Chapter 5: Mainstream theories: Realism and Liberalism
Chapter 5: Mainstream
theories: Realism and
Theories enlighten. A theory is a set of related
propositions that help explain why events occur the way
they do. A theory is an abstract, conjunctural or
speculative representation of reality. Thus one does not
ask of a theory whether it is true or false; rather one
asks whether it is enlightening. To theorize is to
speculate with an intention to explain or understand.
Knutsen, T. A history of international relations theory.
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997) p.1.
Aims of the chapter
The aims of this chapter are to:
• explain why and how scholars make use of ‘theory’
• outline the core mainstream theoretical approaches to IR,
namely Realism and Liberalism
• Illustrate ways in which these approaches might be used to better understand certain events or global phenomena
through the presentation of examples.
By the end of this chapter, and having completed the Essential
reading and activities, you should be able to:
• explain what a theory is and why IR scholars use them
• explain the core ideas used in Realist and Liberal theories of IR
• make use of these theories in analyzing ‘real world’ examples
• define the vocabulary terms in bold.
Dunne, T and Schmidt, B.
‘Realism’. Dunne, T.
Lamy, S. ‘Contemporary mainstream approaches: neo-realism
Dodge, T. ‘The ideological roots of failure: the application of
kinetic neo-liberalism to Iraq’, International Affairs 86(6)
Griffiths, M. ‘Introduction: conquest, coexistence and IR theory’ in
Griffiths, M. Rethinking international relations theory.
(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011) [ISBN 9780230217799]. Hill, C., ‘1939: the origins of liberal realism’, Review of
International Studies 15(4) 1989, pp.319–28.
Ikenberry, G.J. ‘The future of the liberal world order
internationalism after America’, Foreign Affairs 90(3) 2011,
5 11 Introduction to international relations
Lebow, R.N. ‘The long peace, the end of the Cold War and the
failure of realism’, International Organization 48(2) 1994,
Moravcik, A. ‘Taking preferences seriously: a liberal theory of
international politics’, International Organization 51(4) 1997,
Scheurman, W.E. ‘Why (almost) everything you learned about
Realism is wrong’ in Scheurman, W.E. The Realist case for
global reform. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011) [ISBN
Schweller, R. and W. Wohlforth ‘Power test: updating Realism in
response to the end of the Cold War’, Security Studies 9(3) 2000,
Walt, S.M. ‘International relations: one world, many theories’,
Foreign Policy 110 1998, pp.29–47.
So far in this course, we have skimmed over the surface of
several IR theories. The time has come to delve into them more
deeply, beginning with IR’s dominant approaches: Realism and
Liberalism. One of IR’s distinguishing features – as opposed to
an empirically-rooted subject
– is its focus on generalisation and the search for broad patterns of
behaviour in international affairs. History, on the other hand, tries
to avoid speculation by weaving ‘facts’ into a coherent narrative.
This is not to say that historians are atheoretical – meaning that
they work entirely without theory. In the end, scholars in all
disciplines employ some kind of theoretical framework to understand the world around them. The ‘real world’, when
considered without a theoretical lens to prioritise evidence and
highlight general patterns, is a baffling, even incomprehensible
place. Theory allows us to discover causes, make useful
generalisations from a limited number of cases, and look for broad
patterns in world politics. Without theory to order our
observations, the empirical world is reduced to a series of isolated
events with neither pattern nor discernable links of cause and
It is certainly possible to analyse an event or action without being
conscious of the theoretical assumptions upon which the analysis
rests. Many go through their lives without taking the time to
reflect on the assumptions that shape their world views. It is
possible, but hardly desirable. Regardless of one’s intentions,
analyses depend on theories that assume answers to some big
questions about how the world works. Are material necessities,
like natural resources, more important than political ideologies in
driving states’ actions? Do fears about physical security always
override the desire for economic profit? Does the makeup of a
country’s government play a role in understanding its decisions,
or do external pressures determine state policy? The purpose of
theoretical thinking is to draw one’s assumptions out into the
open. The real choice for any student is not whether there will be
any theory in their analyses. That is unavoidable. Rather, the
choice is whether your theoretical assumptions will remain
implicit and unanalysed, or whether you will choose to think
about them explicitly, clearly and consistently.
In this chapter, we look again at two of the dominant schools of
theoretical thought in IR: Realism and Liberalism. In the first part
we look at Realist theory in all of its complexity, followed by a few
case studies that explore the ways in which Realism can be used to
make sense of international affairs. We then do exactly the same
for Liberalism, reviewing its fundamental assumptions before
looking at some of the issues it is best equipped to address.
Realism and Liberalism serve different purposes. The goal of this chapter is to think more systematically about the
different ways these different theories can be deployed by students
6 Chapter 5: Mainstream theories: Realism and Liberalism
Realism: the basics
Stop and read section 1 of Chapter 5, pp.86–89
What do Realists mean by anarchy? Why is it so central to how Realism
understands the international system? Could the lessons of Realism hold
true without an anarchic international system?
