Thinking about the number of high-stake political issues and the wide variety of aspects in which people have tried to understand these issues and come up with effective ways of resolving them are all packaged in different intellectual traditions and worldviews. This essay approaches the question from fundamental assumptions and theories of international relations built on a distinctive set of arguments put forward by realist and liberalist theories, each trying to understand and get a clear view of international politics. The first part of this essay introduces realism and liberalism as theories of international relations showing the claims made by each theorist in defend of their traditions. The assumptions and implications are shown in the second part. Finally, the conclusion is drawn from the contradictions seen during the arguments.
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Realism is a paradigm based on the premise that the world 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. Realists believe in state security and as such cannot afford credibility in terms of securing a state to international governing body such as the United Nations. Rather, major powers such as the United States manipulate other states with their military and economic strengths. The game of international politics revolves around the pursuit of power: acquiring it; increasing it; projecting it, and using it to bring others to one’s will (Kegley, 2007: p 29). Among the principal prophets of this worldview were E.H Carr, George F. Kennan, Thomas Hobbes, and Niccolo Machiavelli.
At the risk of oversimplification, realism’s message as summarized by Kegley (2007) is in the form of ten assumptions and related propositions:
People are by nature narrowly selfish and ethically flawed and cannot free themselves from the sinful fact that they are driven to watch out for themselves and compete with others for self-advantage.
Of all people’s evil ways, none are more prevalent, inexolerable, or dangerous than their instinctive lust for power and their desire to dominate others.
The possibility of eradicating the instinct for power is a utopian aspiration.
International politics is- as Thomas Hobbes put it – a struggle for power, “a war of all against all.”
The primary obligation of every state – the goal to which all other national objectives should be surbodinated – is to promote national interest and to acquire power for this purpose.
The anarchical nature of the international system dictates that states acquire sufficient military capabilities to deter attack by potential enemies and to exercise influence over others.
Economics is less relevant to national security than its military might; economic growth is important primarily as a means of acquiring and expanding state power and prestige.
Allies might increase a state’s ability to defend itself, but their loyalty and reliability should not be assumed.
States should never entrust the task of self-protection to international security organizations or international law and should resist efforts to regulate international behavior through global governance.
If all states seek to maximize power, stability will result by maintaining a balance of power, lubricated by shifts in the formation and decay of opposing alliances that counters each other expansion motive (Kegley, 2007: p 31).
Liberalism on the other hand, 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 and war can be policed by institutional reforms that empower international organizations and laws. At the core of liberalism is an empahsis on the impact ideas have on behavior, equality, dignity and liberty of the individual, and the need to protect people from excessive state regulation. Liberalism views the individual as the seat of moral value and virtue and asserts that human beings should be treated as ends rather than means. It emphasizes ethical principle over the pursuit of power, and institutions over capabilities as forces shaping interstate relations. It defines politics at the international level more as a struggle for consensus rather than a struggle for power and prestige. Pioneers of Liberalism include David Hume, Jean Jacques Rosseau, Immanuel Kant (Kegley, 2007: p 31).
Collectively, the post-World War 1 liberalists embraced a worldview that emphasized the power of ideas in controlling global destiny, based on the following beliefs as postulated by Kegley (2007).
Human nature is essentially “good” or altruistic, and people are therefore capable of mutual aid and collaboration through reason and ethically inspired education.
The fundamental human concern for others’ welfare makes progress possible.
Sinful or wicked human behavior, such as violence, is the product not of flawed people but of evil institutions that encourage people to act selfishly and to harm others.
War and international anarchy are not inevitable and war’s frequency can be reduced by strenghtening the institutional arrangements that encourage its disappearance.
War is a global problem requiring collective or multilateral, rather than national, efforts to control it.
Reforms must be inspired by a compassionate ethical concern for the welfare and security of all people, and this humanitarian motive requires the inclusion of morality in statecraft.
International society must recognize itself in order to eliminate the institutions that make war likely, and states must reform their political systems so that democratic governance and civil liberties within states can protect human rights and help pacify relations among states (Kegley, 2007: p 26-27).
Even with the emergence of liberalism and the rapid rate with which it is being accepted, realism is more convincing. Realism is a perspective of international relations that treat issues from a practical point of view. Following this notion, realists draw a sharp distinction between domestic and international politics (Baylis et al., 2008: p 93). Realism has being influential in explaining international politics and it is clearly seen in historical conflicts when states struggle for the same goal. The relative power position of each state becomes the most reliable option. One can argue that the main distinctive feature of liberalism is its assertation that peace is possible and can result from a properly coordinated peace managed process by institutions such as the United Nations. For liberals, peace is the normal state of affairs: in Kant’s words, “peace can be perpetual”. War is therefore both unnatural and irrational, an artificial contrivance and not a product of some peculiarity of human nature (Burchill et al., 2009: p 58). Accordingly, liberals also reject the realist notion that war is the natural condition of International politics. They also question the idea of state being the main actor on the world political stage. Liberals stress the possibilities for corporation and the key issue becomes devising an international setting in which corporation can be achieved (Baylis et al., 2008: p 5). Several instances which can be classified as realist act in response to the liberalist argument includes the beliefs that human being are naturally fixed, deeply flawed, and crucially selfish. To think otherwise is to make a mistake and it such a mistake that the realist accused the liberalist of making (Baylis et al., 2008: p 5). This viewpoint presents a systematic arrangement. If the assumption by realist is that human nature is naturally fixed and crucially selfish, then the whole idea of human generating an ideally perfect state is absurd. No institution can be superior to the qualities of the parties constituting it. Hence international peace becomes an objective beyond the limitation of any individual state party. Just as an individual’s decision cannot be controlled by another, one’s state integral disposition cannot be decided by another. Influence can be a compelling force sometimes, but the authority to make the decision always lies with the unitary entity.
