Comparitive Study Of Liberalism And Realism


At the close of the 1st World War, international relations cropped up as a discipline accompanied by an inception of a seat of international relations at Whales. Primary writers of international relations were bent on diverting the attention of state actors at the international scene from the need for a balance of power system to a system of common security so as to avoid any reoccurrence of conflict between states. It is for this reason these primordial or earliest intellectuals were initially called idealist.

From inception, the globe was envisaged as an international village, but with the emergence of technology, it made the world a small place in which relations between nation states cannot be ignored. This has also made states unable to leave in isolation and need each other to survive, for example, the U.S.A’s attempt to leave in isolation failed and made him realize that he needs other states to grow.

Taking this into consideration the above explanation, the crucial question that comes to mind is, on the behavior of these states with each other, in other words, how would nations act towards other nations at the international scene?. Just like human nature, every nation has its own different manner of acting towards another state, and its behavior is shaped by its domestic political, economic, sociological, and historical background. This is why, International relations theories have tried to give a detailed account on why nations act the way they do.

In an attempt to explain the behaviors of states, theories of international relations have emerged to explain why states act the way they do and have tried to forecast sate’s future behavior. Some of which would be looked at in the course of this work.

However, another issue which posed more problem was on classifying these theories which cropped up to explain states behaviors. As per Stephen M. Walt in his article ‘International Relations: One World, Many theories’ (Walt: 1998: 30) he says international affairs is made up of 3 major international theories which include; Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism. However, as time passed by and changes have occurred at the international scene, other theories have emerged.

Also, Ole Holsti views international relations theories in the same light as Walt. he reflects the theories of international relations as colored shades which shows the user only key issues pertinent to the theory(Holsti: 1989: 16). For example, what a realist sees as the cause of war may not be so for liberals or constructivist.

It is incumbent to note also that, theories of international relations can be classified into 2 broad heads known as positivist and post-positivist theories. The positivist theories focuses on a state level analysis while the latter’s investigations encompasses class struggles, to postcolonial security. Realism and Liberalism are positivist theories and they shall be the focus of this work. It is in this light that this write-up would seek to explain and compare two of these main theories being Realism and Liberalism. After critically reading this work, the reader would be able to better understand these two theories of international relations and also be able to make clear differences behind the spirits of the two. In effect, the first part of the work would provide much literature on the two theories, while the second part of the work would bring out some disparity between the two concepts as well as similarities between them.


Realism is the pioneer and dominant theory of international relations since the creation of this discipline. It has been termed political realism. Advocates of this way of thinking include; Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, and they go by the name realist and they are a handful of other followers. Realists hold that, states are the main actors at the international scene and they care less about the interest of the whole globe but rather prefer to safeguard their personal interests first. To the realist, states are out to keep an eye on their well-being without any consideration of the well-being of other states.

To them, the globe is a dangerous place with each state minding no other state but rather preparing for an unprecedented event such as war which might occur. In the opinion of realist, nations are in a state of comparison with each nation striving to chase their personal interest, be it political, economic or social interest, so as to be a superpower or rather, meet up with other nations. According to them, internal security is the main aim of states, reason being that, it gives them the power to attack other states when they are not acting right or when they are acting against the state in question. On the testimony of Thomas Hobbes, in his attempt to seek a response to the question ‘Do we need law’ he paints ‘Man by nature as unfriendly and are just simply human beings trying to protect themselves when pushed to do so. They are believed to posses this urge for power, which brings in aggression as part of man’s innate tendency”. This is what makes Hobbes a realist because he joints the school to view the world as a place full of competition and quest for power amongst states.

Two main classes of realists exists which are; the Classical realist (old realism) and the Structural realist (Neo-realism) that is, a new version of the realist theory. The Classical realist (old realism) holds that, humans have an innate tendency to be evil. They are born with it and so do a state, which is why they compete with each other and sometimes fight. As such to them, conflict at the international scene is inevitable because, humans just like states would always have greed and insecurity that makes them battle amongst themselves. So even if some states do mot posses the attitude of being greedy, they become force to do so, in other not to look vulnerable for the other states to attack.

