Theories of International Politics

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Theories of International Politics

Claims that political theories are detached from the realities of world politics are not unpopular in the empirical study of politics. Realism and liberalism are two theories at the center of this debate. Realism looks at the changing distribution of power among nations, while liberalism focuses on the rising number of democracies and the challenges of democratic transitions. The influence of the two political concepts extends beyond the classroom environment, as policymakers invoke aspects of the theories when navigating global dilemmas. However, contemporary society has evolved to become complex and pluralistic. The social developments suggest liberalism and realism do not have in-depth structures to facilitate an understanding of international politics. While realism and liberalism cannot fully answer questions regarding the international system, they reflect certain aspects within international politics that explain opposite phenomena, which means the answer to which theory is best does not lie in their thesis or antithesis but rather a synthesis of both.

The Realist and the Liberal

The realist believes that under no conditions or circumstances can liberty be prioritized over national security. The political theory reflects Thomas Hobb’s concept of state of nature, which claims human beings are selfish and would mercilessly kill each other for the sake of their selfish desires (Sleat 6). Hobb’s state of nature in international politics translates to a distorted view of nationalism that will encourage countries to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Foreign policy and statecraft are all designed to pursue national interests. Therefore, realism focuses on states and state actions in international politics based on competitive self-interest. In his comparative analysis of the two theories, Sleat states that realism describes human beings as creatures with an above ordinary sense of self-preservation (7). States act according to state interests, which is a concept not too different from human choices in survival or self-advancement.

            Liberalism focuses on measuring state powers through the strength of their economies and national freedoms. Liberals argue that the advancement and perfection of the human condition depend on the removal of war in the human experience (Burchill et al. 59). Peace or the possibility of peace is presented as a pre-requisite when measuring a state’s power in the international system. Therefore, in the liberal’s eyes’ western forms of government offer the best conditions for human advancement. Cultural and national differences are not barriers in the international system because the extent of democracy and capitalism determines power within a state. Critics argue that liberalism fails to consider power based on economic status and military capability (Burchill et al. 61). The political theory needs greater linkage with globalization due to the increased cooperation between states, which imbalances individual state power.

Comparison Section

Both theories hold that power can foster a peaceful world if not an ideal one for human advancement. At the core of the realist’s argument is the struggle for power between self-interested states, while liberalists believe peace is the best for human progress. Realists can find ways to reduce the danger to each other by emphasizing peace, which is known to influence capitalism (Sleat 6) positively. For instance, China holds strong realist perspectives that align with liberal thought. While the country has grown in recent years, developing its economic, political and military power, it has been keen to avoid direct confrontations with superior powers, such as the United States and Russia. A realist perspective explains why the United States used its military power to invade Iraq and Afghanistan in pursuit of national security interests, while a liberal perspective expounds on the importance of the conquests to world peace. In both political views, power is used to create peace as an enabler of human advancement.

Realism and liberalism are different in how they describe freedom and its importance in national politics. The realist believes that individuals, institutions, international organizations and other sub-state or trans-state agencies have little influence in the international system because countries always pursue their survival and national interests (Tong 187). Collective human nature and the instinct for self-preservation negate freedom’s importance when determining power in the international system. Contrastingly, liberals believe the degree of freedom is indicative of democracy, which is associated with capitalism. Political freedoms, rights, the possibility of peace and cooperation are factors considered in the measurement of power in state economies (Burchill et al. 61). The two political concepts have a different understanding of human altruistic behaviours and capacity. While both realists and liberals believe peace is important for human progress, the former does not base the need for peace on human freedoms but national interests.

Analysis Section

            No single political theory can provide a comprehensive understanding of real-world events. Both the arguments of realists and liberals are applicable in the present world (Gunitsky 567). The liberal campaign for mutual cooperation has dominated international politics since World War II. An example is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that restricted states from developing and acquiring nuclear weapons further. The possibility of sustained world peace increases with the restriction on the production of nuclear weapons. While the impact of the NPT proves the truth in the liberal argument, the realist perspective can cancel it out. There remains the risk of international conflict because several states still possess nuclear warheads. In addition, since the NPT, other states, such as India, Pakistan and North Korea, have developed nuclear weapons. Liberalism and realism provide opposite viewpoints of international politics, each true but incomplete.

There is a need for a greater linkage between realism and liberalism to understand global politics better. According to Sleat, liberalism stresses free trade and capitalism despite operating under real-world conditions, which reflect state policies and interests (7). Therefore, liberalism is not a projection of politics but a modern conceptualization of peace in anarchic conditions. Realism needs to mirror some aspects of liberalism, especially the impact of individuals, groups, organizations, sub and trans-state actors in contemporary foreign policy. Technological advancements, such as social media have enhanced the voices of private citizens and agencies, increasing their influence on the world stage. An example is the Black Lives Matter movement and how it shaped workplace policies worldwide. Synthetization of liberalism and realism would provide a justifiable way for answering questions related to international relations.


In modern politics, national security is paramount. Seeking to understand, compete and overcome the enemy has become a priority. The promotion of individual and national freedoms has equally become a major issue. Therefore, the realist and liberal theories of international relations both need to be taken into consideration when explaining global political developments. Realism is practical politics, while liberalism is idealized. Whichever theory is used to justify answers in international politics, the application and response reflect an aspect of international politics that society seeks to understand. For all the disagreement over which theory remains timely and relevant, a more pragmatic approach is blending the two to develop a complete framework covering international relations.

Works Cited

Burchill, Scott, Andrew Linklater, Richard Devetak, Jack Donnelly and Christian Reus. Theories of International Relations (3rd Ed). Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Gunitsky, Seva.” From Shocks to Waves: Hegemonic Transitions and Democratization in the Twentieth Century.” International Organization, vol. 68, no. 3, 2014, pp. 561-597.

Sleat, Matt. “Realism, Liberalism and Non-Ideal Theory, or Are There Two Ways to do Realistic Political Theory?” Political Studies, 2, 2014, pp. 1-18.

Tong, Zhichao. “Political Realism and Epistemic Democracy: An International Perspective.” European Journal of Political Theory, vol. 19, no. 2, Apr. 2020, pp. 184–205, doi:10.1177/1474885118799454.

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