Is perpetual peace a utopian ideal? This subject has been the centre of political discourse in the sphere of international relations. While it is worth looking at the insights that have arisen amongst rational choice theorists, constructivists and critical theorists, this essay will focus more on the great debate between Liberalism and Realism before converging on the Neo-Neo debate. I will, using the three images of international relations framework that emerged from Kenneth N Waltz, examine the causes of war and whether or not they could be prevented.

Realist assumptions about men, from Hobbes to Spinoza to Morganthau share one common trait: that men are by nature bad. According to Spinoza, men are led not by precepts of pure reason but by their passions. It is this passion which can lead to irrationality, to selfishness, to misdirected aggressiveness that draws men into conflict. For Morganthau, it is man’s ‘ineradicable’ lust for power that results in frictions and wars among states. If man’s nature is the primary cause of war, does it imply the elimination of war could only be done through the enlightenment of man?

Unlike realists, idealists believe in the optimistic definition of man being naturally good. Conflicts and war break out from errs of the misguided. Peace would prevail if one was able to seek out such politicians and reform them in the etiquettes of good political conduct. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Were half the power that fills the world with terror, were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts, given to redeem the human mind from error, there was no need of arsenals or forts.”

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Based on the logic of education, several approaches within the behavioural sciences have attempted to relate to the problems of war in international politics. According to psychologists like James Miller, Allport and Cohen, they believed that improved social adjustment of individuals would decrease feelings of frustration and insecurity and thus lessen the incidence of war. Likewise, increased understanding amongst the people of the world meant increased peace. In the latter, James Millar remarked that ignorance of the desires , aims , and characteristics of other people leads to fear and is consequently one of the primary causes of aggression.

However, does a better understanding someone else’s culture translate to increased levels of peace? Gaining a clearer picture of how communist societies worked did not bring the Cold War to a halt. Furthermore, even nations with close cultural affinities have gone to wars in the past. This is clearly illustrated in the history of Western Europe. Realists argue this is so because the assumption on human nature is fixed. It is a given constant. No amount of idealistic notion on education is going to change this fact. War is inevitable.

On the other hand, idealists argue that if war was inevitable, why were there periods of war and peace? And if man was painted as selfish, greedy, and evil and driven by power, how does one account for acts of charity, love, peace and compassion?

Clearly, it is hard to base one’s arguments on war around the human nature. The causes that in fact explain differences in behaviour or war itself must be sought somewhere other than in human nature itself. Explanations for the occurrence or non-occurrence of war can be obtained through the analysis of states on the international scene.

Two schools of thought dominate this state-level analysis — Realism and Liberalism.

Realist theorists assume that states are the main actors in world politics. States are assumed to be rational and seek to advance their interests in an anarchical international system, defined as the absence of a legitimate governmental authority to regulate disputes and enforce agreements among states. This is so because states are sovereign and do not recognise a higher authority other than itself. Given this state of anarchy, political leaders are forced to rely on self-help to ensure their survival. This is done through increasing their power and wealth.

Realists argue it is the very nature of this anarchical system that forces the possible condition of war on states. States view one another with suspicion given the uncertainties regarding the current and future intentions of each other. To protect oneself against threats, states are constantly increasing their military might. Because of the inherent uncertainty regarding the intentions underlying the actions of others, a defensive build-up of arms may be interpreted as a threat to the security of the other state which would in turn respond with a similar build-up of arms. This is known in realist terms as the security dilemma. This action-reaction cycle often lead to conflict spirals that can escalate to war.

Liberal theories operate on a totally different mode of thought. Liberals assume a harmony of interests within civil society through the social contract with the state. This assumption is applied onto the international scene. With the lazzaire faire mechanism at work on a global level, national boundaries would cease to be a barrier. With cooperation and competition in the free market, individuals, corporations and nations will benefit. From this point, it follows that not only free trade is the correct policy but also that attempts to enlarge the territory of the state through war is foolish because the same advantage could be gained from free trade without having to conquer and hold on to a land for its resources. Thus, said James Shotwell, “The political doctrine of international peace is a parallel to the economic doctrine of Adam Smith, for it rests similarly upon recognition of common and reciprocal material interests, which extend beyond national boundaries.” Acting on this theory, war can be prevented.

This theory is further elaborated through domestic-level causal arguments in support of the trade-promote peace hypothesis. Basically, trade increases prosperity, and prosperity lessens the domestic problems which can sometime lead to war.5 Pressures for protectionism can lead to counter-measures, increase hostilities and trigger conflict spirals.

Looking at the economic interdependence and peace theory put forth by the liberals, it holds all the ideals for a peaceful world but falls short of reality. The real world today is not of free trade agreements but of tariffs and protectionism. Even United States, the so called advocator of “liberal free trade”, have begun to impose tariffs against Chinese imports on the pretext of unfair trade practices to prevent job loss in the manufacturing industry. At the end of the day, it is not cooperation amongst nations but of self-help to ensure one’s survival in the global economy. Free trade, argued realists, serves only the purposes of those who benefited from it. Following the liberal train of thought on free trade, international peace will not be achievable because of market imperfections in reality.

On the systemic level of international relations, neorealism holds much of the assumptions of classical realism but differs in the explanation of how the anarchical system comes about. Waltz felt that one cannot infer the condition of international politics from the internal composition of states, nor can one arrive at an understanding of international politics by summing the foreign policies and the external behavior of states. Instead, it is the structure of anarchy on the international system that causes states to behave in a self-helped, power driven manner.

