International Relations: Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism

20 Jul 2010 by Fausto Sicha, No Comments »

By: Fausto Sicha

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          International relations is a complex subject that attempts to study political, social, and economic interactions among independent sovereign states. The complexity of the subject is attributed to the differences that exist between and among each state and to the anarchical international system. In an attempt to better understand how sovereign states interact with one another different approaches have been developed. But these approaches do not have a universal view of the basic elements necessary to study international relations like, the state, the individual, and the structure of the international system.

          Aware of these conflicting and sometimes complementary views this paper attempts to; analyze, compare and contrast the assumptions, core concepts, points of agreement and disagreement of realism, liberalism, and constructivism.

          Realism is old, it began with Thucydides, and centuries later it developed even more with the writings of Machiavelli. These two prominent figures of realism share “the notion that power prevails over justice in international politics…in both cases, necessity is the agent that overcomes moral obligations, necessity found both in the structure of international politics and in human nature.”[1] In the twentieth century, realism gained more momentum with the work of the British historian E. H. Carr who published a book in 1939 called The Twenty Years Crisis. Since such publication, realism is a framework that has dominated the study of international relations.[2] In part, realism has become the most popular framework to study the interaction among nation because it “aims to detect and understand the forces that determine political relations among nations, and to comprehend the way in which these forces act upon each other and upon international political relations.”[3]

          The second most used framework to study international relations is liberalism. “The liberal tradition has its roots in the Enlighten.”[4] And since the beginning, liberalism has been characterized by trying “to increase personal, civil, social, and economic liberty of the individual.”[5] Furthermore, “liberalism is committed to a role of social architecture. If the rights and opportunities of the individual can be best advanced through governmental action, liberalism will plan and endorse the change. However, liberalism insists upon intelligent action; action based upon the principles of experimentation, research, criticism, free exchange of ideas and majority rule.”[6] Unlike realists, for liberals power is not everything. Moreover, “liberals tend to be hopeful about the prospects of making the world safer and more peaceful. Most liberals believe that it is possible to substantially reduce the scourge of war and to increase international prosperity.”[7] Liberalism is also characterized for having several strands that attempt to explain international relations theory. These strands are; first, republican liberalism or democratic peace research based on the work of Kant. Second, this strand focuses on how conditions of interdependence in some areas could generate common interests. And the last strand focuses on the importance of knowledge, education, and the impact of international organizations as facilitators for international cooperation. But despite some of the differences, these three strands also have common assumptions about contemporary world politics.[8]

          The last framework that is dealt with in this paper is constructivism. This approach is relatively new to international relations; nevertheless, it “has become important for studying key pieces of global governance, particularly the role of norms.”[9] Constructivism is also important because it “is about human consciousness and its role in international life….Constructivism contends that not only are identities and interest of actors socially constructed, but also that they must share the stage with a whole host of other ideational factors that emanate from the human capacity and will.”[10]

          The core concepts of each of the frameworks for studying international relations make them different from one another. For example, constructivist’s core features are; first, constructivists contend that the issue of human consciousness in international life: the role it plays and the applications for the logic and methods of inquiry should be taken seriously. Second, constructivists hold the view that the building blocks of international reality are ideational as well as material. Third, constructivists also argue that ideational factors have normative as well as instrumental dimensions. Fourth, constructivists argue that they express not only individual but also collective intentionality. And last, constructivists argue that the meaning and significance of ideational factors are not independent of time and place.[11]

          One of the reasons why liberalism is more attractive at least to the general public and not necessarily to policymakers is that its core assumptions are socially acceptable. Liberalism’s core assumptions are differentiated form the other frameworks because they believe that; first, individual human beings are the primary international actors. Second, states are the most collective actors, but they are pluralistic not unitary actors. Third, power relations and bargaining among domestic and transnational groups, and changing international conditions shape state’s interests and policies. Fourth, there is no single definition of state’s national interest; rather, states vary in their goals and their interests change. Fifth, non-state actors and transnational and trans-governmental groups are also relevant to the study of international relations.[12]

