What are the schools of thought of realism and liberalism?

In A Level Politics, we explore many political theories, from conservatism to nationalism to feminism. However, when discussing global politics, we also look at two theories that try to explain occurrences on an international scale. This blog post will look at the two major schools of thought in global politics: realism and liberalism.

What is realism?

Realism is the first of our school of thoughts, and is the older of the two. It offers what is considered a ‘realistic’ and therefore more pessimistic view of humans and states. It believes that states are selfish, and do what they can to further their own aims without considering others.

To put realism into perspective, think about the rise of the British Empire. The 18th century was a time of heightened imperialism, and the British Empire was the largest in the world, controlling over 25% of the world’s population. Britain wanted to expand their power and sway on the international stage, and the empire gave them this.

Samuel Huntington, a well-known realist thinker, wrote an article called ‘Clash of Civilisations’, which described how state-on-state violence would decrease, and there would instead be conflicts between ideologies and cultures. Think about the ‘war on terror’ or Cold War of capitalism against communism.

Realism and liberalism also disagree on security. Realists also believe in what’s called a ‘security dilemma‘. As states are selfish, they look to increase their military power to maintain security. Other states look at this increase in power, and react in a similar way. As a result, there is a race to create the largest military with the highest power. This tension can sometimes overflow, and lead to conflict. During the Cold War, the ‘Arms Race’ saw the USA and USSR increase the number of their own nuclear weapons. Whilst this didn’t lead to direct conflict, it has led to each country having huge nuclear capabilities.

What is liberalism?

Liberalism is a school of thought that emerged out of the Second World War, in response to some major changes that the world was experiencing that realism couldn’t explain. These included the rise in trade between states, and the decline in the likelihood of war.

Liberalism sees states as collaborative, and that international trade will be put above increases in aggression. It is better for both sides to have a collaborative approach and increase trade, as this decreases war and increases stability across the world. Increase conflict decreases trust, and trade as a result.

Realism and liberalism also disagree on the idea of connections between states. Liberal thinkers Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye came up with the idea of complex interdependence: this explains the links of states between each other as more than just simple links or connections. States are linked through complicated networks, and there are economic and moral benefits to forming a complex network of allies.

There is also a decrease in the power of the state. Realism and liberalism disagree over the power of the state, and its importance in international politics. Liberals see entities other than the state increasing in power, such as international organisations like the United Nations and World Trade Organisation. As a result, more international agreements and charters occur at organisation-level rather than state-level.

Find out more about realism and liberalism

If you want to find out more about realism and liberalism, check out our global politics resources for A Level Politics students. You can learn using our audio notes, interactive videos or course notes. We also have dedicated resources and information about some key thinkers in realism and liberalism, which could help improve the knowledge in your global politics essays.

We’d also recommend reading books by Andrew Heywood, who is a professor of International Relations and goes into detail about realism and liberalism. He also explores other ideologies in global politics, such as constructivism and positivism. 

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Realism and liberalism in global politics

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