On the other hand, Structural realists also known as Neorealist, that is, a new version of realism introduced by Kenneth Waltz in his book ‘Theory of International Politics’(Waltz: 1998) has to do with the Anarchical form in which the world is made up of. A world of anarchy, in which there is no supreme power to control the actions of states against another, leaves nations on their own and makes them insecure, as such, drives them into a state of warfare. This is identical to what Hobbes calls a state of nature. Kenneth Waltz argues that, the disagreements which exist between states sterns from a lack of a common power (central authority) to ensure rules are maintained and respected constantly. Thus states find themselves in a situation where they have to constantly obtain weapons and ensure their security is tight, so as to guarantees their survival. To try and respond to this stand of neo-realist, Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye (Waheeda Rana: 2015: 219), introduces the theory of ‘complex interdependence. They hold that, this theory explains or paints the reality in the international world correctly. They take a close look at 3 assumptions of realist which include; states being the main actor at the international scene, second being, force is a usable and effective instrument of policy; and finally, that the international scene is anarchic.

They hold that where complex interdependence exists, the military or force is not used. The idea is that, between countries in which a complex interdependence exists, the role of the military in resolving disputes is not necessary.

However, the overall idea with realist is that, is inevitable. Anarchy persists, and it isn’t going away anytime soon.

The main tenets or aspects of the theory have been identified as statism, survival, and self-help, Anarchy, conflict and human nature.

  1. Statism: to realist, the state and not individuals are those who control things at the international system. It is a state-like kind of theory. However, this view is no longer conclusive today as other non-state actors have been active in this domain.
  2. Survival/ Anarchy: Realists believe that the international system is governed by anarchy, meaning that there is no central authority. Thus, what characterizes the international system is the struggle for power amongst states so as to achieve their personal interest
  3. Self-help: To realist, there is no possibility for states to rely on each other and trust one another. Within this study, we shall see this view not to be conclusive and to be untrue to some extent.


Its supporters have been termed Liberals. Their view is somehow different from that of the Realist. Liberals suggests in fact states can peacefully co-exist without any degree of tension between them. According to this school, states aren’t always at war with one another. Liberal scholars point to the fact that despite the persistence of armed conflict, most nations are not at war most of the time. Most people around the world are naturally kind and peace-loving. They are not merely trying to figure out who they can kill and fight with. The liberal argument that states can learn to get along is somewhat supported by the work of Axelrod Robert Axelrod in ‘The Evolution of Cooperation’ (Robert A: 2006) who used an actual experiment involving a lot of players and the prisoner’s dilemma game to show how people and perhaps states could learn to cooperate The prisoner’s dilemma is a fairly simple game that is useful for understanding various parts of human behavior.

Liberalism argues that the gains in the security of one state don’t necessarily cause a comparative or relative disadvantage to another state. Liberals also stresses on the fact that, even though anarchy exists at the international world, states must not go to war with each other. So the idea that international relations must be conducted as though one were always under the threat of attack isn’t necessarily indicative of reality, but merely a myth.

There are different forms of liberalism. Liberal institutionalism puts some faith in the ability of global institutions and organizations to eventually bring nations and people into getting along as opposed to going to war. From efforts culminating from the League of Nations to the United Nations, there has been a clear indication that these bodies can help to improve world peace and curb down wars. At times, they form resolutions which are binding on states after being dully ratified by them. In most states, International treaties and conventions hold a prominent place in their hierarchy of norms. Especially when it comes to issues of human rights violations and genocide. They also help in mediating and settling disputes via means of arbitration and even through the use of force if need be. In effect, this will eventually promote respect for the rule of international law. War isn’t very profitable for most people, and it isn’t good for the economy. This argument can be supported by the growth of international trade in the world. The advent of the world trade organization has helped to strengthen international peace and security. Liberal internationalism also is known as the democratic peace theory trades on the idea that democracies are less likely to make war than are dictatorships, if only because people can say no, either in legislatures or in elections. However, there continue to be some degree of sham democracies in the world especially in countries of equatorial Africa such as Cameroon. In effect, there is democracy on paper, but not in practice. In this regard, see ‘The Kantian triangle’ Used to identify three situations by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who outlined them in a 1795 essay, Perpetual Peace. First, that public protest in the U.S. helped end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Second, Argentina’s misadventures in Las Malvinas—the Falkland Islands—led to protests that brought down a longstanding military dictatorship and restored democracy to the nation in 1982.

