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Essay: What are the basic core assumptions of Realism and

Liberalism respectively? Are these theories mutually exclusive?

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
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 liberaldemocratic polities and thus would constitute an ideal which the rest of the world will

emulate so that all nations would reciprocally recognize one anothers 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 nonmilitary 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 states 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

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 selfinterest 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 prisoners
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 insideout 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).


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[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)