          The core tenants of realism are not as socially acceptable as the core tenants of liberalism are, and that is because; first, for realists the state is the primary actor in world politics. Non-state actors are acknowledged, but their role is minimal. Second, states act on the basis of rational calculation of self-interest. Third, foreign policy is best understood as the attempt to pursue security in an inherently conflictual world. Fourth, power (or self-interest) is the primary currency of international relations. Fifth, the structure of the global system is the primary determinant of a state’s behavior. And finally, policy prescriptions involve adaptation to the dictates of rationality (e.g., recognize the limits of collective action.)[13]

          Based on these core concepts each one of these frameworks claim to explain better than the other the state’s interactions in the international arena. In an attempt to lead the study of international relations, realists not only proposed an approach that “saw international relations as they were, rather than as they might be”[14] but also went further and argued that realism is a scientific approach to international relations. In supporting this claim, Morgenthau argued that realism is based on six principles. First, he argued that politics was governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. Second, he also says that the concept of interest is defined in terms of the concept of power, and that the concept of international power demarcates international politics. Third, he contends that the form and nature of power are not fixed but vary with the environment in which power is exercised, interest being the key concept. Fourth, he maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of the states in their abstract universal formulation. There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action. Fifth, Morgenthau argues that states formulate their policies in a moral language only when in suits them and only in whatever form best cloaks and serves their interests. Finally, he claims that the consideration of the previous five points in formulating foreign policy and reacting to it makes the study of international relations scientific.[15]

          The claim that each of these frameworks, – liberalism, realism, and constructivism, – are best suited to explain international relations cannot be understood without taking into consideration how each of them see; anarchy, power, the individual, the state, international organization, international politics, and the international system.

          For a realists like Hobbes for example, “human beings were competitive by nature and that their natural state – the state of nature – was one marked by a war of all against all, with the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”[16] According to realists, “human lust for power was the motivation for conflict.”[17]

          While realists have a negative view of human nature the same cannot be said about liberalism. “Liberal theory holds that human nature is basically good and that people can improve the moral and material conditions of their existence. Injustice, aggression, and war are, according to liberals, products of inadequate or corrupt social institutions and of misunderstanding among leaders.”[18] Because this approach has a positive view of individuals it can be safe to say that liberal international scholars “have relatively greater faith in the ability of human beings to obtain progressively better collective outcomes.”[19]

          The constructivists’ view of the individuals is totally different to the view that liberals and realists have. According to constructivists, “the behavior of individuals, states, and other actors is shaped by shared beliefs, socially constructed rules, and cultural practices.”[20] Therefore, the constructivist’s view of individuals is totally different to the realist’s view which claims that lust of power shapes the behavior of individuals. Likewise, constructivists’ view of individuals also differs from the liberal’s view which claims that individuals are inherently good.

          A second differing view of these frameworks for understanding international relation is in regards to the state. According to liberals, the state is not the primary actor in international relations, the individual is. Furthermore, liberalism “holds that state preferences, rather than states capabilities, are the primary determinants of state behavior. Unlike realism where the state is seen as a unitary actor, liberalism allows for plurality in state actions. Thus, preferences will vary from state to state, depending on factors such as culture, economic system, or government type. Liberalism holds that interaction between states is not limited to political/security, (“high politics”) but also economic/cultural (“low politics”) whether through commercial firms, [or] organizations of individuals.”[21]Liberals also contend that democracies do not go to war against each other, according to the defenders of this theory “republics are capable of achieving peace among themselves because they exercise democratic causation and are capable of appreciating the international rights of foreign republics.”[22]

          Unlike liberals, for relists the state is the main actor in international relations.[23] Realists argue that states fear each other. States “regard each other with suspicion, and they worry that war might be in the offing. They anticipate danger. There is little room for trust among states…the basis of this fear is that in a world where [states] have the capability to attack each other and might have the motive to do so, any state bent on survival must be at least suspicious of other states and reluctant to trust them.”[24] Realists also argue that “states compete for territory, arms, and influence, because they have conflicting national interests, [moreover, according to realists] domestic political structures encourage leader to promote distrust of an external enemy to legitimize their internal rule of foreign policy.”[25]

