Various Views in International Politics: Attempting to differentiate Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism

By Andre Lopes Massa

The politics of international relations can be a complicated arena when it comes to accurately deciphering why states may act the way they do in certain situations. The theories of realism, liberalism, and constructivism attempt to answer this complicated question in various ways by drawing from a wide array of ontological and epistemological schools of thought; realism and liberalism can draw there philosophical foundations from the Enlightenment period while constructivism seems to share some characteristics with the post-modernist school of thought. Both realists and liberals agree that the international system is perpetually locked in a state of anarchy with no actor greater than those sovereign states that make up the international ordering, though liberals emphasize the importance of international institutions in checking relations in comparison with the more pessimistic realists. Constructivists, on the other hand, believe that the state of anarchy is constructed based on the relative social norms of the political arena rather than certain interests driving the actions of state actors independently. While realism and liberalism both try to decipher the international area using causal based analysis, constructivism’s emphasis on the importance of social factors encourages an epistemology that is far superior to that of liberalism and realism because of it’s focus on the complex social relations that exist not only in small communities, but in the states that make up the bulk of the international arena.


Perhaps the most pessimistic of all international relations theories, realism offers a very black and white picture regarding the interests of states and attributes that define the power of a state. When it comes to defining who is a powerful state and who is not in the mind of a realist, Niccolo Machiavelli perhaps offers the best insight with his famous quote, “One ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting.” (Betts, Conflict After the Cold War, pg. 75). Machiavelli’s words ring true in the mind of a realist, for he who possesses the most hard power can use coercion to influence other states to submit to their will. Thus, in the mind of the realist, the most important interest for an actor in the state of anarchy that is international relations is security in a world where hard power defines your influence and thus creates a world where states are locked into a never ending arms race in an attempt to become more powerful in the art of coercion that is the state of anarchy that characterizes international relations. Robert Gilpin best reiterates this drive for power when he states “The great turning points in world history have been provided by these hegemonic struggles among political rivals; these periodic struggles have reordered the international system and propelled history in new and uncharted directions.” (Betts, Conflict After the Cold War, pg. 117). In the mind of the realist, it is ever man for himself in the world of international politics; help only exists if it benefits the self-interests of the benefactor. For the realist, war is an inevitable result of a state simply trying to secure themselves in a world where everyone is left to fend for themselves, and perhaps this viewpoint could accurately explain the politics of the Cold War era where both he Soviet Union and the United States would engage in numerous proxy wars, savoring each as it would solidify the material power of one state against the other and thus preserve one’s security against the other and could perhaps even explain the United States’ intervention in Iraq in 2003 where the logic of security compelled the United States to intervene in it’s best interests. However, one of realism’s many failings is that they’re pessimistic viewpoints fail to accurately explain interventions in the post-Cold War era, where multiple engagements in the international arena are justified based on “humanitarian” foundations as well as failing to explain the effectiveness international organizations have had on international politics in recent times.

While realists can often be seen as pessimists in the theory of international relations, liberals can be seen as much more optimistic, believing that democratic values and the complex economic interactions of capitalism can eventually wipe war off the face of the planet. Like realists, liberals also believe that the arena of international politics is in a perpetual state of anarchy, though liberals will often point to international organizations such as the United Nations as examples of positive influences in international politics. For liberals, the importance of international organizations is not defined by their ability to exert any form of coercion over member states but rather encouraging peace by association. Immanuel Kant best illustrates this point when assessing the effectiveness of international peace agreements by saying, “If fortune directs that a powerful and enlightened people can make itself a republic, which by it’s nature must be inclined to perpetual peace, this gives fulcrum to the federation with other states so that they may adhere to it and thus secure freedom under the idea of the law of nations.” (Betts, Conflict After the Cold War, pg. 138). Though war has not been completely extinguished since the formation of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II in 1945, liberals will often point to the fact that there has never been a escalatory conflict between two members of the United Nations as well as the effectiveness of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in promoting a complex trade network among states.

Another prominent theme for liberals is the idea that democracy and capitalism inevitably promote peace. Most liberals attest this due to the fact that democracies are directly responsible to their own citizens and the threat of losing re-election campaigns is enough to make politicians think twice about engaging in costly wars. This, combined with capitalism’s emphasis on free trade and economic growth makes war an undesirable outcome in such a society as war would only deplete resources and disrupt the kind of trade that is so central to the functioning of a democratic, capitalist society. Democracy and Capitalism, in the eyes of liberals and Joseph Nye in particular, create complex systems of interdependence where power is not solely based on material hard power, but rather the power to influence; soft power. In Nye’s opinion, the role of the military is “devalued, militarily strong states will find it most difficult to use their overall dominance to control outcomes on issues in which they are weak.” (Betts, Conflict After the Cold War, pg. 169). Thus, because of these complex relations of interdependence, security is not the most prominent interest for a state, but rather economic power, a critical component of soft power, the power to influence, in the eyes of the liberal in the international arena.

