Liberal Theories of World Politics

In the era after the Cold War, liberalism has replaced realism as the dominant explanation for the international system” Do you agree with this assertion?


This essay examines the proposition that, in the era after the Cold War, liberalism has replaced realism as the dominant explanation for the international system, arguing that such is not the case; that realism continues to be relevant and, indeed, perhaps offers better explanations for current global politics that liberalism. In particular, this essay focuses on the Waltzian notion of global anarchy and asymmetrical global power distributions as being primary driving agencies in international affairs.

Hence this essay espouses the precepts of neorealism, emphasising the importance of power, dominance, and interest as underlying political behaviour. While this essay acknowledges the ideological primacy of liberalism, and the likelihood that this will increase, it draws a distinction between avowed intellectual affinities and observable political realities.

That is, the central idealism of the liberal ethos is dissected and found to be unsatisfactory in accounting the for post-Cold War global order. While the importance of liberalism is not refuted, the current study sees its ascendency as resulting more from a lack of viable alternatives than its fundamental superiority as a political system or as a set of ideas.

Realism, Liberalism, and the Centrality of Power and Interest in International Relations

In the wake of the Cold War, certain critical voices within the field of International Relations assert the demise of realism as the dominant explanation for the international system. Certainly, scholars suggest that liberalism is “main alternative to realism in the public discourse, as it has been for two centuries, albeit challenged by socialism for a time” (Richardson, 2001: 71).

This supposition is founded on the belief that the primary tenets of realism – like global anarchy, the centrality of the state, and corollary importance of power and self-interest – while previously useful in explaining global politics, have been superseded by alternate theories. Hence scholars hold that “although realism’s concepts of anarchy, self-help, and power balancing may have been appropriate to a bygone era, they have been displaced by changed conditions and eclipsed by better ideas” (Little & Smith, 2006: 90).

The realist paradigm as formulated by Machiavelli and codified by Hobbes, it could be argued, was grounded in paranoiac conceptualisations of the human condition; it reflected an “anti-teleological principle”, where the Aristotelian idea of ultimate “good” as humanity’s guiding light is rejected in favour of a motive formed in the philosophical negative (Strauss, 1988: 52): where humans ultimately acted to avoid certain ends rather than precipitate them. For Hobbes, one of the intellectual fathers of the modern nation state, man’s endeavour was consequently geared, in sum, against what he called the “summum malum”, that is, death (Sreedhar, 2010: 33).

Modern political science tends to ascribe somewhat less pessimistic intentions and driving agencies to international relations. While this has somewhat to do with the inevitable critical realignment that obtained as a result of global political rearrangement after the fall of the Soviet bloc, the irrelevance of realism is by no means a given. As the neorealist Kenneth Waltz avers: “Changes in the structure of the system are distinct from changes at the unit level” (2000: 5). After all, it would entail a radical change in world politics to negate entirely a prevalent mode of critical analysis; for realism all of a sudden to become irrelevant.

This would, it seems clear, be to say that the events of the past were so vastly different in character from those of the present as to bear negligible if any consequence for (or insights on) events of the future. But what manner of change in the international system could utterly alter the critical apparatuses by which such systems are scrutinisedWhat we are concerned with in this instance, after all, is a wholly new type of system; in effect, a new type of politics: wherein the posited spread of liberalism, increasing globalisation, interdependence, the rise of democracy and the consolidation of diplomatic relations is such as to redefine the very nature of state-to-state interaction – a very dramatic alteration indeed. In sum, is the new face of global order really reflective of an equally new modus operandi at work beneathIs liberalism the new residing paradigm?

Since the end of the Cold War, scholars have proposed that a “new world” is upon us, one which requires new approaches to political analysis. As a consequence, the field of political studies has witnessed a wealth of competing so-called “new world” theories: Francis Fukuyama’s proposed End of History and Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations theory being foremost among them. A common thread in said theories relates to the potent ideological significance of communism being abjured by a huge portion of the globe and the consequent spread of liberal democracy and its bedfellow capitalism. In either instance, the charge of Western triumphalism could be brought to bear and, indeed, raises some pertinent questions: is it that Western liberalism is a superior system or is it that Eastern style communism was integrally flawedSome scholars certainly contend the latter: communist political systems “collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s primarily because of long-standing internal weaknesses that denied them the popular legitimacy needed for long term survival” (Goldman, 1997: 3). From a liberal perspective, this can be understood as reflective of the supposed fundamental human desire for freedom: a desire which proponents are keen to imply that liberalism provides. That is, there is for some liberal critics a belief that “the desire for liberal democracy” is “universal” because it denotes the innate human desire for freedom (Hughes, 2012: 109). However, the categorical and reductive overtones of such thinking are perhaps too flattering to the Occidental political position (from which liberal critics tend to hail).