          Unlike the two previous approaches, “constructivism sees the state as a social actor. States are not assumed to be solely goal-driven, rational actors, seeking utility maximization, and governed by the logic of consequences. Rather, states are also rule-driven role-players, seeking identity expression and governed by the logic of appropriateness…interests are not assumed to be exogenous and constant, but endogenous and varying; the national interest is a variable influenced mainly by national identity…variation in state identity, or change in state identity, affect interest and/or policies of states.”[26]

          Still another difference among these approaches to study international relations is their view of anarchy. According to liberals, States do cooperate in the anarchical world, and they do so because they realize that they will have future interactions with the same actors.[27] Furthermore, liberals claim that “continuous interactions also provide the motivations for state to create international institutions, which in turn moderate state behavior, provide a guaranteed framework for interaction and a context for bargaining, provide the mechanism to reduce cheating by monitoring behavior and punishing defectors, and facilitate transparency of the actions of all.”[28]

          A realist like Kenneth Waltz for example, sees anarchy “as a condition of possibility for or ‘permissive’ cause of war….Wars occur because there is nothing to prevent them.”[29] According to Waltz, “anarchy encourages states to behave defensively and to maintain rather than upset the balance of power. The first concern of the state [Waltz says] is to maintain their position in the system.”[30] “The anarchical structure of the system imposes on all states a security dilemma, whereby they have to ensure their own security without increasing the fears of other states in the system.”[31]Herz, another realist also sees anarchy as problematic, according to him, “the best way for a state to survive in anarchy is to take advantage of other states and gain power at their expense.”[32] Realists argue that “states must rely primarily on themselves to manage their own security through balance of power and deterrence.”[33] According to liberals conflict and war is the result of misperceptions and misunderstandings, but realists affirm that “it is the dynamic of the system which compel states to behave in certain ways if they wish to survive….States seek to maintain or expand their influence because they are forced to do so by the logic of the system, not because they are disposed to do so.”[34]

          Constructivists do not see anarchy per se as a problem in international relations. According to Alexander Wendt, “we create our own security dilemmas and competitions by interacting in particular ways with one another so that these outcomes appear to be inevitable…our identities and interests do not exist separately from the social situation to which they are appropriate…identities and interests are socially constructed by the particular ways in which we interact with one another.”[35] Wendt also argues that “self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or casually from anarchy, [furthermore, he affirms] if today we find ourselves in a self-help world, this is due to process, not to structure.”[36]

          When it comes to the importance of International organizations again these three frameworks for studying international relations have at least some conflicting views. Realists do not deny that sometimes international organizations can be useful, but for the most part they are skeptical of them. Relists know that “the more a state specializes, the more it relies on others [and in international organizations] to supply the materials and goods that it is not producing.”[37]This dependency is seen with suspicion by realists because they worry that other states or for that matter, international organizations will be able to diminish the state’s power.  “Most realists theorists do not claim that international cooperation is impossible, only that there are few incentives for states to enter into international arrangements….Unlike liberals, realists claim that international organizations have not independent effect on state behavior and will not over time change the system itself.”[38] Due to the mix feeling of realists towards international organization and the emphasis that they put in power, some followers of this approach argue that from their point of view “international organizations are a tool of state to be used when desired; they can increase of decrease the power of states, but they do not affect the basic characteristics of the international system.”[39]

          The framework that deeply believes in international organization is liberalism. “For liberals international organizations play a number of key roles, including contributing to habits of cooperation and servicing as arenas for negotiating and developing coalitions. They are primary means for mitigating the danger of war, promoting the development of shared norms and enhancing order.”[40] Unlike realists, liberals also argue that international organizations can transform state identities and interests.[41]They also argue that by participating in international organizations “states benefit because institutions do things for members that cannot be accomplished unilaterally…cooperation can aid the few at the expense of the many, accentuate or mitigate injustice.”[42]Despite this deep belief in international organizations, liberals are also aware that not all efforts to cooperate will yield good results.

