaver's belief (2011) that the Great Debate narratives
are an integral part of the discipline, that should not be easily
dismissed. Today, years after the debate between idealists and
realists allegedly occurred, the first great debate continues to
occupy central places in the field's historical
consciousness.Although we now have a much better understanding
of the historiography of the whole field, the notion that a
disciplinary defining great debate took place in the 1930s and
1940s between idealists and realists continues to persists.

References :
1. Theories of International Relations Ole R Hosti
2. Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy
Gideon Rose
3. Neorealism in international relations Kenneth Waltz
4. Man, the state and War Kenneth Waltz
5. Theory of World Politics Keohane

6. Anarchy is What States Make of It - Wendt