At any rate, it is clear that liberal politics have become increasingly preponderate in the wake of the Cold War. Whether this is down to the universality of liberal principles is highly debatable. More convincing are arguments that stress the lack of viable alternatives to communism since the fall of the Soviet bloc. Hence one critic observes that following the Cold War, liberal democracy found itself “without enemies or viable alternatives” (Haynes et al., 2013: 36). Concurrently, the United States (certainly the most prevalent liberal polity on the world stage), increasingly pursued policies that were indicative of “ideological universalism in values and practices” (MacGinty & Richmond, 2013: 22). Such universalism works somewhat to blur the lines between liberal principles and US principles: simply put, the one comes metonymically to do duty for the other. As a result, scholars posit that “American power has become the executor of the liberal idea and, invisibly, the liberal ideal has become the occasion for asserting American might” (MacDonald, 2014: 161). In other words, the diminishment in viable alternatives to communism, in addition to the rise of US proclamations in the service of liberalism, both amount to a powerful catalyst for political liberalism overall.

What is clear, then, is that there has been a substantial paradigm shift in the global order; and, indeed, the proclamations of a supposed new word do seem justified, at least in terms of the overt ideological dynamic at play in international relations. What liberal scholars trumpet as the ascendency of liberalism must be understood as an ideological victory before anything else. Deeper rooted structural and socio-cultural influences may yet obtain. As a result, while classical realism may be unsuited to account for the ideological makeup of contemporary politics, neorealism and structural realism can perhaps offer an adapted understanding of fundamental driving agencies behind ideological ambitions. Such critical perspectives relate to the underlying mechanics of global politics. Kenneth Waltz for instance maintains the validity of realism inasmuch as it serves to explain states of relative peace and conflict as being the result of asymmetrical power distribution among states and the prevalence of global anarchy. For Waltz, this mode of anarchy is connected with permissiveness: where the lack of any top-down international ruling body or sovereign effectively removes deterring agencies (for states to wage war). Hence Waltz identifies what he calls “permissive” causes of conflict: that allow wars to occur “because there is nothing to prevent them” (1959: 232).

Of course, there has been a significant decline in interstate war since the fall of communism, but this does not mean that global anarchy in no longer relevant. Rather, the realist paradigm may still be said to hold true: the only difference is the vastly changed power structures at work. The world order is, for the present, unipolar, with the United States representing the global hegemon. During the Cold War, international relations were bipolar, because the Soviet bloc represented a significant balance to the capitalist West. This led to a situation where, although individual factions often sought “to dominate, superiority [was] almost impossible to achieve” because states countered “each other’s attempts to dominate” (D’Anieri, 2011: 69). In lieu of this bipolar balance, no single state commands the resources or capability to challenge the US, thus what is known as hegemonic stability obtains. While this hegemonic stability maintains a peaceful status quo under the banner of liberal democracy, there are nonetheless indications that other factors are at work beneath the overt appearance. Indeed, the unipolar world has allowed for a degree of unilateralism that seems distinctly at odds with the dictates of freedom and equality so associated with the liberal ideal. One commentator notes, for example, that “the excessive unilateralist behaviour of the Bush administration” in addition to the frequent “disregard for international law” which “previous administrations had helped to create” ended up being “corrosive” on the credibility of Washington (Heinbecker, 2011: 171).

The point is that the US is simultaneously putting itself forward as the vocal exemplar of liberalism yet repeatedly acting in its own self-interest and flexing its muscle in order to do so. Thus while on the one hand the US explicitly champions liberal ideology, its political behaviour is more readily explicable with reference to realist ideas. There is an evident paradox at work here, and it is evocative of Mark twain’s famed aphorism: “If you have a reputation as an early riser, you can sleep ‘til noon” (Rumsey, 2012: 137). Hence we come to a crucial distinction in the current debate. Liberalism is at base an idealistic mould for political action, thus difficult to achieve. Realism, contrarily, assumes a degree of pragmatism, partiality, and, indeed, disparity in political action that is far more readily obtained. This central paradox echoes one of the primary problems with the liberal ethos as a practicable set of ideas: it tends not to work very well. Hence scholars like Michael Howard go so far as to equate liberalism with the “story of the efforts of good men to abolish war but only succeeding thereby in making it more terrible” (Howard, 1978: 130). Taking this point of view, it becomes less convincing that liberalism has rendered realism obsolete.

