Realism, idealism and neoliberalism

The realm of international relations encompasses many political theories which have had varying degrees of influence on shaping the political world that we live in today. However, the two main theories that most influence the study of International Relations are Realism and Idealism, since the formation of both theories there has been a constant debate about the relevance and implementations of both theories which has therefore resulted in much conflict between the advocates of each theory.

This essay will attempt to examine and contrast the theories of Realism, Idealism and neo-Realism and show how they differ and relate to each other. Realism in all of its forms emphasizes the continuities of the human condition, particularly at international level, it can be defined as: a practical understanding and acceptance of the actual nature of the world, rather than an idealized view of it (Morgenthau, 1964:86). The actual nature of the world pertains to human nature and their viewpoints of the international political world.

Realists argue that on the international stage the main actor is the state and its distinctive characteristic is supreme sovereignty. The state, according to Faulks can be defined as 'the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory' (Faulks, 1999:20). According to Realist ideology, within this territory the state has absolute authority which is necessary in order to ensure security for the citizens of the state.

This idea is rooted in the Hobbesian belief that citizens trade liberty for a guarantee of security (Donnelly, 2007:102). Realism also underlines the idea that competition is only present on an international level rather than domestic as individual states will need to compete with each other for security, markets and influence in a state of anarchy (Baylis and Smith, 2001: 172). Realist ideas emphasize the principle that states must act to preserve their security by amassing instruments of violence (Baylis and Smith, 2001:174).

Necessity prevails as the dominant concept in realist theory. The necessity of preserving immediate security and survival while overlooking the search for international harmony, the necessity of identifying the unavoidable constrictions on political choice, and the necessity of not pushing the boundaries of political change. Realism has definitely cemented its place in the international relations of today.

However, the concept of Realism is one that is very much open to interpretation and is a concept that cannot be concisely defined. The primary example of realism in political history can be seen by analyzing the Cold War in 1947. The Cold War was the ideological conflict between the two world superpowers at the time, the USA and the USSR. Both powers were relentless in their pursuit of seizing and securing power and influence throughout the world.

It was the sheer strength and dominance of both the USA and USSR that resulted in a shift in world power and therefore the continual ideological conflict between capitalism and communism which divided the world. However, the post Cold War is very much different and the concept of realism is no longer a dominant theory in International Relations. Realism is an anarchical theory, and it is held that under anarchy, survival of the state cannot be guaranteed (Baylis and Smith, 2001:143). On the other hand the concept of Idealism, presents more of an optimistic view on world politics.

Referring to great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and his thoughts on perpetual peace, modern Idealism highlights the necessity for cooperation, rationality, morality and non-state actors in order to bring about the fundamental pre requisites for the onset of peaceful and cooperative international relations (Owen, 2000:34). Idealist theories emphasize the positive impact that economic liberalism has on world politics as the generation of wealth through free trade with less national boundaries stimulates economic growth and promotes harmonious relations.

Individual states and organisations such as the United Nations are the main implementers of idealist theories. The idealist characterization of world politics is firmly rooted in the concepts of peace and cooperation amongst individual states (Rourke and Boyer, 2001:16). This cooperation and peaceful co-existence is essential in ensuring collective security and maintaining world order, for example the League of Nations. From the analysis of both the concepts of idealism and realism it is evident that differ vastly in their views on world politics.

There are many differences between the two including the fact that Realist ideology views international relations as a tense power struggle which revolves around the fact that individual states are primarily motivated by maximizing their own interests, particularly military or economic power and security, this differs from idealist theories which emphasize the idea that an international society binds states and people together and that individual states are dependent on each other through peaceful co-existence for economic growth and security (Krieger, 1993:772).

Idealism is very much rooted in the assumption that trade is more profitable than conquest and that there is a directly proportional relationship between economic growth and gaining power in international relations. However, in response to this criticism, Thomas Hobbes a famous 17 century English Realist once said: 'Just as stormy weather does not mean perpetual rain, so a state of war does not mean constant war'.

The second half of the twentieth century was characterized by the emergence of a new type of Realism known as Neo-Realism. Neo Realist beliefs are concerned with the factors that affect the makeup of the international system and the features which shape choices in foreign policy. This was once again evident in the Cold War, where the USSR and the USA were the dominant forces in the international political system. These two powers created a set of rules which the other states were obliged to follow.

For example, in order for Britain to deter communist influence and boost its authority in the World order it maintained close ties with the USA as a means of increasing its nuclear capabilities. However, for Neo-realists, power is not merely the accumulation of military resources and the ability to intimidate and coerce other states, it is viewed as the combined capabilities of a state. (Baylis and Smith 2001: 209).

Neo-realist ideology highlights the importance of anarchy and its effects on defining the international system as all states are functionally similar units who therefore all suffer the same constraints from an anarchical system and are all striving to maintain their position in the system (Baylis and Smith 2001: 209). To conclude all three theories have been influential in shaping the contemporary political landscape of the modern world. However, it must be noted that Realism, after the fall of the USSR began its downfall.

Its ineffectiveness in predicting the end of the war meant that it had not fulfilled its primary function and much of its credibility as a political science was therefore lost. Realism was a theory which majorly influenced international relations where it was still relevant but in the 21st century it is nothing more than archaic. Today states no longer view the international sphere as a struggle for power, but more as a mechanism for opening free markets and creating political unions. Supranational institutions are increasing in number and power as a reflection of this. And as this happens realism loses more and more credibility as a theory of international relations in the 21st century.


Morgenthau, Hans J. (1964). Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 3rd Edition. New York, 1964: Alfred Knopf. Faulks, Keith. (1999). Political Sociology: A critical introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 1999. Jack Donnelly. (2000). Realism and International Relations. Cambridge University Press, 2000. Baylis, John and Smith, Steve. (2001). The globalisation of World Politics. Oxford University Press, Oxford.