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Essay: What are the basic core assumptions of Realism and Liberalism respectively? Are these theories mutually exclusive?

3. Dezember 2011


In international relations (IR) it is usually accepted that there is a wide range of different theoretical approaches which try to provide a complete explanation for the dynamics of the international political system. Especially two approaches are commonly considered as providing the most powerful and most extensive insight and explanation in and for the conditions in the international system by “proposing causal explanations, describing events and explaining trends and phenomena” (Burchill, 1996, 13): Realism and liberalism.

Political realism, Realpolitik or power politics with its focus on “state power, national interests and unitary decision-making” is the oldest and most popular theoretical approach and as such has a “centrality […] in the international political thought of the West” (Moravcsik, 1992, 1). Liberalism as the seemingly counter philosophical tradition has emerged as a persistent and powerful approach over the last two centuries, having its roots in the European Enlightenment. The liberal thinking is usually considered as a more optimistic historic alternative to realism and e.g. promotes freedom, individual rights, constitutionalism and free market capitalism (Burchill, 2009, 57).

According to Morgenthau, the “history of modern political thought” is marked by a dramatic competition between these two approaches which “differ fundamentally in their conception of the nature of man, society and politics” (Morgenthau, 1967, 3). This resolute statement represents the common view that the ideas and approaches of both realism and liberalism are not compatible. However, in the late 1980s Waltz criticized classical realism and presented his notion of a structural realism, initiating a new current of realistic thought by seeing states as “units of the system (Baldwin, 3). Around the same time, neoliberalism as a market-driven approach to economic and social policy emerged, emphasizing economic interdependence. Both absolute positions have converged in the neorealism-neoliberalism debate so that it might be worthwhile to ask, whether those two most commonly accepted and influential theories are still mutually exclusive as it is perceived by Morgenthau for instance.

In a first part, this essay tries to give a general overview of the basic core assumptions of liberalism and realism. Based on the neoliberal-neorealism discussion, this essay tries in a second part to provide an answer to the question whether both currents are indeed mutually exclusive. Particularly the domain of cooperation between actors is analyzed. It is shown that both assume that the international sphere is anarchic and that both believe in the state as principal actor. They further claim that states follow certain interests and that gaining such interests can be facilitated through international regimes. However, the deductions neorealists and neoliberals draw from such common basic assumptions are usually completely different. The overall results that can be drawn from the question are eventually summarized in a conclusion.


Realism is commonly viewed as the most dominant and oldest theory of IR, starting with the classical realism of Thucydides, Hobbes, Machiavelli and later Morgenthau to structural realism whose major advocates are Rousseau, Waltz or Mearsheimer (Dunne; Schmidt, 2011, 90). It is therefore difficult to give one clear and overarching definition of realism as it differs in detail. However, several shared core concepts can be identified all realists would agree on. Such clear core ideas might have been best summarized by Dunne and Schmidt in the principles of statism, survival and self-help (Dunne; Schmidt; 2011, 86 – 88).

Realism is a particularly state-centric approach as the sovereign state is considered as the central actor in international politics as well as the legitimated representative of the society. In this context, one of the main realist arguments is the absence of an overarching central government/authority in the international sphere. Such condition of ‘anarchy’ leads to the consideration of each independent and sovereign state, that they are respectively the highest authority in the organizational structure of international politics. The absence of an overarching authority, however, forces states to follow primarily their own national interest of survival since the latter cannot be guaranteed. The logical consequence is, that “states with more power stand a better chance of surviving than states with less power” (Dunne; Schmidt, 2011, 87). This notion that each state actor is responsible for its own survival and progress and cannot rely on international institutions refers to the primacy of self-help. The constant threat to the national core interest of survival due to the anarchical structure of the system results in the augmentation of power capabilities of each state by e.g. “the development and use of military power” (Karle, 2003, 5) in order to secure its survival. Therefore, realism is often considered as a theory of power politics as its central claim is that the “acquisition of power is the proper, rational and inevitable goal of foreign policy” (Evans; Newnham, 1998, 456). Such strong focus on the acquisition of (military) power and its constant increase, however, creates a security dilemma. When there is no overarching authority for protection as it is the case in the state of anarchy, states try to acquire more and more (military) power the more they fill threatened. The idea of the ‘balance of power’ provides a back door solution for such a situation and further represents an essential element of realism. If there is a preponderance of power by one state, others try to solve this security dilemma “both internally, by reallocating resources to national security, and externally, through alliances” (Burchill et. al, 2009, 37) in order to reestablish an equilibrium of power in which “no state is in a position to dominate all the others” (Dunne; Schmidt, 2011, 88).