Indeed, the actions of the US after the Cold War have, it can be argued, been highly self-interested. Moreover, after the tragedy of September 11th, Washington’s neoconservative quest to spread democracy was anything but peaceful. In either instance, self-preservation and national interest seem more reasonable explanations for Washington’s actions than any supposed idealistic liberalising agenda (except where such an agenda consolidated US power). Thus we can once more defer to realist thinking. In this respect scholars point to “the central role” of “power” in “politics and the dominance of the nation-state in the contemporary international system” – a realist conception if ever there was one (Keohane, 1984: 9). Even though the power divisions that prevailed during the Cold War are now gone, this does not mean the fundamental concepts of power and dominance no longer play an important role. Here we come to a very important point: the ideas of realism relate to fundamental driving agencies, which effectively transcend the cosmetic prescriptions of particular ideological systems. This is why, critics argue, realism offers a good explanation for political activity: because it tries to locate root causes. This latter point is realism’s overriding strength.

Because realism is concerned with human nature and fundamental agency, it potentially represents a more universal system of thought than does liberalism. For this reason, realism cannot be said to have been rendered obsolete by the rise of liberalism; this is because, in a certain sense, the realist view is ahistorical and thus cannot be made obsolete. Realism after all is focused on the “constraints on politics imposed by human nature” (Donnelly, 2000: 9). Human nature has no time limit. Accordingly this is to suppose that power, dominance and self-interest are integral elements of the human condition; that political events thus reflect human nature writ large. While it may be upheld that the human condition is not as bleak as Hobbes contended – “solitary, poor, brutish, nasty and short” – it can certainly be argued humanity continuously acts in selfish and illiberal ways (cited in Graham, 2002: 9). Furthermore, it seems idealism in the extreme to propose that humanity is remotely close to a state in which the pejorative dimensions of human nature will be extinguished. Rather, it is far more plausible that human nature will perpetually pose restraints on political ideals. Liberalism as an idealistic perspective therefore remains subject to the restrictions posited by realism. Further, this does not look set to end any time soon.


While it is clear that a new world has emerged from the ideological rubble of the Cold War, a world defined by the liberal ideal, it is certainly not proven that realism has no more use to political science. On the contrary, realism is a pervasive system for explaining international relations: prior to and succeeding the end of the Cold War. Realism may relate to some very old political ideas; but this does not mean such ideas are ipso facto out of date. Fundamental elements of human nature, on the contrary, must be understood as timeless. In consequence, we may posit that the basic motivations that dictate human political activity today are of a similar nature to those during the Cold War or even those which obtained in centuries prior. That is to say, assuming the truth of the basic tents of realism about human nature, such insights must be taken to be as valid today as they were in the past. Following this logic, realist ideas will likely persist in relevance through the years to come. The conflict-based character of international relations will therefore continue to be a pressing concern for political science, even if liberalism continues its likely trend of preponderance. But this must be understood as an ideological manifestation, a cosmetic facet of political ideals; and such ideals are wont to change dramatically over time. Even a cursory review of the previous century demonstrates dramatic changes in political ideas. The overall political sensibility of contemporary polities is starkly different from that which obtained at the dawn of the twentieth century. Based on this observation, it seems reasonable to suppose a similar level of difference between now and one hundred years hence; yet, even so, the underlying characteristics of human nature will be continuous. For this reason, realism remains and will continue to be relevant.


D’Anieri, P., 2005. International Politics: Power and Purpose in Global Affairs. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Donnelly, J., 2000. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldman, M. F. (1997) Revolution and Change in Eastern Europe. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Graham, G., 2002. The Case Against the Democratic State: An Essay in Cultural Criticism. Thorverton: Imprint Academic.

Haynes, J., Hough, P., Malik, S., & Pettiford, L., 2013. World Politics: International Relations and Globalisation in the 21st Century. Oxon: Routledge.

Howard, M., 1978. War and the Liberal Conscience 2nd ed. London: Hurst.

Hughes, C., 2012. Liberal Democracy as the End of History: Fukuyama and Postmodern Challenges. Oxon: Routledge.

Keohane, R. O., 1989. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Little, R. & Smith, M., 2006. Perspectives on World Politics. London: Routledge.

MacDonald, M., 2014. Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

MacGinty, R. & Richmond, O., 2013. The Liberal Peace and Post-War Reco: Myth or RealityOxon: Routledge.

Richardson, J. L., 2001. Contending Liberalisms in World Politics: Ideology and Power. Boulder: Rienner Publishers.

Rumsey, M. G., 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Leadership. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sreedhar, S., 2010. Hobbes on Resistance: Defying the Leviathan. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Waltz, K., 2000. “Structural Realism after the Cold War”. International Security, 25.1, pp. 5-41.

Waltz, K., 1959. Man, the State, and War. New York: Columbia University Press.

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