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In words of Cranmer (2005), liberals also begin with the assumption that states are unitary and rational actors. However, liberals do not share the realist assumption that power is the means by which a state’s security is guaranteed, that states are the primary units of international politics. Liberal institutionalists, however, insist that the realist perspective does not exhaust the list of constraints on war over which states can and do exercise some control. States do not fight all others at all times and places where the realist constraints are weak (Dunne et al., 2010: p 96). In argument to this, defensive realist such as Waltz argues that states are profoundly defensive actors and will not seek greater amount of power if that means jeopardizing their own security. An aspect of this realist theory was clearly seen at the end of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union. The actions of the United States under President Ronald Reagan exemplified defensive realism, while the actions of the USSR under Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev exemplified offensive realism. At some point during the Cold War, it became clear that the United States was in a relative power position when President Reagan started making concessions to the Soviet Union. Defensive realism accounts for this action. The behavior of the Soviet Union on the other hand, can be linked to offensive realism (Costa, 1998). Offensive realist such as Mearsheimer argues that “the ultimate goal of a state is to achieve a hegemonic position in the international arena”. States, according to this view, always desire more power and are willing, if the opportunity arises, to alter the existing distribution of power even if such an action may jeopardize their own security (Baylis et al., 2008: p 101). The proposition to this theory is the expectation of a state to decline in seeking power to gain greater amount of power if that means jeopardizing their own state security. The introduction of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) by the United State president out-spaced the Soviets and the reaction of the Soviets Union leader in recalling the Red Army from Eastern Europe conforms to the expectations of offensive realism (Costa, 1998). The Cold War, in this account was not ’caused’ by anyone but was the ‘natural’ result of bipolarity. Soviet expansion into Central and Eastern Europe arose from neither vicious rulers in the Kremin nor rabid anti-communists in Washington. The War in Vietnam was criticized by leading realists such as Niebuhr and Morgenthau. Robert Tucker (1985) opposed the Reagan administration’s support of armed counter revolution in Nicaragua. And not a single prominent realist supported the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. These examples suggest a very important interpretation point. There are number of Quaker realist-as well as for War. Reality provides a theoretical account of how the world works. It can be used for peaceful purposes. For example, hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved, and millions of injuries avoided had the United States pursued a realist bipolar rivalry with the Soviet Union rather than ideological Cold War (Burchill et al., 2009: p 36).
Liberals believe international laws and institutions reduce War frequency and create a more orderly and just global system. Realists are of the opinion that the task of self -protection must not be entrusted to either international institutions or international laws. Realist critiques of international institutions, however, do raise two important questions. How much of an impact can international institutions have in principle? And what effects do they in fact have in contemporary international relations? John Mearsheimer (1994/95) in a well-known provocative essay, “The False Promise of International Institutions” develops a strong and uncompromising argument that “institutions have minimal influence on the state behavior”. Institutions, according to this argument, can easily be ignored because they rarely exert a significant influence on the interest or interactions of states in anarchy (Donnelly, 2000: p 132). It is largely on the basis on how realists depict the international environment that they conclude that the first priority for state leaders is to ensure the survival of their own state. International politics is one of anarchy, and for this reason, the survival of a state cannot be guaranteed by any form of international arrangement. Self-help is the principle of action in an anarchical system where there is no global government. Realists do not believe that it is prudent for a state to entrust its safety and survival on another actor or international institution. Unlike in domestic politics, there is no emergency number that states can dial when they are in mortal danger (Baylis et al., 2008: p 93).
It was commonplace during the 1990s for pundits and scholars to proclaim that the world was rapidly becoming peaceful and that realism was dead. International politics was said to be transformed with the end of the Cold War. Many argued that democracy was spreading across the globe and, because democracies do not fight each other, we have reached the ‘end of history’. Though international institutions have been proved to be useful in terms of reducing War and it frequencies and, despite the opinion expressed by its critics, that optimism was faded with the wake of September 11, if not disappeared altogether and realism has made a stunning comeback and has continued to be the dominant theory used to explain the nature of international relations throughout history. Its resurrection is due to the fact that almost every realist opposed the Iraq War, which has turned to a strategic disaster for the USA and the UK. But, more importantly, there is little reason to think that globalization and international institutions have crippled the state. Indeed, the state appears to have a bright future, mainly because of nationalism, which glorifies the state, remains a powerful political ideology (Dunne et al., 2010: p 92). As evidenced by most recent behavior of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, powerful states are able to overturn the non-intervention principle on the ground of national security and world order (Baylis et al., 2008: p 100). What was the position of the United Nations in Rwanda when 800,000 Tutsi were slaughtered by the Hutu’s? In Bosnia, the U.N. declared safe areas for Muslims but did nothing to secure them, letting the Serbs slaughter thousands in Srebrenica. The organization’s meddling was worse than useless, its blue-helmeted troops were used as hostages by the Serbs to deter a military response from the West (Boot, 2000). These illustrations has assumptions of realism, in that states ensure its security and survival of its own, even if it has to go to war to achieve it. It does not seem realism has lost its esteem the way many proponents of liberalism argue. In the review of the theory that works best, realism seems to give a better explanation than liberalism.
As argued above, it is likely that the 21st century will be a realistic century. Despite efforts of federalists to rekindle the idealist flame, Europe continues to be as divided by different national interest as it is united by a common good. History already foretold how the US policy-makers will react in the event that China maintains its economic growth by 2020 (Baylis et al., 2008: p 105). If powerful states such as the US could adopt a realistic posture, my opinion remains that realism, should be seen as a good manual for understanding international politics.
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