The Liberal Challenge to Realism Essay

Liberalism poses as an alternate framework to realism for understanding international relations. There are three main positions held by liberals that contrast those views held by realists. The issues of conflict and cooperation, relative and absolute gain, and the pessimistic and optimistic outlook on individuals will be focused on. Liberalism is effective, to an extent, in illustrating the rather one-dimensional approach adopted by realists. This paved the way to the new formulation of both neoliberalism and neorealism that was heavily influenced by behaviourist methodologies.

The neo-neo synthesis thus arose in response to the challenges each theory set out for each other. Nevertheless, this essay will argue that despite these obvious challenges, the two theoretical ideologies are fundamentally similar rendering the contrast ineffective. The core ‘truths’ and assumptions forming the backdrop of the two theories are constructed forms of knowledge that lead to a certain perception of the international system, its operations and capabilities. The methodologies they both used to set a liberal and realist framework are also identical.

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They both adopt a scientific approach to understanding international relations, which drastically undermines the intrinsic nature of the human world. Liberal and realist methodology is brought to critical analysis by theories such as constructivism and Marxism. The neo-neo debate serves to further these similarities especially in terms of methodological approaches. Contrasting liberalism and realism may be effective on each theories interpretation of certain aspects of IR, but fundamentally they are both more similar than different and the liberal ‘challenge’ is deemed ultimately ineffective.

Liberalism provides an interestingly contrasting substitute to realist theory. Liberalism is in essence the complete opposite to realism with regards to the weight it places on power, the perception of an anarchical system and the ultimate goal for survival. Realism as a theory is largely concerned with the effects of an international system in IR. Despite the fact that “both [realism and liberalism] agree that the international system is anarchic”[1], the two theories differ in what they consider to be the potential and operational capacity within an anarchic system. The presence f anarchy in the international system is a core assumption of all the braches within realism. Sovereign states are understood to exist within a necessarily conflictual system where they are perpetually competing for power. The power politics of realism is constructed upon the notion of conflict between nation states and the presence of a security dilemma. On the other hand, liberalism holds that anarchy does not have exclusively negative consequences. They introduce the prospect of cooperation between states, as they believe states to be rational actors similarly to realism.

Institutionalist liberals regard anarchy as a potentially positive factor that could accommodate consolidated liberal democracies with peace. The main point is that for all liberals -unlike realists- “there exists the firm possibility of state peace”[2] which could arise from the state of anarchy in the international system. This liberal challenge to realism is effective in that it aids the development of the neo-neo debate, whereby neorealists as well as neoliberals reassess their conceptions of what could be possible from an anarchical system.

In relation to the anarchical system, the determined actions of states can be explained by absolute or relative gains; how states would primarily act in the international system. Realists lean towards relative gain which describes the action of states in accordance to the balance of power while disregarding all other factors. The zero-sum game dictates that the only way states can gain wealth is through imperialistic ends. Liberals oppose this view by relative gains which say that international actors will consider the total effect of a decision on the state or organization and act accordingly.

They take economic factors in particular into account, as their approach is towards a non-zero-sum game. Liberals propose that a state can gain wealth through comparative advantage, where states engage in peaceful trade. The choice between realism and liberalism in this respect is the choice between war and peace. Liberals provide an answer for expanding a state’s wealth through peaceful means which would eliminate the potentially drastic costs of imperial conquests and war.

The liberal alternative is progressive in this sense and increases the level of interdependence and economic and social integration of nation states which could serve to decrease the probability of war due to the high costs of doing so. The final challenge liberalism faces from realism is having an optimistic view on human nature and progress rather than a bleak and pessimistic one. The liberal theoretical departure from realism is the individual and the possibility of progress. A theory built on an arguably utopian, but largely positive world view seeks solutions through peace.

Ironically, the balance of power is desirable for realists due to the belief that peace would be derived from such a state of politics. The means for realism is war, while its end is peace. Liberalism effectively challenges this by counteracting the idea that war is the necessary means by emphasising the importance of an underplayed actor in realist politics: the individual. As obvious as the effectiveness of the liberal challenge to realism seems, there is space for the ineffectiveness of liberalism as an opposing theory. While liberalism calls for peace, it does not however propose how to achieve such a goal.

Republican and Institutionalist liberalism claim democracy to be the vanguard for establishing and maintaining peace. [3] This remains as an opinion rather than a solid mechanism for promoting peace, which has been criticised by theories such as Marxism and constructivism. The development of the neo-neo debate was successful in highlighting the differences between the two theoretical approaches. Nonetheless, both theories emphasise the same things: the importance of interests as well as individualist, materialist and reductionist qualities.

Despite liberalism’s different approach to the full role state, it still holds as realism does that it remains as the most important actor. Constructivism critically says that actors at the sub-state level may be more important, as experience has shown that change tended to emerge from the domestic level. The importance of pursuing the state’s interest has dominated both theories. The state is the most important actor to both liberalism and realism, and is seen as the ultimate contestant in an anarchical system, although liberalism does acknowledge the significance of other actors.

