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Amanda Clower
Dr. D.S. DeWitt
UH 300-022
14 September 2016
Comparing Realism and Liberalism
All fields of study begin with debate. Even the tangible sciences, like chemistry and
biology, have scientists competing to find the best answers. International relations (IR) theory
seeks the best methods for interaction among individuals, nations, and the international system.
IR theory guides foreign policy decisions and outlines a nations national interest. Like many
fields, IR theory does not have one answer: contending perspectives have their strengths,
weaknesses, and assumptions. Though there are infinite ways that a nation could approach
foreign policy, realism and liberal internationalism1 are the most common and substantial
theories.
Realism and liberalism rely on assumptions of human nature and the international
system. Realism believes human nature is essentially selfish and has a natural lust for power
(Dickinson). Humans act to improve their condition, even at the cost of anothers interests.
Liberals hold a more idealistic view, believing human nature is essentially good and wants to
cooperate (Dickinson). Liberalism maintains that war is preventable when international
organizations mitigate conflict. Liberalism provides nave assumptions of human nature: it is
unrealistic to believe humans want to naturally cooperate, even at the expense of their own
interests. Realists provide an exaggerated account of human nature, believing conflict and war
are inevitable (Dickinson). This belief eliminates the possibility for cooperation and causes the

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anarchy of the international system. The assumptions of human nature cause polarity within IR
theory.
IR theories also differ on their levels of approach. Realists express the state as the
principal and unitary actor (Mingst). The state acts in its national interest and acts as a unified
body. Decision makers are seen as rational actors who seek to augment the states power and
influence (Mingst). The international system is not the principal actor, because it does not seek
national interest for the country. Liberalism identifies the individual as the critical actor
(Introduction to International Relations, 54) working in a globalized world. The individual
makes decisions that account for the common good and international goals. Liberalism grows
from the idealist stress on what unites people and countries and leads directly to the creation and
growth of international organizations (A Concise History, 12). Intergovernmental organizations
(IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs) are
institutions that allow communication and cooperation. Emphasizing the individual and the
international system, rather than the state, expresses the social, political, and economic
interdependence of countries. Seeing the state as the principal actor provides an insular view of
this interconnectedness.
To understand theory, it is necessary to understand national interest, the guiding force
behind foreign policy decisions. National interest is a defined goal that furthers what is best for
the country (Introduction to International Relations, 246). National interest could be in terms of
a countrys economy, society, politics, or its general values. For example, during the Cold War,
the United States defined its national interest in terms of extending democracy and defeating
communism. The United States used proxy wars and ideological attacks, at times not fulfilling its
goals. Joyce P. Kaufman, a professor at Whittier College, would consider this a realist approach,

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defining realist national interest in terms of power or more broadly in terms of [the state]
protecting what it sees as its core interests (Introduction to International Relations, 33). Realists
do not see power as strictly using force; power can also be influence or coercion. Hard and soft
power are methods to achieve a countrys foreign policy goals. Hard power involves the use of
military and economic means to influence the behavior of other countries (Merino). Examples
of hard power include military invasion, economic sanctions, and military and economic threats.
Hard power is only effective if a country has military or economic strength. Contrarily, soft
power involves the use of diplomacy and culture to influence the actions of other countries
(Merino). Examples of soft power include national image, humanitarian aid, and a countrys
leadership and cultural ideas. Many realist scholars agree that the combination of hard and soft
power is necessary to achieve policy goals.
Liberal internationalism does not see hard power or force as a means of influence. The
liberal school looks at countries as part of a collective body where security is best achieved if
countries work together rather than in competition (A Concise History, 12). Liberal
internationalism stresses communication and institutions as vehicles for cooperation. Like
realism, soft power can be a useful tool. For example, Canada is often seen as a liberal litmus test
for other countries: it is peaceful, cooperative, and diplomatic in international affairs. Canada has
used its diplomatic national image to influence countries such as Ethiopia to promote peace and
security in East Africa.
In studying realism, there are strengths and weaknesses. Realism assumes that the
nation-state will act in a rational way (to maximize benefits and minimize costs) (A Concise
History, 11). This assumption involves the interest of state power and rational choice theory, a
logical process weighing costs and benefits of an action (Dickinson). By using rational choice

