One of the defining features of neoliberalism is that it seeks to transform many traditional features of political life into economic judgements. While the arena of international relations was once dominated by the whims of political leaders or concepts of justice and fairness, neoliberal thinkers advocate an international system that relies more on economic rationality and expert opinion. For Friedrich Hayek, one of the leading thinkers in this tradition, normative political judgements are extremely volatile and lead to a degree of uncertainty that inhibits economic growth and prosperity. For Hayek, political judgements are often blind to objective facts because politics tends to succumb to emotion and feeling to consolidate power. For neoliberals, the best route to social prosperity is to elevate the role of economics in how we organize society, and that extends to international relations.
Classical realism, a tradition that traces its roots as far back as Hobbes and Machiavelli, is grounded in a egoistic concept of human nature. In this view, all humans, and by extension states, are naturally self-interested, and without a common power to keep them in line (in the case of international relations, this would be a world government), a state of anarchy will prevail. This leads to states prioritizing relative gains, pursuing policies in their own interest at the expense of others. Neoliberals, while they do believe that states should pursue their rational self-interest, believe that governments should prioritize absolute gains. Neoliberalism seeks to break down barriers to trade and promote international cooperation, arguing that states can pursue their self-interest—that is, the expansion of wealth—without inhibiting the prosperity of other peaceful nations.