Liberalism is often perceived as the only true “persuasive and alternative view” (Karle, 2003, 6) of IR to realism and particularly experienced an enhanced influence in IR theory with the end of the Cold War. Especially Fukuyama claimed that the fall of the Soviet Union proved that the liberal concept of democracy is the only serious explanatory theory and the “final form of human government” (Burchill et. al, 2009, 58). Long before Fukuyama, however, Kant developed liberal core ideas in order to “abandon the lawless state of savagery” (Guyer, 2006, 482) and thus war. For Kant, the capability of every human being to develop reason was the key to freedom and justice so that he emphasized the “transformation of individual consciousness, republican constitutionalism, and a federal contract between the states” (Dunne, 2011, 104). This refers to a second major principle of liberalism what Burchill calls the inside out approach to IR. According to Doyle “liberal democracies are uniquely willing to eschew the use of force in their relations with one another” (Linklater, 1993, 29). A ‘perpetual peace’ would be established as liberal-democratic polities and thus would “constitute an ideal which the rest of the world will emulate” so that all nations “would reciprocally recognize one another’s legitimacy” (Burchill, 2009, 59). For liberalists, peace is a fundamental question of a legitimate domestic and international order. Kant thus proposed republicanism in which “rulers were accountable and individual rights were respected”. Doyle continues this point by identifying individualism and its freedom as a further essential principle of liberalism. Individuals are considered as reasonable and ethical subjects which “generated rights and institutions” so that “liberalism calls for freedom […], freedom of conscience, a free press and free speech, equality under the law” (Doyle, 1996, 4) and property rights. Liberalism therefore starts with individuals and groups that act in both domestic and transnational society and which are thus the principal actors in the international system.

Beside democracy, liberalism claims that economics, social, ecological and other non-military issues promote cooperation among states. Liberalism particularly emphasizes the pacifying effects of free trade. As Angell suggests, war can become obsolete if trade flourishes between countries because trade brings mutual gains to all the actors, irrespective of how powerful they are. Moreover, free trade mitigates barriers and tensions between countries and propels interaction, friendship and understanding (Angell, 1910; Burchill, 2009, 60 – 65). Such notion of decaying barriers through commerce is a core element of the liberal modern interdependency theory. Transnational cooperation is considered as a requirement for resolving common problems. This argument particularly corresponds to the idea that the risk of conflicts between states is reduced by creating a common interest in trade and cooperation for the state’s mutual benefits. On the other hand, this refers to the claim of Keohane and Nye that the modern international system is marked by interdependence, creating a cobweb of diverse actors that are linked through interaction (Keohane; Nye, 2001). Therefore, the centrality of international institutions and regimes, (international) non-governmental organizations and other interest groups needs to be taken into account as they broaden the states’ “conception of self-interest” and wide “the scope for cooperation” (Burchill, 2009, 66). Moreover, liberalism argues that international institutions play an important role in implementing, monitoring and adjudicating disputes arising from decisions made by constituent states of the organization (Jervis, 1999).



Are Realism and Liberalism mutually exclusive Theories in the domain of cooperation?

Despite the common belief, some commonalities between the two theoretical approaches can indeed be identified, especially in the neorealism and neoliberalism debate. However, the deductions that are drawn from such similarities often differ greatly.

The first thing both theories start is the international system and the state. Neoliberals and neorealists agree that the international system is anarchic and consider this as a “fundamental premise about international politics” (Milner, 1991, 69). According to neorealists, anarchy is a result of missing international security mechanisms while neoliberals emphasize the lack of international mechanisms to enforce agreements as the reason for anarchy.

