Compare the approaches of realism, liberalism, constructivism in international politics theory and give an example and explain which of these approaches is more valid for you.
Human beings have always felt the necessity to explain different events in our world. In ancient times people tried to explain different natural events such as the rain, by creating stories which helped everyone to have a more clear idea of the place they were living in. In this sense, when dealing with international relations, theories are also a tool to understand the world and the everyday political events. Thus, theorist and scholars have always play an important role for nations and their policy makers when making their decisions, and even more importantly, these theories have help to create the basic form of the international world.
In this same way, during the progress of the 20th century three theories have contributed to create the shape of international relations: Realism, liberalism and a more modern form of radicalism, constructivism.
University of Chicago’s, professor Stephen Waltz, defines these theories in a few sentences. ” Realism emphasises the enduring propensity for conflict between states; liberalism identifies several ways to mitigate these conflictive tendencies and radical tradition (in this case constructivism) describes how the entire system of state relations might be transformed.”1 Although a very condense explanation, it illustrates very well each of these theories.
This report will endeavour to compare these theories and give an opinion about which of these theories is still valid and which is more likely to prevail above the others, in today’s world.
First of all, realism is the theory that dominated the 20th century, especially the period after Second World War. Realism also presents a theory that has performed changes in its form, due to some of the circumstances presented during the 20C. The realist theory sees the world of international relations as a constant struggle among states which are only self-interested. This struggle is often one for military power and security. It also presents us with a very pessimistic view of the world, and it is also concern with the spread of nuclear powers. One of the first realists was professor Hans Morgenthau who thought that human beings are intrinsically interested in dominating each other. He also supported the idea that multipolarism (many strong nations in power) would maintain a balance in the international system. However, this idea has being challenged even from within, thus creating a new idea of realism called neo-realism.
Neo-realists such as Columbia University’s professor Kenneth Waltz have focused their discussion in the effects of the international system rather that the characteristic of human nature. Waltz also believe that defence is better than offence, therefore stronger states do not attack each other unless they are sure they can assure themselves in power. Thus, smaller states will try to balance or get closer to bigger states instead of creating conflict. Professor Waltz argues that is true in all cases, but specially in the case of dictatorships such as Iraq or North Korea. In an interview with “Georgetown Journal of international affairs, online” professor Waltz presents the idea that this rulers above all want to remain in power. That leads them to be careful when dealing with issues such biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, thus diminishing the opportunities to begin war or create an anarchical nation.
On the other hand, Liberalism is the theory that challenges all these realist theories. In contrast to realism, liberalism presents a more optimist image of the world, and perceives that economic interests are the main keys for new power, given that the interrelations created among states will encourage peace. Another line of thought within liberalism, indicates that world peace will be achieve through spread of democracy. This line of thought is mainly associated to ex North American president, Woodrow Wilson. One more liberal idea says that international institutions are the best way to undermine the “intrinsic” ambitions of states.
The idea that challenges both liberalism and realism is contructivism. Up to the end of the Cold war this place was occupied by Marxism, which presented a theory in which capitalism is the main cause for all international conflict. Constructivism challenges the main stream of thought by looking at the effect of ideas in the shaping of a state. Moreover, they observe carefully to the way society changes. Constructivism still has not give a clear approach of how to solve conflict within the international society, but so far have been able to create a discourse that makes possible to observe the changes of behaviour in the international world.
Certainly, all these theories have been influence by specific events in history such the world wars, the cold war and the end of the cold war. Like this, the question about which of these theories will prevail above the others in today’s world of international relations, has become more important. Personally, I believe that “unfortunately” realism will continue as the theory that exerts the strongest influence on governments and policy makers. I say “unfortunately” because no one wants a world in which armed conflict is the key to power and global stability. Professor Kenneth Waltz states that, “a lot of people don’t like realists. Realists face the world as it is. Most people want the world to be nicer and for people to be better…Realism is to put it mildly, controversial.” Although it could be scary, I agree with professor Waltz. It seems hard to accept the idea that peace will be achieved without conflict. For instances the idea of bipolarity is one that has have good effects. Although an example in a lesser scale the conflict between Chile and Argentina at the end of the 70’s over the territories in the Patagonia, illustrates very well the fact that when two nations, having a notion of the enemies military power to look for a different solution.5 A better example is certainly the struggle that followed the WWII, the cold war. The creation of two huge nuclear powers, the USSR and the USA, brought a stability which, although tense, it was the longest period of stability during the whole 20th century.
Like this, Hans Morgenthau ask the question of what are the practical alternatives to the imperfections of international society, which are, as he elaborates, other alternatives outside the realistic theories. In many ways, liberalism does present good answers to this question. However this challenge is still unclear into practice and in many ways unrealistic to the way in which the world has develop, especially in the last 13 years since the end of the Cold War. Liberalists determine that the creation of global democracy will create a “democratic peace”. However, qualifiers to this idea say that this process of “democratisation” is a hard process and one that certainly brings armed conflict. In this case the intervention that the American government had in many cases of “transition to democracy” results as a good example. Another idea coming from liberalist is the idea that economic “globalisation” will create a network of interaction in which peace will be a key factor for development. However, after many years of globalisation period, these results are unclear and there are many economists who are beginning to challenge the benefits of globalisation.
Like this, we can always see the same nations becoming stronger militarily and economically, and a small group only trying to “catch up” with these big powers.
However there is one more frightening aspect about realism, and I think that is that bipolarity is in many ways becoming a unipolarity lead by United States. The way in which the United States have rise us a super power after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th is one that in today’s world create great conflict, especially when solving struggle. It is hard to go against the United States government, and there is no power that could be the second part of a “bi” polarity. Neither China nor Russia could, and the influence that the USA has on NATO makes hard the existence of opposition from the European nations.
Constructivism on the other hand, it is still over theoretical and I think it would be hard to apply it in today’s world.
Although I believe that realism will be the theory that it is going to lead the discussion on the structure of the international relations, it is important to understand that none of these theories hold a solution, either an ultimate truth. Balance, as Professor Stephen M. Walt suggests, will the most important ” tool on the tool-box of the complete diplomat of the future”.
1 Stephen M. Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories”. Foreign Policy magazine. Spring 1998. Page 30.
2 Georgetown Journal of international affairs, online magazine. www.cfdev.georgetown.edu /publications/journal/vol1_1/1-6.html ( taken from the internet January 31st, 2003).
3 Stephen M. Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories”. Foreign Policy magazine. Spring 1998. Page 32.
4 Columbia University News. March 28, 2000. www.columbia.edu/cu/pr/00/03/kennethWaltz.html ( January 31st, 2003).
5 Between 1978 and 1980 both countries were very close to an armed conflict, provoked over the territories of the Patagonia(southern cone of South America). Both countries were under military dictatorship and a armamentist race. The conflict was finally solved by the influence of the international society and especially the work from the catholic church and the Vatican.
6 Donald Brandon. “American Foreign Policy, beyond utopianism and realism”. Meredith publishing company. (1966). Page 89.
7 Although it is never clear what democracy means for american government when intervening in other countries. For example the military dictatorships in latinAmerica in the 70’s and 80’s, and the intervention in Somalia are an example of this “American contradiction”.