In earlier chapters we have made several direct and indirect
references to a particular school of thought that goes under the
broad heading of Realism. As we have shown, Realism – which
has many variants – is one of the oldest and most influential
theories of IR; and is influential quite because it focuses on big
issues such as power and its distribution, the notion of interests
and why states claim to have them, the idea of anarchy (which
in the field of IR points to a lack of an overarching global
authority) and the inescapability of competition. Realist thought
can also claim a pedigree that dates back centuries,
encompassing the ancient Greek historian Thucydides and the
seventeeth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
In the era of modern IR scholarship, however, it owes more to twentieth-century
authors such as Hans J. Morgenthau, E.H. Carr and George F. Kennan. This
generation of classical Realists came to prominence in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s –
partly in response to the dangerous times in which they lived, and partly as a reaction
to Liberal attempts to build a new world order around international organisations
after the First World War. To Carr and Morgenthau, these attempts had deeply
problematic consequences. In their view, the great crisis of the 1930s and 1940s was,
in part, the result of earlier statesmen’s inexperienced belief that a harmony of
interests between states could be achieved by gathering nations together in the spirit of cooperation and diplomacy. Such misguided idealism,
Carr and Morgenthau claimed, had to be replaced by a more ‘Realistic’ appreciation
of the world as it was, rather than how some hoped it might become.
According to classical Realists, states naturally tend to serve their own interests and
aggrandize themselves at the expense of others.
Fundamentally, the top priority of every state is its own survival. This is best
guaranteed by ensuring that its strength is sufficient to defend against – either alone
or in alliance with other states – those who might seek to dominate it. Sensible
statesmen, according to Realists, avoid putting their trust in paper agreements or
goodwill to guarantee peace. The language of international politics is the language
of power: how great are your military capabilities and how strong is the resource
base that sustains them?
Peace, which Realists define narrowly as the absence of war, can be expected only
when there is a balance of power, where adequate power exists to resist the efforts
of any one state to gain hegemony over all, or part, of the international system.
Classical Realists tended to attribute much of this pattern of behavior to the natural
tendency of people and states to be selfish and greedy.
Stop and read to the end of ‘Classical realism’ in section 2 of
Chapter 5, pp.89–91
Would it be true to say that classical Realism relies on a pessimistic
understanding of human nature to justify its conflictual understanding
of IR? Why or why not?
7 11 Introduction to international relations
In more recent decades a new strand of Realism, called structural Realism, has placed more emphasis
on the structural context in which states find themselves. Thinkers like Kenneth Waltz argue that the
anarchic international system is itself responsible for producing state behavior.
To use a well-known phrase, in the international arena, ‘when you call 999 (or 911), nobody answers’.
As a result, even if states have the best of aims, they are forced into the suspicious, selfish and power-
oriented behaviour as portrayed by classical Realists. The international system portrayed by Waltz is
unforgiving, and will punish states unwise enough to behave in open, cooperative and trusting ways.
In this anarchic world, states are victims of what has been termed the security dilemma or security
paradox. As Waltz argues, the only rational course of action for a state in an anarchic international
system is to invest in armed strength in order to be able to defend itself against aggression. If a state
identifies the most likely sources of such threats within the system, it might seek alliances with
others who, on the basis of a common threat, might come to its aid in a crisis. From the perspective
of the states against whom such preparations are targeted, these rational efforts at self-defense can
appear aggressive. The rational response of a state so threatened is to invest in its own material
capabilities and, perhaps, form its own alliances. As a result of this dynamic, states’ attempts to
defense their independence contribute to making the international arena less secure for everyone.
However unfortunate it may be, Realists believe that this paradox is common to the anarchic
international system. In the absence of a world government, states are condemned to exist in an
environment of mutual suspicion. Moreover, any state’s declaration that it is seeking armed strength
for only defensive reasons is bound to be met with suspicion.
Not all Realists agree about everything. As we noted in Chapter 1, some saw the Cold War as being
inherently dangerous while others thought it contained the seeds of a new and more stable international
order. A few Realists welcomed the end of the Cold War; others feared it would make the world less
orderly. Realists remain divided by some fairly important theoretical differences too. Some follow to the
traditional notion that a balance of power is both possible and the most likely basis upon which some
form of global stability can be constructed – hence their hopes for a new balance of power today to limit
US power. Others think that such a balance is highly doubtful on the grounds that any normal great
power will try to break free from the constraints of the system by becoming a hegemon. This analytical
approach, normally called offensive Realism (as opposed to defensive Realism) has been most
recently on display in the current debate on China – a subject we will return to shortly. Defensive
Realists make the simple but important claim that states seek security and nothing more. They
therefore argue that China and the USA will approach each other with great caution, as neither will
want to annoy the other and risk a threat to its own security. Offensive Realists see things very
differently. To them, a rising China will necessarily seek hegemony in its region and is therefore bound to clash with the USA, whose hegemonic position it will threaten. States’ competition for power, rather
than their competing ideologies, is the roots of Realist international conflict.
