What is the difference between realism and liberalism?

Images of realism and liberalism

In the realm of political theory and international relations, two prominent and often debated ideologies emerge as key players: Realism and Liberalism.

These two approaches offer distinct perspectives on how nations interact with each other in the global arena.

While both have their merits and drawbacks, understanding their fundamental differences is essential for grasping the complexities of international politics.

In this article, we will explore the meanings of Realism and Liberalism, shedding light on their core principles and shedding light on why they often find themselves on opposing sides of critical global issues.

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Understanding Realism in International Relations

Realism, what is it?

Realism is a perspective that supports a world where nations focus solely on their own interests, arm themselves, and engage in mutual intimidation to prevent aggression from others.

In such a world, the possibility of international cooperation is low, and the likelihood of the emergence of law and institutions is minimal.

It's a rather pragmatic way of thinking, isn't it?

However, there are reasons why realism continues to exert a significant influence on international relations.

The Concept of Anarchy in International Politics

In domestic politics, there are governments that ensure violence doesn't erupt when disagreements and conflicting interests arise.

Such conflicts are expected to be resolved through elections and parliamentary debates rather than resorting to violence.

Governments have laws, and there are sanctions for acts of violence against the law.

But in international relations, there is no government.

More accurately, there is no global political authority that can monitor and control nations.

If a nation decides to resolve a disagreement through force when negotiations fail, there is no guarantee that sanctions will be imposed in international relations.

If you cannot rely on a central authority for security, you must defend yourself.

As a result, nations are compelled to prioritize their own defense and interests.

Due to the absence of a power that transcends nations in the international community, there is a recognition of realism, which requires nations to always be vigilant and prepared to defend themselves, leading to what can be termed a global state of anarchy.

The Origin of the Concept of Anarchy

When did this way of thinking first emerge?

It can be traced back to the Peace of Westphalia, a series of peace treaties that ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648.

Through these treaties, the Holy Roman Empire was effectively dissolved, and nations recognized each other's sovereignty.

This marked the establishment of the foundation for the modern European international system, known as the "international politics of anarchy."

While a world government that could enforce order across nations still does not exist, there was a war necessary to acknowledge the reality of a world divided into nation-states.

That war was the Thirty Years' War.

Characteristics of the Post-Westphalian International Political System

After the Peace of Westphalia, the international political system underwent significant changes, characterized by two main features.

Firstly, there was a recognition that instead of acknowledging higher authorities above nations, it was better to establish a system based on the "equality of sovereignty."

This meant acknowledging the division of the world into nation-states and preventing the emergence of dominant powers that could subjugate other nations.

In practice, this led to the dismantling of two empires, Napoleon's and Nazi Germany, by the various powers in Europe, which solidified the principle of sovereignty equality among nations.

Secondly, there was the separation of religion from international politics.

In the medieval world, kings were bound by the Christian faith and the authority of the Pope, restricting their pursuit of national interests.

However, separating religion from politics meant that nations were free to pursue their interests without religious constraints.

The Resurgence of Realism

With the influence of liberalism and socialism in the late 19th century, many believed that ideas like national interests and the balance of power were outdated.

The League of Nations, established under the influence of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, was expected to overcome realism's limitations.

However, the League of Nations failed to prevent Nazi Germany's aggression, and World War II made it clear that relying solely on international law and organizations was insufficient for maintaining peace.

This disappointment led to a reevaluation of realism, especially during the Cold War.

Indeed, the Cold War was a period where realism's assumptions held true.

The power dynamic shifted from European powers like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to the bipolar power balance between the United States and the Soviet Union.

However, the fact remained that ignoring power realities was not an option.

The Role of Deterrence during the Cold War

The concept of "deterrence" underpinned Cold War strategies.

Naturally, if a nation predicts that the losses from a war would outweigh the benefits, it is less likely to initiate a war.

Imagine a nation that doesn't desire war but believes there's a high likelihood of being invaded by an aggressor.

In such a scenario, it makes rational sense for that nation to threaten retaliation against any potential aggressor, deterring them from initiating conflict.

Deterrence is not a new strategy, but the development of nuclear weapons made the threat of retaliation with mass destruction possible, heightening the significance of deterrence.

Limitations of Realism

In today's world, realism has waned in influence.

If realism's assumptions were still valid, one would expect countries to form broad alliances against the United States, seen as a threat to global security, for instance.

However, as seen in the post-Cold War era, countries like Japan have strengthened their ties with the United States rather than opposing it.

Moreover, when dealing with acts of individual violence such as terrorism, the framework of realism falls short.

Non-state actors engaging in violence are challenging to address using traditional military strategies.

