What are the main differences between Realism and Liberalism in the study of International Relations?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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.