How Realists and Liberals regard the Role of State in International Politics
The role of the state is a central theme in international relations studies. Scholars have developed different theories to explain the role of countries in international politics. The two leading approaches are realism and idealism. The former considers the state as an aggressive actor, which only acts to safeguard its interests, including the acquisition, control, and accumulation of power. Idealists hold that the state is a rational actor; therefore, it favors objectivity concerning the relations and the associated gains on other states. It is crucial to examine the role of the state in international politics from the dimensions of realism and liberalism. While realists hold that the interests of states center on power creation, which, in turn, creates conflicts, liberals believe in the idea of cooperation among nations to attain development while suppressing conflict.
Liberalism stresses the function of various values and social interests of states and their significance in world politics. Unlike realism, which emphasizes the broad political and economic interests of countries and the use of all means, including aggression to achieve them, liberals nurture their views around the issue of cooperation and the desire to attain political collaboration and order. Moravcsik notes that the two are essential for the realization of peace, stability, and development (1). The two ideological underpinnings are a detachment from the use of the term “liberal” by political parties and other interest groups. The reason is that interest groups tailor the concept to suit their activities.
Liberals hold that globalization is the universal condition that drives world politics. Liberalism is not a fairly recent ideology as many put it, but that states have often engaged in transnational and domestic society. In Moravcsik’s view, such an engagement has and continues to create motivations for cultural, economic, and social interactions between and among countries (2). Sometimes, the policies of states can promote or hinder the interactions. The drive for people to interact globally necessitates the establishment of interest groups domestically, which pressure the governments to develop policies that favor cooperation. One core element of globalization is the movement of people globally for different purposes including trade, leisure, and education. It becomes hard for individuals to contend with policies that prevent free movement from one country to the other. Social pressures are inevitable and are diffused through the political institutions formed at the national level. These forces define the preferences of states, thereby, determining the development of foreign policy. The question of reason and cooperation on common social challenges can be traced back to the immediate events in the post-World War times when the world saw the need for creating international agencies to facilitate cooperation among nations. The United Nations stands as a pillar of the liberal ideology. It has diverse bodies whose objective is to address multiple social, political, cultural, and economic issues.
Liberal theory proponents prioritize specific variables, making it distinct from realism and other political theories. According to Moravcsik, the approach focuses on the differences in socially-determined choices as opposed to realism, which pays more considerable attention to the elements of power and coercion. For instance, liberals do not look at specific parameters while explaining the tendencies and patterns of war. They do not pay attention to comparative imbalances of power, and propensities of organizations, individual leaders, and societies. Liberals prefer to look at the preferences of states that are conflictual and the source of the hostilities, whether they emanate from differences over resources, hostile nationalist ideologies, or political exploitation (1-2). Liberals argue that the duties of states are to identify the gaps and attempt to address them. The concern of liberals is to suppress the conditions for war by encouraging countries to cooperate in the areas that signify disagreement.
The search for socioeconomic, political, and cultural order characterizes states behaviour. Colgan opines that liberals assume that the states always seek to achieve greater national consensus when pursing issues (36). In the liberal school of thought lie commercial liberal theorists and republican, progressive thinkers. The former emphasizes the search for economic interdependence. According to the thinkers in this category, it is the states’ responsibility to open up economic opportunities for their citizens through bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations. Republic liberal thinkers emphasize the role played by the elites, domestic institutions, and leadership dynamics in rationalizing the issues that face the citizens. The rationalization leads to policy strategies, which states embed in their foreign policies. Liberals hold that foreign policies should be friendly; they should encourage cooperation between countries as opposed to promoting polarization.
As noted in the introduction, realists are interested in the means through which states acquire and manage power. A realist political economy thrives on three practicalities: the country, the pursuance of national interest, and the roots of anarchy. Kirshner contends that these are the distinguishing core elements between realism and other theoretical connotations on state and international politics (46). Realists consider the state as an autonomous entity. In other terms, a country is all about national interests and should play no other duty besides that one. Realist thinkers do not buy into the pluralist view when describing national interest. To them, national interest is distinct from an individual interest. Kirshner further examines that the pursuance of national interest does not necessarily mean the consideration of the benefits of the individual or the citizens that make the nation (47). The term national interest is radically charged, such that it does not point to a particular thing but a series of activities that are necessary for exercising anarchy.
