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Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism in International Relations

Updated on October 6, 2011

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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    • RNosaj profile image

      RNosaj 5 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!

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      kelly1 4 years ago

      omg that conclusion is super fab

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      2 years ago

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

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      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.

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      Agung Wasono 8 months ago

      This is great!

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      benjamin 6 months 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.

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 8 weeks ago from Florida

      I read this, and no disrespect to you or your efforts, but it saddens me that this is what our 'higher education' is teaching.

      When are we going to get past the point of trying to take complex and multi layered issues and cookie cutter characterize them?

      A Realist view as stated might as well be called a Military state that believes that all international issue be dealt with using the threat of military force. How does that become the definition of 'Realism'?

      Are we trying to demean or redefine what Realism means?

      Same for 'Liberalism' I would call what is written there as trying to resolve issues through Diplomacy and/or Democratic actions. That is certainly not the domain of 'Liberal' alone.

      What do we attribute to a Country that seeks to engage with the world as you state on 'Realism'... only extract military and put in economic, they will engage everyone as a threat, and must gain more power than their rivals... this would go a long way to describing the efforts of China, not to dominate with the World's largest army or stockpile of nuclear arms, but through the most powerful industrial base and economic influence world wide.

      I would also argue that today's world is not in Anarchy, it is chaotic, but most nations are interdependent on one another, a global economy and the more interdependent the nation the more its economy relies on the health of other nations. The WTO, WHO, U.N. etc. a International ruling body that is becoming to the world what our Federal government is to America's states.

      The days of true Anarchy and independence for nation states are long gone.

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      Prodigal Sani 2 weeks ago

      This morning in my Paper called 'The i'' I read an article about the bombings in Syria as a reaction to the chemicals used in Syria, which had a devastating destruction of life of children, men and women. I would put this abrupt response to come under the theory of Constructivism - spearheaded by Ivanka, the elderly daughter of the President of United States (stated to be more liberal-minded than her father). However, the theory of Realism is not far behind. Only a stronger power like the United States can take a step like this one, knowing what the consequences would have been if a smaller sovereignty state was involved, facing Iran and Russia on the other side. Here we would possibly exclude Liberalism which involves institutions. The right solution under this theory would have been debating the matter under the United Nations umbrella. So, in conclusion, we definitely need them all. But the question is can they all work together and exist as a single political system?

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 2 weeks ago from Florida

      @Prodigal Sani

      The problem is there is no proof that Assad/Syria used any chemical weapons... there is more proof that counters this claim than affirms it.

      I would equate this to our 'intelligence services' past indiscretions such as when they claimed Iraq had WMDs and was a serious threat to all nations.

      "Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels."

      "Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of a government national security meeting, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria."

      Just one small excerpt of a greater work telling of what is really going on in Syria (and neighboring lands) and how unlikely it is that Syria is the one currently using chemicals... it is far more likely these are CIA trained and funded 'rebels' that created this tragedy, either by mistake and now America is covering it's tracks, or on purpose so that we had an excuse to rekindle our hostilities against Syria.

      https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/seymour-m-hersh/the-...

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