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What are the main differences between realism and liberalism in the study of international relations?

Some of the main differences between realism and liberalism in the study of international relations are that realists believe each country must act to preserve itself above all else while liberals believe that countries can pursue common interests and that liberals believe that countries can achieve peace through democracy while realists believe countries will seek power whether they are democratic or not.

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To contrast these two approaches to foreign policy, it is perhaps easiest to use realism as a baseline. Realism in foreign policy terms is based on the idea that all states must pursue a policy of self-preservation above all else. While there are differing strains of realism, the general thrust of this way of thinking is that each state must act essentially on its own and only in its own interests. To put it in personal terms, no state can trust any other state, according to realists. Taken to its extreme, realism basically assumes that international relations is a zero-sum game and really a state of anarchy in which power is the sole determinant of affairs. Realists interpreted the Cold War, for example, as a system in which global stability existed because of the power exerted by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Liberalism operates on a different set of assumptions than realism. Where realists see states as basically monolithic entities focused on self-preservation, liberals tend to emphasize the ideologies that form the basis of each state's government. These ideologies play a role in understanding the foreign policy decisions each state makes and sometimes lead to a different set of policy prescriptions than realism. For example, while liberals accept that security is an important goal of foreign policy, many liberal theorists have argued that democratic countries do not go to war against each other. Therefore it makes sense that the pursuit of security entails promoting democracy around the world. Liberals also emphasize economic motives, which, like the rights central to a democratic society, are individual (or corporate) more than state-centered, as an end of foreign policy. This means that they may push for international cooperation, a goal not necessarily coherent with a realist worldview.

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Realists view international relations as a zero-sum game; if one side wins, another one must lose.  Realists believe that the best way for a state to maintain power is to be powerful itself and self-reliant.  The state only makes treaties in its own interests and is willing to play alliances off of one another in order to meet its needs.  One prominent realist from history is Otto von Bismarck, who is considered to be the father of modern Germany.  He was able to unite the German states into one through a war with France.  By making power his chief goal in this war, he demonstrated a commitment to realism in international law.  

Liberalism, on the other hand, views realism as too dark; liberals believe that states can act together in pursuit of mutual interests and that politics can be a positive sum gameboth sides can benefit from a treaty.  The goal of liberals is that states cooperate in order to achieve common goals, such as climate control and world peace.  Woodrow Wilson displayed prominent liberal tendencies in his Fourteen Points.  He believed that nations could cooperate in order to reduce armaments and prevent war.  

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Realism, notably practiced during the Cold War, posits that states will vie with each other for power and that only superior military power gives one state an advantage over other powers. This view of international relations is antagonistic and advocates that states work to increase their military might for their own self-preservation. In this view, a humanistic approach to international relations is self-defeating.

Liberalism, on the other hand, advocates an approach to international relations that involves international ties. This approach became more popular in the 1970s, as the interconnectedness of the world's countries made realism look increasingly untenable and destructive. While advocates of this view believe that states can be bent on destroying others, only cooperation and international peacemaking organizations can preserve peace. In addition, liberalism relies not only on military pressure but also on social and economic pressure to foster cooperation and peace. 

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Liberalism and realism are two of the most important theories in the field of International Relations.  They are different from one another in a number of ways.  Let us look at a few of the most important differences.

  • Realism holds that all states pursue their interests while liberalism holds that states can cooperate with one another and act more altruistically.  To realists, states want only to maintain their own security.  They want to get power so that they can be strong enough to be secure from attack.  All of their actions are motivated by this desire.  Liberals (also called idealists) argue that states are not always looking for power.
  • Liberals believe that the international system can be manipulated to make peace more likely while realists believe that it cannot be.  Liberals believe in things like the United Nations.  They believe that institutions like that which allow countries to interact with one another in a variety of ways will lead to less conflict between countries.  Realists argue that the international system is inherently anarchical and cannot really be made more peaceful except through power.
  • Relatedly, liberals believe that democratization can bring peace while realists do not.  Liberals believe that democratic countries will not fight one another.  Realists believe that countries will pursue power regardless of whether they are democratic.  To them, countries will fight if their interests dictate it, even if they and their opponents are both democracies.
  • Finally, liberals believe that non-state actors are important while realists believe that only the state matters.  Liberals pay attention to individual leaders.  They pay attention to non-governmental organizations.  Realists argue that only the state matters.

These are a few of the most important differences between the two.

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