8 Chapter 5: Mainstream theories: Realism and Liberalism
Stop and read section 2 of Chapter 7, pp.117–20
Now is the time to think about what differentiates classical Realism from the four ‘neo- Realisms’
discussed in Chapter 7 of the textbook. Using the table below, consider how each thinker would
respond to the following question:
‘What impact will China’s rising economic and political power have on the anarchic
Classical Realism dangerous
Structural Realism dangerous
Offensive Realist bad, it may harm others
Defensive Realist not bad, it will seek its security
(Jervis) What sorts of things might Realist ideas help to
Stop and read section 3 of Chapter 5, pp.93–96
In each of the sub-sections that follow, use the tables provided to consider how three of
Realism’s most important concepts (statism, survival and self-help) influence its answers to
the questions posed below.
Let us now concentrate on the way Realist theory might be applied in practice by looking at
five key questions that it seeks to address:
1. Why don’t international organisations work as idealists want them to?
Many see international organisations as opportunities where states come together and set aside
narrow self-interest to cooperate for the greater good. The United Nations Security Council
(UNSC), for example, is supposed to address threats to international peace and security and
enforce international law. In reality, however, it has often been impossible for states to agree
on what security and the laws require in particular cases, especially when the states making the
decisions at the UN are directly involved in the cases under consideration. Realism tells us that
we should begin with low expectations for international organisations. States will never
surrender their autonomy. To do so would be equal to surrendering their sovereignty and, with
it, their independence. Realists argue that states use international organisations to further their
own power and interests, and as barriers to block others when they try to do the same. For
example, the UNSC has often been unable to act in response to important events, such as the
NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 or Russian invasions into
Georgia (South Ossetia) in 2008. Realism explains that this is because – in each case – the
major powers were divided over what course of action to take. Without a clear harmony of interests, the UNSC’s efforts to arbitrate were effectively blocked by the security
Realist assumption 1
2. Why do promises made by states often fail to translate into reality?
Realists have drawn many lessons of their own from the unfortunate fate that befell the
international system between the two world wars. As they point out, several international
agreements were formed in which states promised to refrain from war and aggression, most
famously the Kellogg–Briand Pact. Adolf Hitler gave personal written assurances to the British
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938 that Germany’s ambitions would be
satisfied by obtaining a part of Czechoslovakia. In the end these promises proved worthless, as a
state with growing strength (Germany) launched a war to pursue wider territorial gains. Near the
end of the Second World War, the Russians acted similarly, making agreements and promises
that promised free and democratic elections in Eastern Europe. In reality, the USSR under Stalin
imposed its own preferred governments on Eastern and Central Europe. Realists are not surprised
by such cheating activity. To them, the powerful forces behind states are not their signatures on
paper, but their hunger for power. While agreements may be signed and obeyed to in the short
term, many Realists claim that they will collapse if, and when, they come into conflict with hard
interests. When states have the power to do so, we should expect them to ignore their promises.
As Kenneth Waltz would argue, only strong power can guarantee obedience. Impact on
Realist assumption Question 2
3. Why does international cooperation often fail to occur, even when it
seems in everyone’s interests?
There are numerous issue areas in which it seems as though a big problem can only be
addressed through collective, cooperative action. The problem of climate change, for example,
clearly demands binding agreements under which all states agree to sacrifice some aspect of
their short-term gains (i.e. the profit that comes from ecologically-destructive economic
activity) for a greater long-term benefit (reducing the harmful effects of anthropogenic climate
change). To choose another example, many over the years have sought universal nuclear
disarmament by all nations, or the placing of nuclear weapons under
0 Chapter 5: Mainstream theories: Realism and Liberalism
international control. In each case, Realists tell us that the chances of success are remote, because
states cannot or will not trust one another enough to sacrifice their own interests in the hope that
others will do the same. Those with an advantage will always attempt to keep it, and will always
fear that sacrifice on their part will be taken advantage of by others. This dynamic is captured by
the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a thought experiment described in Box 18.3 on p.302 of the textbook.
Realist assumption Question 3
4. Why do states broaden/narrow the scope of their foreign policy
As we have now read, many neo-Realists think of states as functionally similar, meaning that
each carries out similar functions regardless of where or when it exists. In the anarchic
international system, only states’ material capabilities differentiate them from another. States
that have limited material capabilities tend to define their interests narrowly. States that are
stronger think ‘bigger’. That is what being a great power entails. Uruguay will have different
views to Brazil on how widely its interests extend and what establishes a threat to its security.
This is largely because of Uruguay’s more limited capacity to mobilize power on the
international stage. American