To better understand this phenomenon. The democratic peace theory argues that liberal democracies have never (or rarely) made war on one another and have fewer conflicts among themselves.

An advancement of liberal thinking is called Neo-liberalism, liberal institutionalism or neo-liberal institutionalism. It argues that international institutions can allow nations to successfully cooperate in the international system. Post-liberals argue that, it is because of the need for security as well as, the need to achieve their personal interest that states do cooperate. One possible way to interpret this theory is the idea that to maintain global stability and security and solve the problem of the anarchic world system in International Relations, no overarching, global, sovereign authority is created.

Comparison between the two theories

From the above literature, we can see that the most prominent theories of international relations are realism and liberalism. Both theories of international relations do overlap at some point; meanwhile, some outstanding differences still exist within them. This part of the work would be out to bring to light both overlapping points as well as the differentials between these two theories. This would enable the reader to easily pin-point them without any encumbrances.

Regarding the similarities between these two theories, we can say that both theories help us to understand why states behave the way they do sometimes. They are both prominent theories of international relations. However, for both theories, anarchy exists outside the border of the state. The main reason for this situation is because there is no world government of higher institutions to regulate state action; hence each state acts in its interest. However, this is not conclusive because international organizations such as the United Nations have been put in place to regulate state action. However, there is still some glaring inequality in the state of running affairs therein, coupled with the fact that these organizations merely make resolutions which are soft law rather than hard law.

Apart from the fact that they differ in their appellations, Realists believe that nation-states are the main actors in international politics. As such, the theory places all its attention on states. To Realist the state is the primary actor at the international scene and individuals, MNCs and NGOs have nothing or no role at the international scene. Thus, states, as the highest order, compete with one another. As such, a state acts as a rational autonomous actor in pursuit of its self-interest with a primary goal to maintain and ensure its security and thus its sovereignty and survival. This contrasts with liberal international relations theories that accommodate roles for non-state actors and international institutions. Liberal institutionalism puts some faith in the ability of global institutions to eventually coax people into getting along as opposed to going to war. For example, the use of the United Nations. This difference is clear with both theories. However, with developing events, it is clear today that the role played by non-state actors cannot be undermined. Today, International organizations, Multinational corporations, Non-governmental organizations, and even individuals have a great role to play in international relations. For this reason, the traditional view that only states had a part to play has been jettisoned and this is thanks to the work of liberalism. However, there is no gainsaying that states are not the principal actors.

Realism holds that, the level of power a state has is determined by the state’s capacity politically, militarily and, economically. On the other hand, Liberalism affirms that, relationship amongst nations is not only based on its political and security capacity but also its economic and cultural capability. As such, there is an anarchical world system but this opens up a sphere for cooperation rather than war as realist paints it. Also, they believe in the possibility of peace at the international scene if cooperation is fostered.

Some realists believe that an increase in the power of one state threatens the security of the other and thus makes them increase their own security. But to liberals, the increase of a states security doesn’t relatively make another state weaker but rather gives then the zeal to cooperate with the powerful states.


Realism and Liberalism can be conveniently described as the pillar theories of international relations. They are explicit in themselves and are easy to apply in real-life situations. The works of realists and liberals have contributed much towards state behavior today, however much development is still expected in both domains so that ideal theories can emerge. In this light, continuous development fusion should be made of both theories so that an ideal manner of behavior can be attained which shall supersede both that postulated by the realist and the liberals on an independent front.


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