          Like liberals, constructivists “place a great deal of importance on institutions as embodied in norms, practices, and formal organization….In examining international organizations, constructivists seek to uncover the social content or organizations, the dominant norms that govern behavior and shape interests, and to decipher how these interests in turn influence actors….Thus, [for constructivists] international organizations can be teachers as well as creators of norms.”[43]

          Besides all the differences previously mentioned, realism and liberalism are also likely to distinguish themselves in several ways when responding to external conflicts. First, concern for relative versus absolute gains accruing to different actors as a result of the external conflict; second, a primary concern with one’s own interests versus collective norms and interests; third, emphasis on protection of one’s own state versus protection of other in an international community; fourth, viewing the conflicts ramifications in terms of the combatants only, versus in terms of the lessons that might be taken by other states; and fifth, viewing alliances and multilateral institutions as a tool of the state versus as the goal of the state.[44]

          Realists and constructivist also differ in their view of the state. “Where realists treat states’ interests and identity as given, constructivists believe they are socially constructed, that is, influenced by culture, norms, ideas, and domestic and international interactions.”[45]

          Realists also criticize the liberal democratic peace theory; according to them, “all states come with an ‘animus dominandi’ so there is no basis for discriminating among more aggressive and less aggressive states.” [46] For realists the internal structure of the state also does not shape the behavior of state in international relations.

          Despite all these differences these three frameworks of international relations do share some basic principles. For example, “realists generally suggest that interstate cooperation is [possible but] limited by each state’s need to guarantee its own security in a global condition of anarchy, whereas liberals suggest that cooperation can be made more tenable through formal and informal institutions.”[47] There are also similarities between liberals and constructivists, for innstance, both of them “share concern for state’s preferences, perceive states as embedded in a larger social context, and acknowledge the importance of a wide variety of non-state actors.”[48] Still another similarity between liberalism and constructivism can be found in the way they see morality. For liberals morality is highly valuable when dealing with other states, likewise, constructivists recognize that morality plays a significant role in foreign relations.[49]

          Even though some frameworks explain better than others the interaction among nations, and are more useful in studying international relations, it can be argued that all these approaches complement each other and are better in explaining certain events at certain times. The study of international relations is complex; certainly, the different domestic structure of each sovereign state, the level of analysis, the role that the leaders play, the changing economic and security conditions, the anarchical system among other things complicate the development of a unique and predictable theory that can explain and help us understand better; the interaction of states, their behavior, their needs, and their intentions in the international arena. Aware of the lack of a unique theory and of the importance of these approaches to understand international relations, in this paper I have pointed out the core concepts of liberalism, realism, and constructivism. I have also talked about some of the differences and similarities among them. Furthermore, I have described each framework’s view of the individual, the state, the international organizations, and the anarchical system.

Bibliography

Anarchic Order and Balance of Power. (class handout.)

Doyle, W. Michael. “Liberalism and World Politics.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 4, Dec. 1986: Published by: American Political Science Association.

Finnermore, Martha and  Sikkink, Kathryn. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organizations, Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1998: The MIT Press.

Folker-Sterling Jennifer. Making Sense of International Relations Theory. Colorado USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Forde, Steven. “International Realism and the Science of Politics; Thucydides, Machiavelli, and  Neorealism.” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 2 Jun. 1995: Blackwell Publishing.

Forde, Steven. “Varieties of Realism: Thucydides and Machiavelli.” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2, May, 1992: Cambridge University Press.

Hollis, Martin and Smith, Steve. Explaining and Understanding International Relations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jervis, Robert. “Realism in the Study of World Politics.” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn 1998: The MIT Press.

Larson, Welch Deborah. “Trust and Missed Opportunities in International Relations.” Political Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 3, Sep. 1997: Published by: International Society of Political Psychology.

Martin, A. Boyd. “Liberalism.” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3 Sep. 1948: Published by: University of Utah.

Mearsheimer, J. John. “The Tragedy of Great Powers.” Published by: University of Chicago. (class handout.)

Mingst, A. Karen and Karns, P. Margaret. International Organizations: The Politics and Process of Global Governance. Colorado USA: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc.

Mowle, S. Thomas. “Worldviews in Foreign Policy: Realism, Liberalism, and External Conflict.” Political Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 3 Sep. 2003: Published by: International Society of Political Psychology.