Both theories are also individualistic. Liberalism’s pessimistic outlook on human nature dictates that humans will selfishly act to fulfil the ultimate goal of survival. Liberalism is not as different as it holds that humans share the interest for material well-being and self-preservation and that it is in their own individual interest to cooperate. Hence, liberalism serves as a mere optimistic extension of realist theory on human interests. The materialistic thread in both theories has received scrutiny from Marxism as capitalistic theories.

Realism leaves open the necessity of imperialism as a means of material gain, while liberalism proposes peaceful economic integration to achieve the same material ends. State interests for both theories largely revolve round materialistic qualities. In addition, their view on human nature is based on human material desires and how a constitutional body may best fulfil such. Most importantly, liberalism and realism have come across as reductionist theories. Narrow and arguably subjective frameworks such as liberalism and realism undermine the sheer complexity involved in understanding IR.

The politics of IR is instead reduced to the fundamental nature of humans. The likeliness between liberalism and realism perhaps nullifies the possibility of liberalism itself posing as a challenge to realism. Liberalism to an extent is unable to challenge realism due to the fundamental similarities between the two ideologies in two aspects. Firstly, the methodologies that have risen to explain the two theories are identical. Secondly, the fact that liberalism and realism are founded on constructed knowledge from supposed given ‘truths’ about the nature of the world, the people inhabiting it and how it works, or can work.

Both theories in their classic form take the traditional approach to IR that focuses on the norms, values and historical knowledge of a subject. This approach is a holistic one that accepts the complexity of the world and “seeks to understand it in a humanistic way by getting inside it. ”[4] The newly formulated neo-neo synthesis made a new approach and methodology to understanding IR desirable. A behaviouralist response was followed which disregarded the ethics of IR for the sake of an objective and scientific study. Social constructivists have condemned a scientific approach to IR as a superficial method as it undermines many factors.

It makes the mistake of treating human relations as an external phenomenon. Humans aside, they perceive nation states as static units that are not susceptible to change. The nature of politics is much more complex and it has been argued that it can no longer be addressed as social ‘science’. The two theories are also fundamentally the same because their knowledge is constructed upon assumptions on human nature, despite their contrasting approach on whether it is a pessimistic or an optimistic view. Constructivists address this as they intend on disintegrating the ‘truths’ established by IR theories.

Constructivists hold onto a normative agenda to redefine terms and remake concepts, such as the international system for example. Concepts such as power, sovereignty and states are inventions rather than given truths about the nature of politics. Realism’s concept of states as historical units is contended by Marxist thought that states have not always existed; rather they are constructed aesthetic ideas. Marxism also says that the liberal idea of isolated individuals cannot exist, simple because the sheer complexity of the nature of their lives and that of those around them.

Marx appropriately said that humans are “social animals”[5] and are inevitably prone to change. They are not static units that can be used in game theory by theoretical frameworks. Liberalism does contest important aspects of realism, such as the fundamentals of war and peace. Liberalism provides a peaceful alternative to attaining peace within a state and the international system. Liberalism is clearly effective in highlighting the possibility to alter realist theory to adopt a view acknowledging the importance of actors beyond the sovereign state etc. Despite these differences, the two theoretical frameworks are ultimately alike.

They both contain materialist, individualist and reductionalist qualities as well as stressing the weight of state interests and how they are to be achieved. At the core, critical theories have argued that the foundation of liberalism and realism themselves are identical and problematic in nature. They are built around constructed ideas and operate on supposed ‘truths’ which are ideas created rather than given facts about the way the human world works. This deterministically disqualifies liberalism from challenging realism, as the two theories are the product of constructions.


Baylis, John and Steve Smith (2010) The Globalization of World Politics: an introduction to international relations. New York: Oxford University Press. Doyle, Michael W. (1997) Ways of War and Peace. New York: Norton. Jackson, Robert and Georg Sorensen (2010) Introduction to International Relations: theories and approaches. Fourth edition. New York: Oxford University Press. Karl Marx, Economic Works 1857-1861, volume 28. Site accessed: Date accessed: 25/ 05/ 2011. Owen, John M. (1994) ‘How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace’, International Security, 19/20, pp. 87-125.

Baylis, John and Steve Smith (2010) The Globalization of World Politics: an introduction to international relations. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 190. [2] Doyle, Michael W. (1997) Ways of War and Peace. New York: Norton, p. 294. [3] Owen, John M. (1994) ‘How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace’, International Security, 19/20, p. 112. [4] Jackson, Robert and Georg Sorensen (2010) Introduction to International Relations: theories and approaches. Fourth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 40. [5] Karl Marx, Economic Works 1857-1861, volume 28, p. 17.