Because the nature of International Relations (IR) is one in which multiple factors and actors are in play, specific predictions for the outcome of a political event or conflict rarely occur as thought. Therefore, broader generalizations must be made when attempting to predict the actions of an international actor, and from these generalizations the IR theories are derived. Since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the concepts of national sovereignty and the ‘nation-state’ have dominated the field of IR and international studies. The basic tenets of national sovereignty state that no external actor may interfere with a nation’s domestic structures or idea, and that territorial boundaries must be respected in times of peace. From these concepts arose the two most prominent IR theories today, Liberalism and Realism. These two theories hold contrary views on a number of critical questions that need be asked regarding the nature of international relations.
The basic view of the Realists, who subscribe to the theory of Realism, is that world politics and international relations are driven by competitive self-interest. They believe that the international system is one of consistent anarchy, and therefore there is no actor above states capable of regulating their interactions. Due to the lack of this ‘regulating’ actor, states must act to maximize their security from other states, and do so by striving to attain as many resources as possible. Realists believe, therefore, that the primary national interest of each state is that of its national security, and, in turn, its survival. To ensure survival, states are unitary actors who act rationally, and in their own national interest. The issues of morality or values are unimportant for Realists, who view their interjection into international relations as the source of ‘reckless’ commitments and the escalation of conflicts outside the national interest. Realists therefore also argue that the type of government, societal morals and values, and other domestic differences between states do not make a difference in their international interactions. Because states all act rationally, they argue, they will all make decisions that benefit them the most, and in turn act similarly to other states, regardless of domestic differences. A major concept in Realism is that of the balance of power. Because states view their safety as paramount for their survival, they will actively undermine the rise of power of another state. The ‘balance of power’, therefore, is the term used to describe the nature of the international field where states seek to equal each other in power and prevent each other from getting stronger. A major shift in the balance of power, Realists argue, is the catalysis for international conflict.
Realism has long been the most prominent theory in the field of International Relations. Its study as a formal discipline did not arrive until the advent of World War II, but its tenets had long been in practice beforehand. Perhaps one of the earliest proponents of the Realist viewpoint was the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who, in his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, stated that the war between the Athenian and Spartan empires was due to a shifting balance of power in Greece. Later advocates of realist ideas included Machiavelli, who in ‘The Prince’ declared that the sole aim of a prince was to seek power and security; Thomas Hobbes, who argued that the ‘state of nature’ was an anarchical, violent one in which humans sought to maximize personal security by gaining power; Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote ‘On War’ and argued that armed conflict was a political tool used by states to gain power; and Otto von Bismarck, whose leadership was vital in uniting Germany through practices of ‘realpolitik’, or the use of politics and diplomacy based on power rather than ideological or moralistic premises. Realism grew to great prominence during the onset of the Second World War, primarily due to the view that the ideals of Liberalism, which had been brought to bear following the close of the First World War, did not prevent the return to a global armed conflict. The Cold War era, which pitted the United States of America against the Soviet Union, was the pinnacle of the ‘Realist era’. Both nations played off against each other in a race for maximum security, and through their respective political actions attempted to retain the balance of power. Realists point to various themes of the Cold War, such as the American ‘propping up’ of dictatorships or non-democratic rebels against Communist adversaries, as prime examples of Realist ideology in action. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the rise of an Unipolar world dominated by the USA without any clear, national adversary, the theory of Realism has slipped from prominence and ceded to a return of Liberalism.
Liberals, who believe in the tenets of Liberalism, tend to view the world in a more benign light than Realists. Liberals argue that, while the world lacks a central actor to ‘regulate’ states and bring order to international chaos, the international order functions smoothly without a central authority. The creation and implementation of international organizations to mediate conflicts and issues, such as the United Nations, enable states to build a security apparatus without having to resort to increasing their relative strength. Liberals further believe that the state is not the sole international actor, and that multiple factors of statecraft and nationhood influence the IR environment. Economic interdependence, and the spread of free-trade ideals, acts as a deterrence to conflict between states. Similarly, Liberals believe, the permeation of cultural or societal norms through states creates closer national ties between those states, thereby acting as a further deterrence against conflict. Liberals argue that democratic practices are important for states, and subscribe to the ‘Democratic Peace Theory’, which argues (with empirical evidence) that democratic states rarely go to war with each other. Unlike Realists, who argue that states should act only in their best interest and avoid intervening on purely moralistic basis, Liberals believe that states should intervene internationally when they feel as though a challenge to their moral norms is being presented. Further, they argue in favor for the spread of individual liberties and democratic,and free-trade ideals, be it through peaceful or coercive means.