Liberalism is predicated on the idea that a homogenous community of democratic, capitalist states is the key to preventing war, and, on the face of it, liberals may have a case as history shows that there has never been a war between two democratic states. However, this does not necessarily mean that liberalism is the key to preventing violence and war within the international arena. As Carl Schmidt points out, the main problem with liberalism is that they “believe that there are no conflicts among human beings that cannot be solved to everyone’s advantage through an improvement of civilization, technology, and social organization or be settled, after peaceful deliberation, by way of amicable compromise. As a result, liberalism is unable to provide substantive markers of identity that can ground a true political decision.” (Carl Schmidt Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Lars Vinx). Thus, liberalism causes violence in a political world where friend-enemy distinctions necessitate violence between liberal and non-liberal states simply because liberalism’s desire for a homogenous world necessitates the pre-emptive elimination of the enemy i.e. the non-liberal state while liberalism itself as a philosophy is unable to ever truly provide the grounds for compromise between liberal states and those who identify themselves as something as other than a democracy. Real world examples of Schmidt’s criticism can be seen in the actions of the United States actions in assisting bloody military coups that put Mobutu Sese Soku and Augusto Pinochet in Congo and Chile respectively simply because they supported capitalism and opposed the enemy of liberalism, the Soviet Union. Both dictators would commit numerous human rights violations during their rule. The United States’ constant intervention in the Middle East in the name of “spreading democracy” is also an example of liberalism’s need to preemptively engage in violence against non-liberal states. Liberalism also suffers from the same suspect epistemology as realism; it is unable to truly account for the complex behaviors and social norms that truly dictate the motives of a state.

While liberalism and realism are interested with explaining international politics through a top-down objective analysis of relations, constructivists emphasize the importance of discourse and social norms in influencing the way states act. Discourse, according to Mearsheimer, are “the way we think and talk about the world” and that ideas “are the driving force of history”. (John Mearsheimer, The False Promise of International Institutions, pg. 37-38). Thus, constructivism’s main aim is not to map out an ideal course of action in international politics but simply to challenge the role of “hegemonic” ideals like realism and liberalism in international politics. ((John Mearsheimer, The False Promise of International Institutions, pg. 38). Constructivists contend that the international arena is in a state of perpetual anarchy. However, unlike realists and liberals, constructivists contend that this state of anarchy exists relative to the discourse and social norms that shape it rather than anarchism simply existing independently. Thus, constructivists contend that social norms determine the interests and behaviors of state actors and that co-operation is dependent on the dominant ideas and discourse present in the international arena. Constructivism as a theory for explaining international relations is well backed by recent history. Since 1945, Martha Finemore contends, “The universalizing of ‘humanity’ seems to have widened in accordance with normative changes.” (Betts, Conflict After the Cold War, pg. 273). She further theorizes that multilateral humanitarian interventions in Uganda and Cambodia in 1979 have reinforced the influence that humanitarianism is a legitimate reason to intervene in another state. The most important aspect to consider, however, is not that humanitarianism is now a legitimate reason for intervention but that humanitarianism is itself a social construct from the anthropocentric notion that human beings are unique and endowed with certain inalienable rights that are universal and can never be compromised by any institution or state. Humanitarianism, therefore, manifested itself into a dominant form of dominant discourse in international politics because human rights became an accepted norm by society since 1945. None of the aforementioned interventions had anything to do with interests pertaining to security or economic gain as realist or liberals would claim, but rather to the constructed social norms and discourse present today.

As mentioned before, liberalism and realism suffer from epistemological flaws that undermine both of their abilities to accurately describe the current state of international relations today. The fact is that hegemonic theories cannot accurately explain why states act the way they do because of the simple fact that a state will not always act the way they do because of their desire for economic gain or more security. For example, nationalism as a form of discourse may compel a state to move in order to gain pride and prestige while Finemore’s analysis of the role of humanitarianism in spurring multiple interventions since 1945 show the importance of social norms in the international arena. Constructivism, therefore, is superior to liberalism and realism because it’s emphasis on discourse and social norms encourages a form of epistemology that emphasizes in-depth research and analysis that truly examines the complex social interactions that influence the formation of discourse and social norms like that of human rights. Constructivism’s greatest strength, however, lies not in the form of research it promotes, but rather it’s challenge of hegemonic theories that allows for a unique form of deliberation in international relations because of critical theories’ acceptance of multiple views from any social group.


Works Cited

Betts, Richard K.. Conflict after the Cold War: arguments on causes of war and peace. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994. Print.

Mearsheimer, John J.. The false promise of international institutions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, 1994. Print.

Vinx, Lars. “Carl Schmitt.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 7 Aug. 2010. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <;.





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