Realism and Liberalism similarities and differences

How the political relationships of the world work is a very important question with very difficult answers. The relations between sovereign states, transnational institutions, governmental and non-governmental institutions, private corporations and individuals are so complex that finding one single and simple form to explain them is a very hard task. The role of international relations is to perform this task by creating theories that try to explain in a simpler way, using models, how the world really works. The two main theories that try to explain international relations are the Realism theory and the Liberalism theory. As they were the precursors to all other international relations theories and have been adopted by many scholars and world leaders throughout the planet, these theories are considered the principal models in global politics. The purpose of this work is to show that although these theories are similar in that they both believe in the anarchical structure of global politics, the rationality of humans beings, the importance of state actors and their evolution towards cooperation, they have different views regarding human nature, what the main goal is in this anarchical structure of the world, how to acquire power to reach these goals, the relevance of international institutions, morality and the aim of cooperation and the role of economics in the neo-neo debate.

The first main similarity between these two theories that will affect the way states should act is how they see the world structure. For both Realism and Liberalism, “outside the borders of the state a condition of anarchy exists” (Dunne, Schmidt, 2008:93). This situation occurs because there is no world government or a higher institution to regulate the relationship among different states. In the existence of this anarchical world, the state should find ways to survive, and how it will do that is a major difference between Realism and Liberalism. Even though both these two theories are rational and believe that before acting human beings will weigh the options and always think about what is best for them, they have different views on the human nature itself. This leads to some intrinsic differences between these two theories. Realism has a conservative and pessimistic view of the world and the actors involved in it. This pessimism exists because according to classical political theorist, Realism is skeptical about the capacity of human reason to deliver moral progress due to its selfishness. Since progress is not possible for Realism, the survival of the state is the only thing that matters, which reflects on its conservatism. On the other hand, Liberalism is more progressive and optimistic about the world and its actors by believing that man is inherently good and can cooperate to make positive change, progress and survive at the same time. Because of this, Liberalism is also known as Idealism. In other words, it believes that there is a goal to be reached and that human beings can change the course of things. Since Realism doesn’t believe in this cooperation and progress, it just wants to survive. In other words, it wants to keep the status quo of the current international state of affairs.

To accomplish these two tasks, survival for Realism and progress for Liberalism, both theories believe the states are the main actors. However, for Realism, states are the only actors that matter since there is no outside higher authority. Due to this lack of world government, the state would be the sole guarantor of its own security and should act unilaterally to ensure its own survival. Therefore, the sovereignty of the state should never be violated by any other external actor, whether it is another state or another international actor. For the task of survival, Realism believes that a balance of power between states is the only solution. Power, in this case, is the military capability that a certain state possesses. This is also called “high politics” since for Realism no other matter in state affairs is more important than its military power to keep its survival. On the other hand, Liberalism understands and weighs the importance of other actors besides the states, such as individuals and other international actors. Liberalism appreciates the importance of all international actors because it believes that the most efficient way to acquire power, survive and progress is through cooperation between states and other transnational institutions which would be created to facilitate and regulate these relations. In addition, Liberalism also believes that survival and progress can be reached not only through a world government, but also through commerce, business and the existence of transnational corporations which lead to higher integration between states. Liberalism understands that all the movement of people and goods that commerce between two states creates leads to more interdependence and less tendency to solve disputes in a military way. For Liberalism and unlike Realism, this interdependence will lower the importance of state sovereignty. Therefore, for Liberalism, economic prosperity is a tool to help in the state’s survival and can be considered as “high politics”, or of great importance, whereas for Realism economic prosperity is of secondary importance, or “low politics”.

Furthermore, even if both Realism and Liberalism see war as something to be avoided, morality can be a determinant for the latter to engage in a conflict. Liberalism believes states have a moral duty to interfere in other states’ affairs when certain values are violated. These values would be basic human rights that every citizen in the world should have; independently of where he or she is from. Values like order, liberty, justice and tolerance should be protected by states and international institutions if the latter fails in its duty, according to Liberalism. However, it also believes a state should not violate another state’s sovereignty by acting unilaterally only to protect these humanitarian values. This action based on moral duties to restore basic human rights should be done through an international institution after an agreement has been reach among different state actors. An example of this would be the necessity of a United Nations resolution to allow its member states to intervene militarily into another member state when it is believed that the violations of humans rights has reached an critical point. On the other hand, Realism does not see morality in the same way. Realists have what is called a “dual moral standard” (Dunne, Schmidt, 2008:93). It consists of one moral standard for individual citizens living inside the state and a different standard for the state in its external relations with other actors. In other words, as in Liberalism, there is morality in Realism, but just inside the state or community in order to preserve life domestically. Therefore, Realism does not believe in universal moral principles since they are not in its own self-interest. Furthermore, Realists would definitely go to war to protect the survival of the state but never if the main reason was to promote humanitarian values like the Liberalists.

Finally, over the course of years both theories have evolved into what is called Neo-Realism and Neo-Liberalism, or the Neo-Neo debate. An interesting aspect of this evolution is that each of them acquired small characteristics from each other, becoming even more similar but at the same time remaining different in their core ideas. Neo-Realism, like Neo-Liberalism, believes in cooperation between different actors but only as long as it can reach “relative gains.” In other words, this means that this cooperation has to bring more gains to its own state than to the rivals. Contrary to Neo-Realism, Neo-Liberalism believes in “absolute gains,” which is when every state actor wins through cooperation. At the same time, Neo-Liberalists are less idealistic than Liberalists as they argue that cooperation is more a need than an ideal for survival and progress. This makes the Neo-Liberalists like the Neo-Realists who also believe in cooperation to survive. Additionally, for both Neo-Realists and Neo-Liberalists the importance of the economy has increased. What differs is that for Neo-Realists the economy is only welcome when it brings relative gains and otherwise it does not hold a lot of importance. However, for Neo-Liberalists, it becomes one of the main tools to achieve security and progress to the point where states shouldn’t even interfere in the economic world as it would self-regulate itself through what Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, used to call “the invisible hand” of the market.

In conclusion, Realism and Liberalism are the main theories of international relations adopted by leaders, scholars and intellectuals. They have similarities in their core since they both believe in an anarchical world outside the state, that human beings act rationally and that the state is the main actor in the global politics. On the other hand, they distinguish themselves on how they perceive the human nature, their beliefs in the goals the state should have and how to reach them, their views on morality and the different results to be achieved on cooperation and economics in the Neo-Neo debate. The international relations between actors and its attitudes are immensely complex. In this world, Realism and Liberalism theories were the first and still are the main devices to try to simplify and explain the complexity of international relations.



Art, R. J. and Jervis, R. 2013. International politics. Boston: Prentice Hall.

Baylis, J., Smith, S. and Owens, P. 2008. The globalization of world politics. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Dunne, T. and Schmidt, B. C. 2008. Realism. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.

Edkins, J. and Zehfuss, M. 2009. Global politics. London: Routledge.

2 thoughts on “Realism and Liberalism similarities and differences”

  1. Thank you so much for this, its been a great source for my latest essay and I’m sure I’ll be back when its time for the next! I struggled to find anywhere laying out clearly the similarities between the two theories alongside the differences which was really what I needed, and the concise explanation of details is a real treat when you’re trawling through internet sources to clear things up for you. Thanks!

    1. Hi Katie, thank you so much for the comment. That’s awesome! I’m happy to know that the information has helped you. Similarities and differences are always a bit tricky, but it’s a good way of really understand the theories. Soon you will get to Social Constructivism and Critical Theories, then things are going to get confusing. But I’m sure you will be fine!

      I was my pleasure to help you. All the best!

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