In cases where the collapse or weakening of state power is the core issue, addressing the problem goes beyond merely defeating an opponent's forces.

It involves changing the existing regime and establishing a new order.

In recent conflicts, realism has progressively become less applicable, highlighting its limitations in the contemporary world.

In conclusion, realism was indeed a fitting perspective during the Cold War, but it is gradually losing relevance in today's global landscape.

While it continues to influence international relations, the evolving nature of conflicts and alliances has shown that it no longer provides a complete framework for understanding the complexities of the modern world.

Understanding Liberalism in International Relations

Liberalism, as a philosophical doctrine, places individuals at the forefront of society.

But what exactly does liberalism mean, and how did it emerge?

Let's delve into the essence of liberalism and explore its two key facets: economic liberalism and political liberalism.

The Emergence of Liberalism

Liberalism's roots can be traced back to a skepticism of realism, particularly in the context of war.

Realism, which often presupposes conflict as an inherent part of international relations, raises questions about the consideration of peace.

While realism separates domestic and international politics, liberalism extends the principles of civil society into the realm of global relations, blurring the lines between domestic and international politics.

Traditionally, decisions regarding war were the prerogative of kings, made without the need for parliamentary approval.

Liberalism challenged this notion by asserting that in international relations, just as in domestic affairs, the interests and ideals of citizens should be reflected through legislative consent.

This idea was further developed by philosopher Immanuel Kant, who believed that establishing a republican form of government would not only secure civil liberties domestically but also promote international peace.

Economic Liberalism

Economic liberalism focuses on the transformations within market economies and how they impact international cooperation.

It contends that as nations engage in expanding market economies, opportunities for cooperation among states increase.

While zero-sum thinking suggests that when one nation gains, another loses, economic liberalism argues that international trade can create non-zero-sum relationships, benefiting multiple parties.

The key lies in the role of international trade.

When a nation seeks to enhance its economic well-being, expanding trade becomes imperative.

In the event of a war, trade diminishes or comes to a halt between warring nations.

The larger the scale of trade between nations, the greater the economic consequences of war.

Hence, as trade expands, the incentive for resorting to war diminishes.

This perspective led to the belief that international trade is a cornerstone of peace.

This idea can be traced back to Adam Smith, who, in his seminal work "The Wealth of Nations" (1776), argued that the expansion of trade was economically rational.

He believed that regulating and taxing trade would stifle economic growth.

What's noteworthy is Smith's assertion that the expansion of trade simultaneously reduces the rationale for war.

In the past, European monarchs often enhanced their treasuries to strengthen their military capabilities and engage in conflicts.

According to Smith, this approach was economically wasteful, establishing the enduring tenets of economic liberalism.

Political Liberalism

The other aspect of liberalism concerns the influence of domestic politics on international relations.

It posits that leaders, who are responsible for domestic policies, must also consider their implications in foreign affairs.

While states remain the primary actors in international relations, political liberalism recognizes the indirect role of civil society in shaping global politics.

In contemporary society, governing without considering civil society's influence has become increasingly challenging.

This view is not limited to any particular political thought but is a recurring theme in modern political discourse.

Political liberalism also offers a new perspective on the rationality of war.

It questions whether kings wage war for the genuine interests of their nations or for personal gain and ambitions.

Conversely, ordinary citizens, who face the threat to life and property during wars and bear the burden of heavy taxes to fund wars, may exhibit a more cautious approach to conflict.

Thus, the participation of civil society in international politics can contribute to a more peaceful world.

Immanuel Kant was a pioneer in advocating for this perspective.

He argued for the establishment of republican governments, stating that it would lead to greater civic involvement in foreign policy decisions and reduce wars rooted in kings' arbitrary choices.

The Contemporary Relevance of Liberalism

As we approach the modern era, the relevance of these liberal ideas becomes increasingly apparent.

The expansion of international trade and the democratization of political systems are among the most significant developments in the contemporary world.

The beliefs of Adam Smith and Kant persist, albeit in evolved forms, as the fundamental principles of today's global order.

However, it is essential to acknowledge the limitations of liberalism.

Despite the growth of interdependence and democracy, contemporary international relations are far from utopian.

Economic globalization, while fostering cooperation, can also lead to disparities between nations.

The spread of Western consumerism can provoke challenges to traditional societies.

And despite the hope that democracy guarantees peace, newly democratized nations can experience increased instability.

In conclusion, while liberalism offers valuable insights into international relations, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

It has its limits, and the real world is complex.

Yet, the enduring legacy of liberalism's ideas in the face of evolving global dynamics underscores its ongoing relevance in our ever-changing world.

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