The balance of power theory on war is an important theme in neorealism. The political structure depends on the degree of concentration or diffusion of capabilities within the system. During the Cold War, the structure was that of bi-polarity. This bi-polar world was stable and peaceful because heightened tensions encouraged bloc leaders to exercise restrain on crisis-provocation and aggression of their subordinate allies. Minor conflicts had to be prevented from escalating into full-fledged wars that could engulf the whole world. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the immediate future is heading towards that of a multi-polar world. Neorealists insist that such systems are to be feared because they are structurally unstable and thus ideal for conditions of war.

Realists advanced this point with the argument of simplicity. A bi-polar world made it easier for both powers to come into agreement through the mutual establishment of a set of rules agreed upon. Wars are less likely to occur since these rules help to regulate behaviour and institutionalize cooperation. On the other hand, as Robert J. Lieber asserts, “the prospects for cooperation appear to erode as the number of players increases.” In a multipolar world, the diffusion of power raises obstacles to cooperation. Each state vies for power and supremacy, each seeking to influence the global system and become distrustful of multilateral and collective problem solving. This is pretty evident in today’s world.

Once upon a time, the United States, France, West Germany and Britain provided a united front against Soviet bloc. The fall of the Soviet Union left a power vacuum which USA is trying to fill to maintain its declining hegemonic status. Aspiring powers like France and Germany want to have their voices heard too. Recently, the countries were at loggerheads over the issue of Iraq. Using the balance of power theories put forth by realists like Morganthau and Waltz, it states that the avoidance of hegemony is the primary goal of states. The theory predicts that states will build up their arms and form alliances to balance against any state (USA) which threatens to secure a hegemonic position over the system. Germany and France have been pushing for a unilateral defence (or offensive?) policy within the EU to be managed by the regional government. Evidence points to a military coalition against the United States in the distant future. This essay has yet to take in account the emergence of China as a superpower. Given these facts, the realists have painted a rather grim picture of the future.

While a world of structural multipolarity does have its pitfalls, we need to take into account the presence of democracies within the system. Liberals have long argued that democracies are more peaceful than other states. With the exception of China, the known powers are democratic states. Democratic societies are inherently adverse to war because citizens will not vote to send themselves off to war. In addition, democracies have a common set of institutions which extend to relations between democratic states Disputes are resolved peacefully, not through military might. Empirical studies have shown that the above is true. There is a strong correlation between democracy and peace.

But what of relations with non-democratic states? There is a tendency to view non-democratic states with suspicion because their policies do not fall in line with that of practicing democracies. Morganthau feels this is “dangerous” because democracies might wage war from a “moralistic approach”. Did the Americans invade Iraq because Saddam was a dictator impervious to the needs of the people? However, there’re not many nations left governed by tyrants and evil monarchs. Much of the known world is undergoing unprecedented levels of democratization. The transition to democracy is a long road. Along the way, there are bound to be conflicts but it is a means to an end. Once every nation has been democratized, peace will ensue.

Again, the above theory is idealistic in nature. While there is democratization, there can be ‘di-democratization’ too as states shift from democracies to other forms of governance through revolutions.

Another liberal theory on peace is Kant’s “Toward Perpetual Peace” thesis. According to him, human beings can solve the problem of violence and emerge from the state of nature among nations with a new form of cosmopolitan law and “a peaceful federation among the people of the Earth.”7 This law enshrines the rights of all citizens and replaces classical laws among nations. Peace would be attained through the inevitable spread of institutional and legal structure of a peaceful federation among independent republican states. Each of these states will respect the basic rights of its citizens, thus establishing a peaceful sphere in which people can regard themselves and others as free and equal citizens of the world.

While not on a global level, the European Union is what Kant envisioned of a federation of states where each country is a federal state abiding to the regional policies drafted by the European Parliament in Brussels. As seen, the EU is slowly expanding, taking member states from the former communist bloc into its fold. In time, the European continent will be peaceful federation of states.

I have put forth the arguments of Realists and Liberals across the three spectrums of international relations. Much of liberal theories on peace can easily be rebutted by realists and dispelled as unachievable and idealistic. While Kant’s vision of a federation of states may work regionally, the United Nations does have a hard time ensuring global peace. If a federation of states was to occur, it will be along the lines of multipolarity drawn along ethnic lines (recent history has shown the value of the diversity of human communities or cultural pluralism). It is human nature to be suspicious of another race and given realist assumptions on an anarchical system and an imperfect global market, I see power politics in play. The unequal endorsement in capabilities (resources defined economically and militarily) and unwillingness to engage in free trade will inevitably lead to tensions. Everywhere nations are engaged in an arms buildup. How is it possible to resolve disputes peacefully when the intention of using military power is at the back of one’s head? Draw along lines of ethnicity, I see a coming clash of civilizations as foresaw by Samuel P, Huntington. War is inevitable.


Carlsnaes.W., (2002) Handbook on International Relations London @ Sage

Kegley C.W, Raymond.G ,(1994) A Multipolar Peace New York @ St.Marin’s Press

Waltz K. N., (1979) Theory of International Politics Boston @ McGraw-Hill

Waltz K. N., (1959) Man the State and War New [email protected] Columbia University Press

1 Waltz K. N., (1979) Theory of International Politics Boston @ McGraw-Hill

2 Waltz K. N., (1959) Man the State and War New [email protected] Columbia University Press p.16

3 Waltz K. N.,(1959) Man the State and War p.42-60

4 Waltz K. N., (1959) Man the State and War p.98

5 Carlsnaes.W., (2002) Handbook on International Relations London @ Sage p.356

6 Kegley C.W, Raymond.G ,(1994) A Multipolar Peace New York @ St.Marin’s Press p.48

7 Kant Immanuel


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