The rise of Liberalism as an IR theory began during the Age of Enlightenment, when early Liberal thinkers such as John Locke argued for the concepts of natural rights and the social contract theory. The late 18th and 19th centuries saw some tenets of Liberalism employed by states, such as the spread of free-trade capitalism amongst the industrializing European states and the extension of individual liberties in many Western states. Following the First World War, Woodrow Wilson’s ’14 points’ presented an idealistic, liberal future for the world and presented arguments for many of the provisions of liberalism, such as free-trade, national determination, open diplomacy, and the creation of a regulating international body (in this case, the League of Nations). The failure of the United States to join the League of Nations, as well as the catastrophic economic, domestic, and political situation in most of war-torn Europe caused the rise of Fascism in Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe. This, coupled with the failure of the policies of appeasement and eventual outbreak of World War 2, proved to many IR theorists that liberalism was not the ‘correct’ theory. The liberal experiment of the inter-war period had seemingly failed, and had given way back to the Realist approach. The period of detente in the 1960s and 1970s, which witnessed a cooling of hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union, provided an environment conducive for the restoration of liberal internationalism. Free-trade was expanded, and nuclear proliferation between the great powers was tempered, thereby decreasing the impact of the ‘security dilemma’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the resulting rise of the United States to a global hegemon, the theory of Realism gave way to the return of Liberalism. The rise of globalization, and in turn the increasing permeation of information, culture, and ideas throughout societies enabled for a more interconnected world, and thus provided non-military deterrents to conflicts. Furthermore, increased levels of free-trade created a more interdependent global economy, therefore further supporting the theory of Liberalism.
Realism and Liberalism, being the two most prominent theories of IR, both have many ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ associated with their ideas on the international environment. Both have experienced periods of prominence in the field. An interesting facet of these theories, and IR theory in general, is that they seem to work best when describing only a certain international environment, as opposed to describing and predicting the entirety of international history. By this it is meant that the two theories are more conducive and more ‘applicable’ when the international environment has met a certain set of conditions and factors. For example, realism is a more appealing theory during periods of multi- or bi-polar hegemony, when multiple states are competing with each other for their respective securities. Because the nature of this sort of international environment is such that a state can be rivaled in power by another, the security-maximization tenet of Realism would seem to be a more appropriate explanation than the arguments of Liberalism. Conversely, in a period of uni-polarity, where there is a clear and defined global hegemon who need not worry as much about the threat other nations present, the tenets of Liberalism seem to apply better. Additionally, in an international environment where liberalized free-trade and democratic ideals are being proliferated, and where international organizations have risen to prominence, the basics of Liberalism seem to play out better than those of Realism.
Due to this argument, and the current conditions of the international environment, I can say that I subscribe more to the Liberal viewpoint as opposed to the Realist approach. The current international environment is one that plays directly into the conditions specified by Liberalism. The United States of America is a global hegemon, and is unrivaled in power or clout by any other state. The balance of power still exists, but it is one weighted heavily in favor of the United States, who plays off other states to ensure that none will gain an equal strength. Because of this uneven balance of power, and because no other state can therefore gain equal footing with the United States, the issue of security as described by Realism does not apply. While security is still a vitally important issue for the United States, especially in a new era of international terrorism, it is not in the same form as security against another state. Realism is a theory of the interactions between states, and no other actors. The reality of terrorism, however, is that the actors who commit terrorist acts often are not associated with borders or under a national banner. Realism, therefore, cannot accurately theorize about the actions that the United States must take to increase its security. Liberalism, on the other hand, deals with more actors than just the state. With the understanding that multiple actors can influence the international field, the theory of Liberalism can be used to better explain and deal with threats that do not take the shape of a state… the types of threats which the United States currently face. I believe that this idea is proven by President George W. Bush’s actions against Afghanistan and Iraq following the September 11th attacks. Attempting to deal with the imminent threat of terrorism, the United States engaged in the Realist practice of attacking and conquering other states, as opposed to striking at the organizations directly responsible for the attacks. Although one can argue about the extent of the success of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the wars did not directly nor adequately eliminate the terrorist threat, and therefore proves that the Realist approach is no longer applicable in this era of influential non-state actors. Due to this failing of the Realist approach, I can the Liberal viewpoint as the only viable option in this new sort of international environment.
There are additional reasons for my subscription to the theory of Liberalism, however. The prominence of international organizations in the modern era is better explained and better described via Liberalism than by Realism, which ignores them. Although the efficiency and effectiveness of the United Nations and other international actors can be debated, they do serve as a medium and forum for communication and conflict resolution between states. States can, and do, derive a sense of security from the assurances of the United Nations, which therefore subverts the Realist necessity for military strength in supplying security. Other international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) lend assistance to states, but only if those states met certain criteria (in this case, for example, opening markets and enabling free-trade) and bend in certain ways to the organizations’ wills. The fact that these international non-state actors can change the international dealings of states stands in stark contrast to the unitary role of the state in the Realist view of IR. Other examples of these actors include terrorist or rebel organizations, as previously argued; corporations, whose growing influence in a free-market world can be extended towards states, and NGOs such as Greenpeace or the Red Cross, who monitor international actions and can lobby states to change their domestic and international behavior. The inability for Realism to mention or consider any of these actors, and the Liberal acceptance and embrace of non-state actors drives me to consider Liberalism the more ‘realistic’ theory in this era of IR.
