Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism in International Relations

This is a paper I wrote for my Introduction to International relations class.

Theories of International Relations

International Relations employs three theories that political scientists use to explain and predict how world politics plays out.To define the theories of Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism we will explore how each theory views anarchy, power, state interests, and the cause of war.

All theories agree that the world is in anarchy and because of this it is helpful to start with a definition of anarchy and what it implies. Anarchy, for theories that deal with international relations, refers to the world as a whole having no government. There are individual states that have varying degrees of power and sovereignty in their own land, but clearly there is no single state that makes laws for the whole world. This presents problems and dangers for entities operating in the anarchic world and a need for a system that will guide the actions of these entities. However, while all three theories discussed in this paper accept that the world is in a state of anarchy, how they believe governments should, and do, deal with this problem differs in each theory.

Realism

Realist theory holds that events in the world follow one basic system; a Hobbesian system where everyone must be viewed as a threat and the only way to survive is to gain more power than your rivals. Because there is anarchy in the international world, Realists believe that greater power is the only way for states to secure their sovereignty, and this leads to the belief that states are the main players in international politics because the system discourages individuality in favor of these types of power struggles. Central to Realists, is the belief that power must be defined in military terms, and stronger military power will lead states to what Relists believe are in their ultimate interests, either a hegemon for Offensive Realists or to a balance of two powerful states for Defensive Realists. This, for Realists, is the ultimate goal because of the belief that states view all politics with an eye to gaining more power than their competition in order to secure their safety. They argue that the system works to constantly balance power: states gain power through war and military intimidation in order to counter a threat, which causes them to be a threat in turn, so that other states have to balance against them as they struggle to become a hegemon. Ideally, for the safety of a Defensive Realist state, the balance of power would polarize on two equal sides, providing a world that has far fewer players to engage in conflict and an almost stalemate like situation that offers little opportunity to engage powerful states in war with weaker states. Offensive Realists argue that a Hegemon works to remove opportunities for states to engage in war by providing one powerful state that can block the ambitions of weaker states but itself feels no need to gain more power through war.

Because realists believe that power is gained through war or the threat of military action they also believe that there is no such thing as lasting alliances or peace, due to this power grabbing system.They see no reason to believe that states can ever trust each other. Realists believe that the system is against states; that because of anarchy, states are forced to constantly take into account that others might have more power than them or are planning to gain more power and are so forced to do the same against all possible allies in order to secure their own safety.

Liberalism

Liberal theory too, believes in the view that states are seeking military power to combat anarchy. However, it views the players involved in different terms than Realists and offers a different solution to the problem of war. For Liberal theory, there is hope for world peace if states seek common ground, forming alliances and institutions for policing the world powers. This would all lead to the ultimate goal of Liberal thought, which is a totally interdependent world.

Liberals, unlike Realists, take into account the individual attributes that states possess and allow for the idea of lasting alliances based on common beliefs and ideas and attribute more power to common institutions then to states. Instead of focusing on the simple survival of states as they try to become a hegemon, Liberals believe that common ideas can lead states into interdependence and so remove allies as threats to sovereignty. They emphasize that the real power for states comes of mutually held ideas like religion, language, economies, and political systems that will lead states to form alliances and become interdependent. Such alliances will lead to strong institutions that work to prevent war between states, keeping competition to other political realms and removing the need for a state to secure its sovereignty through hegemony or balancing as per the Realist system. Institutions will, according to Liberal theory, act as a policing power and collectively bring states to punish, with war or economic sanctions, those states that don’t cooperate with the collective system.

Constructivism

The final theory we will discuss is Constructivism. Constructivist theory has, unlike Realism and Liberalism, people at the heart of its definition of power and takes into account that people make up the states and institutions that work within the anarchy of the world. Constructivists view individual people and the ideas that they believe in are what gives these things meaning. They argue that power does not reside in the state or institutions, but rather in ideas that people use and collectively come to believe in. For Constructivists, anarchy, economies, and alliances are what people decide to make of them, that is, they can change if people choose to view them differently. Working with this theory would lead Constructivists to view the reasons for a state going war as being only as clear cut as we would make it. Since the reasons for a state to act are based on what people believe, if people believe in a balance of power system then that is what they will act on, and the same can be said for the belief that institutions will prevent war. For Constructivists it is even possible that some as yet unknown way of looking at the situation could emerge as people adjust their ideas about war and socially acceptable reactions to different situations.

In conclusion

Each theory provides its own reasoning for why states and people act the way they do when confronted with questions such as world anarchy, power, state interests, and the cause of war. As such, in any given situation there will always be multiple explanations for actions taken or not taken. In the end it may just be that a mix of these theories best describes the international world of politics, as each theory compensates for the weaknesses in the others.

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Comments 6 comments

RNosaj profile image

RNosaj 4 years ago from USA

Nicely put. Your conclusion is spot on in my opinion. The interplay between the various theory lenses has always fascinated me. Either way, all schools have certainly produced some monumental pieces of literature. Keep it up!


kelly1 3 years ago

omg that conclusion is super fab


2 years ago

This in an accurately and superbly written article! It is simple, effective, easy to read and understand.


furtherpale 2 years ago

I am a Phd. Student in IR writing a hybridised theory of all 3 to be used in planning state action, not just a retrospective analysis, so insightful... I wish my first year lecturers were just as insightful.


Agung Wasono 4 months ago

This is great!


benjamin 7 weeks ago

am writing my undergraduate essay in political science and international relations. i like this article, its insightful and now i bet i can comprehend the theoretical frameworks more clearly now.

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