International Relations/Liberal International Theory vs. International Realism Theory

The two modern major schools of International Relations theory are International Liberal Theory and International Realism Theory.

Liberal theory is often marked by an analysis of an ideal, or utopian, outcome. Realist theory, however, focuses on the ways and means that states interact. An excellent discussion on the differences of the natures of these two theories can be found in Edwards H. Carr's "The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939" (he uses the term 'utopianism' for 'liberalism') or in Hans Morgenthau's "Politics Among Nations."

Realists often credit Thucydides as the first realist thinker for his desire to leave an account of war as a "possession for all time," his writing style in which he was only concerned with facts from reliable sources, and for his concentration on power in "The History of the Peloponnesian War." The Melian Dialogue is often given extra attention due to the unique use of dialogue, leading many to believe that Thucydides is trying to highlight an important event. From this comes the quote "The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they must," expressing the realist theme of might-equals-right. However, for an interesting look at the worldview that shaped Thucydides' writing, see RG Collingwood's "The Idea of History."

Realism has traditionally focused on power, and in the Westphalian state system, the state is seen as having the most power. Because it is concerned with power, realism has tended to focus more on high politics than low politics. However, with most wars since the early 1990s being fought within states instead of between states, this is currently being redefined within realism.

Other formative thinkers in the realist tradition include:

Liberalism (also called "Idealism" pejoratively) gained popularity following the end of World War I and the triumph of Wilsonian liberalism. Liberalism in international relations theory is generally associated with internationalism, institutionalism, and socialism. Essentially, they believe human nature is good, war can be avoided, and there is a moral universalism. They do not trace a long history of their theory, like realists do. Key themes include international law, sovereignty, international organisations, and global governance.

Formative thinkers in the liberal tradition include:

  • Francisco de Vitoria & the School of Salamanca (De Indis debates) [1]
  • Immanuel Kant (Perpetual Peace) w:Perpetual_Peace
  • Vladimir Lenin (Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism)
  • David Held (Democracy and the Global Order)