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theory, realists review alternatives to make the decision that will further their national interest.
Though realism believes war is inevitable, rational choice theory can urge decisions that do not
involve fighting. Realists believe there is a conflict of interests on the international level, as seen
during the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union competed in a bipolar system for
hegemony. Both used power to further their national interests: the spread of democracy and the
spread of communism, respectively. Instead of nuclear deterrence, they created a security
dilemma, a situation in which one state improves its military capabilities in order to ensure its
security, but in doing so becomes a direct threat to another country, which responds with its own
military buildup (Introduction to International Relations, 248). The security dilemma created
feelings of insecurity among the United States, the Soviet Union, and many countries around the
world; there was an impending threat of nuclear proliferation. The security dilemma is a key
weakness of realism.
When countries focus solely on dominance and armament, they are constantly vulnerable
and willing to increase their power, or semblance of power. Kaufman notes that power is a
relative concept, not an absolute (Introduction to International Relations, 51), making it a poor
goal for the national interest. Without some cooperation, countries in a realist international
system will be in a constant struggle for dominance until a hegemon emerges. Realism considers
the state as the principal actor, yet there are many other institutions that can impact the
international system. For example, after the 9/11 attacks, the United States invaded Iraq under
vague circumstances. Al Qaeda, a non-state actor, gained power in the region and was a strong
opponent to the United States. In the realist view, only states can achieve such a display of
power. Since liberalists recognize non-state actors, they would approach Al Qaeda with the same

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mindset of achieving cooperation and diplomacy. The realist state-centered view does not
account for other actors that are prevalent in todays international system.
Liberalism also has strengths and weaknesses. Liberalism is often termed idealism for
its optimistic views of human nature and interactions. Liberalism advocates communication,
peace, and the common good. Kaufman concedes, Because of its broad worldview and its
acceptance of interdependence, many scholars believe liberalist theory is superior to realism in
a globalized, post-Cold War world (Introduction to International Relations, 53). Liberalism
places optimism in human nature and blames war on corrupt institutions. In this way, there is a
gap of accountability; individuals and states are not held accountable for their actions but rather
blame these ambiguous, corrupt institutions. Weaknesses of liberalism are numerous. Realists
argue against liberalism, because nation-states will only remain in organizations and conform to
their policies if it is in their interest to do so; institutions will only be effective if countries
allow them to be (Introduction to International Relations, 58). Countries focus on security and
survival over human rights, environmental protection, and ethical decisions. To realists, these are
low politics (Introduction to International Relations, 59) and do not reflect national interest.
Thus far, realism and liberalism have been defined in the sense of their classical
definitions. However, in 1979, Kenneth Waltz published Theory of International Politics in
which he explained neorealism. Neorealism emphasizes the international system over the state,
because its anarchic structure and balance of power determines outcomes of foreign policy
decisions (Mingst). Countries do not seek the entirety of their national interests (because it is
almost impossible with so many competing interests) but instead seek relative gains, a more
sensible goal. Neorealism is favorable to realism, because it does not rely solely on power and
dominance. Likewise, neoliberal institutionalism2 (a sect of liberalism) identifies the

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international system as anarchic and, like realists, maintain that states do not naturally want to
cooperate. Neoliberalists employ game theory to predict others actions and act appropriately;
many times, cooperation is in the best interest of the state (Mingst). Through institutions, such as
IGOs, NGOs, and MNCs, countries are forced to communicate and cooperate to achieve
common goals. Liberalists assume that all countries want to cooperate, but neoliberalists believe
states are self-serving and cooperate only to further their agenda.
Neoliberal institutionalism provides a rational view of foreign policy. In a globalized
world, the state cannot be the center of foreign policy; Neoliberalists recognize the
interdependence of countries and institutions, nullifying the concept that the state controls all
foreign policy decision making. In a world of self-serving human nature, the individual cannot be
seen as the ultimate policymaker. Neoliberalism approaches foreign policy with a combination of
realist and liberalist views: while human nature is selfish, policymakers still want to cooperate
because it is within their own interests. The international system serves as oversight to states and
international institutions provide forums for debate, communication, and diplomacy. Nationstates voluntarily enter into these institutions, knowing the benefits of cooperation with other
states. When faced with many options, states choose to collaborate with other nation-states.
While states have certain core interests, they still desire peace over conflict and insecurity.
Neoliberalism places the international system (including institutions) at the center of foreign
policy, creating an environment of cooperation.
1.
2.

Liberal internationalism will be shortened to liberalism throughout the text for brevity.
Neoliberal institutionalism will be shortened to neoliberalism throughout the text for brevity.

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Works Cited
Dickinson, Eliot. Political Science International Relations. BarCharts, Inc., 2012. Print.
Joyce P. Kaufman. A Concise History of U.S. Foreign Policy. Rowman and Littlefield
Publishers, 2006. Print.
Joyce P. Kaufman. Introduction to International Relations, Theory and Practice. Lanham :
Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.
Merino, Nol. America's Global Influence. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012. Print.
Mingst, Karen A., and Ivan M. Arreguin-Toft. Essentials of International Relations. 6th ed.
W. W. Norton, 2013. Print.