In this context, it needs to be mentioned that both approaches also emphasize the central position of the state although neoliberals follow a more pluralistic approach.  Neoliberals and neorealists agree that national security and economic welfare are important state goals. Neorealism however, prioritizes power, security and survival in the international anarchical system while neorealism tends to emphasize economic issues. This difference refers to their “differing estimates of the ease of cooperation” (Baldwin, 1993, 7). While neorealists argue that man by nature has a restless desire for power so that international politics is marked by a constant power play which makes cooperation much more difficult (Keohane, 1986, 211 – 212), especially liberal institutionalists contend that cooperation can be far more extensive than realists think. Neoliberals agree that it “is in the self-interest of each [state]” (Mingst, 2004, 64) to cooperate with others. The idea of cooperation as self-interest is based on the neoliberal view of state rationality, rational choice and game theory. Mingst explains such rationality with the prisoner’s dilemma[1](Mingst, 2004, 63 – 64). By alleging state rationality, liberal institutionalists “demonstrate that cooperation between states can be enhanced even without the presence of a hegemonic player which can enforce compliance with agreements” (Burchill, 2009, 66).  With reference to this, neoliberals argue that regimes[2] abate anarchy so that a “higher level of regularity and predictability” (Burchill, 2009, 66) to IR is reached, facilitating cooperation ultimately. Improved cooperation on the basis of regularity and predictability needs to be seen in conjunction with the expectations each actor has. According to the realist Krasner regimes constrain state behavior, “facilitate a convergence of expectations” (Krasner, 1983, 2) and thus an agreement. If it is predictable that enhanced cooperation through the establishment of certain regimes produces a wished outcome, then actors will implement such structures. This is “likely to be consistent with realist analysis” as regimes are “the product of the same factors – states’ interests and the constraints imposed by the system – that influence whether states should cooperate” (Jervis, 1999, 54).

Although both, neoliberals and neorealists agree that there is certain (institutional) cooperation in the international system they differ in terms of the outcomes of such cooperation. This leads to the major issue of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative gains’ in the neorealism-neoliberalism debate. Neorealists such as Waltz assume that states are more concerned with ‘relative gains’ from international cooperation as they feel insecure in the anarchical system and thus “must ask how the gain will be divided” and “who will gain more?” instead of “will both of us gain?” (Powell, 1994, 335). Neoliberals assume the latter and thus are concerned with ‘absolute gains’. This is however problematic, as the ‘relative’ and ‘absolute gains’ cannot always be separated from each other that easily. ‘Relative gains’ might be more important in security issues rather than economic affairs where ‘absolute gains’ might play a stronger role. Moreover, Baldwin contends that the question of ‘relative gains’ is difficult to answer as it “can be stated in terms of trade-offs between long- and short-term absolute gains” (Baldwin, 1993, 6). That there is no clear-cut between the gains is further emphasized by empirical case studies whose results supported both neorealist and neoliberal views. As Baldwin puts it, the case studies proved that there were “concerns about relative gains” but which were not “reflected in the policy outcomes” (Baldwin, 1993, 6). It might therefore be deduced, that the question of ‘relative’ and ‘absolute gains’ strongly depends on world political conditions. The identification of such conditions, however, remains difficult since states seeking for ‘relative gains’ and states seeking for ‘absolute gains’ might show similar behavior (Baldwin, 1993, 6). In this context, the zero-sum problem is a further step in the theory of cooperation by neoliberals and neorealists. In both realist and neoliberal theory power plays an important rule although it is less crucial for neoliberals. However, the deductions are again different. Neorealists contend that states will not cooperate with each other if the outcome is lesser than the outcome of the rival. Neoliberals however argue, that cooperation must not be a zero-sum game “as many states feel secure enough to maximize their own gains regardless of what accrues to others” (Burchill, 2009, 67). States do not always exclusively follow ‘relative gains’ and thus mutual benefits through cooperation are possible (Baldwin, 1993, 18 – 20).




In a first part this essay tried to present the basic core assumptions of the two most dominant and most influential IR theories, liberalism and realism. Realism might be best summarized by its core principles ‘statism’, ‘survival’ and ‘self-help’. Moreover, the realist perception of an anarchic international system and the constant reestablishment of equilibrium of power (‘balance of power’) are further major elements of this theory. Liberalism mainly emphasizes democracy and individual rights. It assumes the inside-out approach to IR and cooperation among states which is facilitated through international regimes and emphasized by the premise of free trade.