Ripley, Brian. “Psychology, Foreign Policy, and International Relations Theory.” Political Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 3, Sept. 1993: Published by: International Society of Political Psychology.

Ruggie, John Gerard. “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge.” International Organizations, Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1998: The MIT Press.

Shain, Yossi and Barth, Aharon. “Diasporas and International Relations Theory.” International Organizations, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer, 2003: Cambridge University Press.

Shimko, L. Keith. “Realism, Neorealism, and American Liberalism.” The Review of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2 Spring 1992: Cambridge University Press.

Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organizations, Vol. 46, No. 2, Spring, 1992: The MIT Press.


[1] Forde, Steven. “Varieties of Realism: Thucydides and Machiavelli.” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2, May, 1992: Cambridge University Press. p 387

[2] Forde, Steven. “International Realism and the Science of Politics; Thucydides, Machiavelli, and  Neorealism.” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 2 Jun. 1995: Blackwell Publishing. p 141

[3] Hollis, Martin and Smith, Steve. Explaining and Understanding International Relations. New York: Oxford University Press. p 27

[4] Mearsheimer, J. John. “The Tragedy of Great Powers.” Published by: University of Chicago. (class handout.) p 15

[5] Martin, A. Boyd. “Liberalism.” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3 Sep. 1948: Published by: University of Utah.  p 295

[6] Ibid. p 296

[7] Mearsheimer. p 15

[8] Folker-Sterling Jennifer. Making Sense of International Relations Theory. Colorado USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. p 56

[9] Mingst, A. Karen and Karns, P. Margaret. International Organizations: The Politics and Process of Global Governance. Colorado USA: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc.  p 50

[10] Ruggie, John Gerard. “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge.” International Organizations, Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1998: The MIT Press. p 856

[11] Ibid. p 879

[12] Mingst and Karns. p 37

[13] Ripley, Brian. “Psychology, Foreign Policy, and International Relations Theory.” Political Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 3, Sept. 1993: Published by: International Society of Political Psychology. p 406

[14] Hollis and Smith. p 21

[15] Ibid. p 24- 27

[16] Ibid. p 94

[17] Folker-Sterling. p 15

[18] Mingst and Karns.  p35

[19] Foleker-Sterling. p 55

[20] Mingst and Karns.  p 51

[21] wicopedia

[22] Doyle, W. Michael. “Liberalism and World Politics.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 4, Dec. 1986: Published by: American Political Science Association. p 1162

[23] Jervis, Robert. “Realism in the Study of World Politics.” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn 1998: The MIT Press. p 980

[24] Mearheimer. p 32

[25] Larson, Welch Deborah. “Trust and Missed Opportunities in International Relations.” Political Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 3, Sep. 1997: Published by: International Society of Political Psychology. p 701

[26] Shain, Yossi and Barth, Aharon. “Diasporas and International Relations Theory.” International Organizations, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer, 2003: Cambridge University Press. p 457

[27] Mingst and Karns.  p 39

[28]  Ibid.

[29] Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organizations, Vol. 46, No. 2, Spring, 1992: The MIT Press. p 395

[30] Mearsheimer. p 19

[31] Hollis and Smith. p 98

[32] Mearheimer. p 36

[33] Mingst and Karns. p 45

[34] Shimko, L. Keith. “Realism, Neorealism, and American Liberalism.” The Review of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 2 Spring 1992: Cambridge University Press. p 293

[35] Folker-Sterling. p 116

[36] Wendt. p 394

[37] Anarchic Order and Balance of Power. (class handout.) p 106

[38] Mingst and Karns. p 47

[39] Ibid. p 46

[40] Ibid. p 38

[41] Wendt. p 394

[42] Mingst and Karns. p 35

[43] Ibid. p 51

[44] Mowle, S. Thomas. “Worldviews in Foreign Policy: Realism, Liberalism, and External Conflict.” Political Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 3 Sep. 2003: Published by: International Society of Political Psychology. p 357-359

[45] Mingst and Karns. p 50`

[46] Mearsheimer. p 19

[47] Mowle. p 561

[48] Shain, and Barth. p 457

[49] Finnermore, Martha and  Sikkink, Kathryn. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organizations, Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1998: The MIT Press. p 890

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