Additionally, current trends in the international arena have lead me to believe that Liberalism is a more appropriate theory in the modern times than Realism. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of a more economically liberal China, free-trade capitalism has become the dominant economic model in the world. With the rise of the free-trade market comes growing economic interdependence amongst states. This interdependence leads to a powerful deterrence effect against state conflict: when two states depend on each other for economic stability and trade, they will think twice about engaging in conflict and jeopardizing trade. The theory of Realism does not mention nor take into account economic interdependence, let alone international economics at all. In a ever-increasingly connected world, however, I feel as though it is incredibly important to consider factors such as economics when dealing with IR. Because Liberalism not only takes into account the IR ramifications of economics, but stipulates that a free-trade world will be one of greater international security and harmony, I feel that the current conditions of the world play directly into favor of Liberalism.
IR theory is not used just to analyze and describe the history of international relations, but to also predict and direct those of the future. Thus, the application of theory can be very useful when attempting to determine the actions a state should take on the international arena when dealing with others. In the case of the United States dealing with a powerful and rising China, the application of theory can provide a clear direction and dictation on what the United States should do and should avoid doing to prevent potential conflict. The Realist and Liberal approaches to IR both point to various approaches the United States should take.
Under the theory of Liberalism, the United States should continue to build its economic ties with China and continue to press for free-trade and open markets. The growing interdependence between the two economies will serve as a powerful deterrent when China considers to exert more clout in the region. Because the Chinese Communist party’s legitimacy is drawn from the fact that it is producing economic results, it would only make sense for them to tread lightly when dealing with contentious issues that affect the United States, lest they risk loosing their economic gains. Economic gain in China will also lead to the rise of a ‘bourgeoisie’ middle class, who, as seen in cases throughout history, will demand more liberal practices take place in domestic policy, such as the democratization of the government and greater respect for human rights and liberties. Assuming this transition will take place, as Liberals do, one can then look towards the ‘Democratic Peace Theory’ as a promising result of the application of the theory of Liberalism when dealing with China’s rise. Additional methods of countering Chinese power include the utilization of international organizations, such as the UN, to mediate and resolve issues between our two states. Because the UN is an international body comprised of most of the world’s states, if China disobeyed an UN mandate it would reflect very poorly upon the international view of China (which, as a growing power seeking to spread it’s clout and influence, China would not want).
While the Liberal theory looks more promising in my personal opinion, Realism also lays out a ground-plan for dealing with the rise of China. The Realist would see the rise of China as a threat to American hegemony, and thus argue for a balancing of power to keep China ‘in place’. This would include strengthening ties with other East-Asian powers, such as India, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. By creating a system of alliances around China, the hope would be that growing Chinese power and ambition would be counter-balanced by the combined strength of it’s competitors, and also that a powerful deterrence effect would be put into place. Offensive realists, who believe that a rising China is a direct threat to American hegemony and the current unipolar system, would argue that the United States would need to build a more powerful security apparatus, in this case probably the military, to directly counter the security threat provided by China. Defensive realists, on the other hand, would argue that, while China’s growing power provides a threat to American hegemony, and that they should be countered through diplomatic maneuvering and systems of alliances, China itself would not seek to ‘overstep’ its bounds in the international arena. Because China is a rational actor, they argue, it understands that its growing power is being carefully watched and monitored, and thus if it over-exerted or over-extended itself it would face great security challenges from other states. Examples of this exist in history: Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all ‘overstepped’ their bounds as growing regional hegemons, and found that the result of this was the declaration of war by other states (and, ultimately, their destruction). Defensive realists argue that the same case applies for China, and because China is rational, it will not seek too much power. Therefore, they argue, the United States should not necessarily overly fret about a rising China, at least not in more immediate future.
Of course, as the future takes its path, unforeseeable or unpredictable events or changes may and will occur. Neither Realism nor Liberalism, let alone any other IR theory, can accurately predict or even account for such unknowns, and thus these theories cannot alone dictate American policy. Changing IR environments require quick thinking and quick action by the officials of United States, and often such actions may not be rooted in a certain theory. However, IR theories can, should, and do account for a general groundwork on what the United States should do to deal with the rise of China. They present a certain set of guidelines and conditions for the international world, and outline how the United States should approach various aspects of China’s rise in the world stage. As a Liberal, I believe that the tenets of Liberalism would guide American IR policy in a way that would enable the most peaceful, and arguably more ‘humane’ and ‘free’ way of dealing with China. That being said, of course, the theory of Realism can also easily be applied when dealing with China. No major part or tenet of Realist theory has been proven incompatible with this new era of IR, and thus the arguments Realists make could equally well shape American policy for the coming years. It is my personal opinion, however, that ‘Realist’ policies would present a much more dangerous situation for both nations because of the potential for the ‘security dilemma’.