In a second part, it was sought to answer the question whether these two theoretical approaches differ so greatly from each other in their views, perceptions, approaches and actions, particularly in the domain of international cooperation, so that they are indeed mutually exclusive. Based on the neoliberal-neorealist debate it was shown that both agree on basic assumptions such as anarchy, state centrism, the pursuance of interests and even on cooperation with other actors. However, there is a great divergence between them in the deductions they draw in further steps. Although both admit that there is cooperation despite anarchy and egoism, neoliberals claim that cooperation can be far more extensive than realists assume even though they agree on the self-interest principle of each actor. In contrast to neorealists, they allege state rationality which enhances cooperation. Such rational principles are further emphasized in their support for international regimes as they enhance regularity and predictability. In the context of cooperation and outcomes the issue of ‘absolute’ and ‘relative gains’ divides neoliberals and neorealists, too. The latter accentuate ‘relative gains’ while neoliberals stress out ‘absolute gains’. However, it was then illustrated that there is no clear-cut between both gains. In reality, states might show similar behavior and thus a clear division is not possible. In a final step this was underlined by the zero-sum problem.

Ultimately, it can be concluded that the neorealism-neoliberalism debate more and more challenges the traditional views of liberalism and realism as completely irreconcilable approaches. Keeping in mind their basic shared starting points it is tempting to agree with Nye and Herz who propose that they “are more properly regarded as complementary rather than competitive approaches to international affairs” (Baldwin, 1993, 24).



  1. Angell, Norman: ‘The Great Illusion’, London: Heinemann, 1910.
  2. Baldwin, David: ‘Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate’, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  3. Burchill, Scott et. al: International Relations: Theory and Practice. London: MacMillan Press, Ltd., 1996.
  4. Burchill, Scott et. al: Theories of International Relations. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
  5. Doyle, Michael: ‘Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs’, in Brown, Michael; Lynn-Jones, Sean; Miller, Steven [eds], Debating the Democratic Peace, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996.
  6. Dunne, Tim: ‘Liberalism’, in The Globalization of World Politics. An Introduction to International Relations, J. Baylis, S. Smith, P. Owens [eds], pp. 100 – 113, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011.
  7. Dunne, Tim; Schmidt, Brian: ‘Realism’, in The Globalization of World Politics. An Introduction to International Relations, J. Baylis, S. Smith, P. Owens [eds], pp. 84 – 99, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011.
  8. Evans, G.; Newnham, J.: ‘The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations’, Penguin Books, London, 1998.
  9. Guyer, Paul: ‘The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy’, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  10. Jervis, Robert: ‘Realism, Neoliberalism, and Cooperation: Understanding the Debate’ in International Security, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 42 – 63, 1999.
  11. Karle, Warren: Realism and Liberalism continue to shape the ways in which policy makers conceptualize international relations, Australian Public Service Center, Shedden Working Papers Series, 2003.
  12. Keohane, Robert: ‘Neorealism and its Critics’, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
  13. Keohane, Robert; Nye, Joseph: ‘Power and Interdependence’, New York: Longman, 2001.
  14. Krasner, Stephen: ‘International Regimes’, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  15. Linklater, Andrew: ‘Liberal Democracy, Constitutionalism and the New World Order’ in Leaver, R.; Richardson, J. [eds], The Post-Cold War Order: Diagnoses and Prognoses, London, 1993.
  16. Milner, Helen: ‘The Assumption of Anarchy in International Relations Theory: A Critique’ in Review of International Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 67 – 85, 1991.
  17. Mingst, Karen: ‘Essentials of International Relations’, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
  18. Moravcsik, Andrew: Liberalism and International Relations Theory, Center for International Affairs Working Paper Series 92-6, Harvard University, 1992/rev. 1993.
  19. Morgenthau, Hans: Politics Among Nations, New York: Afred A. Knopf, 1967.
  20. Powell, Robert: ‘Anarchy in International Relations Theory: The Neorealist-Neoliberal Debate Neorealism and its Critics’ in International Organization, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 313 – 344, 1994.

[1] The prisoners’ dilemma is a common example used to show that anarchy and egoism hamper cooperation. Two criminals are accused of having committed a crime and are questioned separately by the police. The police offer them a good plea bargain if they give testimony against the other. However, if none confesses they can only be convicted of a lesser crime. Therefore they need to choose between cooperation (remaining silent) or defecting. Of course they want to reduce their maximum possible loss. The rational choice is that both “defect even though both know that they both could be better off by cooperating”. But a confession is the only way to “assure that each avoids the worst possible outcome”. (Burchill, 2009, 38)

[2] A common definition of ‘regimes‘ is given by Krasner who says that regimes are “institutions possessing norms, decision rules, and procedures which facilitate a convergence of expectations”. (Krasner, 1983, 2)

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One Comment
  1. Amagoh Christian ifeanyi permalink

    Paramour of international relation

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