The other role of the state, according to the realist though, is to protect anarchy. Kirshner observes that most of the distinctive elements of national interest originate from lawlessness (47). The state has to ensure that there is no other ultimate authority in the international political scene with the potential of conquering, invading, pillaging, and overrunning it. Foreign organizations may exist, but their relevance suffers suppression from the activities of the state. The implication is that they live theoretically rather than carrying out their supranational roles. This is evident in the sentiments that some countries in the world raise, which exhibit anarchical tendencies. For instance, the United States refusal to be bound by the rules of supranational organizations. The United States is not bound by the regulations of the International Criminals Court, yet it has an active task in crucial other security organs of the United Nations, such as the Security Council. The deliberate choice not to be a signatory of the International Criminals Court is a strategy that helps the country to maintain an anarchical position globally.
Realists argue that the provision of security is one of the core duties of the state. No country can claim to be in control of events in the international scene when it cannot protect her citizens from the security threats posed by other actors such as extremist organizations. Realist thinkers, such as Hans Morgenthau, opine that believe that states invest heavily in security and defence as one way of showing that they are powerful. Mearsheimer examines the views of offensive realists, noting that rules are unapologetic when pursuing the goals of security (72). An example is the United States decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Some players in the global scene such as the United Nations, were opposed to the idea of attacking the said countries, but they could not stop a determined United States. Eventually, the U.S completed the goal of attacking the countries on the premise that it would help restore security. Mearsheimer observes that the most significant scare of states is to lose power and that the inability of a state to protect and defend its citizens against any form of external aggression is a sign of weakness (72).
Realists tend to agree with the liberals that the state has to create a space for pursuing commercial interests. However, there is a difference in the two theoretical perspectives regarding the approaches of countries in pursuing economic interests. According to Kirshner, economic realists consider the state as the force that is not interested in economic interdependence per se, but as a creator or economic opportunities, even if it means that they come at the expense of other nations (47). A point worth integrating into this discussion is about the issue of the vicious circle of poverty, which is mostly a consequence of economic realism. For an extended period, developed nations have been applying economic realism by tricking the underdeveloped countries into trade deals. These arrangements are inclined towards benefiting the developed countries while milking dry the developing nations. An examination of such an issue from the lenses of realism results in a conclusion the developed states act smart by securing more economic opportunities, even if it means causing financial pain for the developing countries. Potts observes that states should endeavour to have a dominant effect in matters of economic governance. He argues that states seek to gain a strategic position in the realms of trade, enabling them to influence developments in business to their benefit (524). An example is the operation of large multinational firms, which “terrorize” economies in the countries where they establish their operations. This depicts a form of economic hegemony, which is acceptable in the eyes of economic realists.
In summary, realists and liberalists acknowledge that the state is the central player in international politics. However, there is a disagreement between the two theories regarding the role of states. As observed in the discussion, the realists believe that the state is a non-rational actor, and only serves to protect the individual interest of power. Liberalists focus on the broad interests of countries, and the aggressive path that states take in achieving them, including the use of military force. Liberalists consider the state as the neutralizing factor. As its role mostly centres on the creation of a supportive atmosphere for all nations to gain. As for realists, the country is a competitive entity, which must first strive for its survival, even if it means using all forms of force and violence.
Colgan, Jeff D., and Robert O. Keohane. “The liberal order is rigged: Fix it now or watch it wither.” Foreign Aff., 96, 2017, pp. 36-41.
Kirshner, Jonathan. “Realist political economy: traditional themes and contemporary challenges.” Routledge Handbook of International Political Economy (IPE). Routledge, 2009, pp. 46-57.
Mearsheimer, John J. “Structural realism.” International relations theories: Discipline and diversity, vol. 83, 2007, pp. 71-88.
Moravcsik, Andrew. “Liberal theories of international relations: a primer.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.
Potts, Shaina. “Reterritorializing economic governance: Contracts, space, and law in transborder economic geographies.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, vol. 48, no. 3, 2016, pp. 523-539.